On Rumours, Conspiracy Theories and Facebook

I’m not fond of the term “Meme,’ mostly because any serious analysis of what it takes to be a meme and how they get transferred usually breaks down (there’s a reason why Dawkin’s stopped referring to memes and started talking about the extended phenotype), but if we accept that there are these ‘packets of information that spread virally,’ and they are referred to as “memes,” then the Internet is filled, almost to the point of bursting, with them.

There is, I think, a good paper to be written (hopefully by me) about the Internet and the transmission of Rumours. Such a paper would need to touch on memes (if only because a lot of rumours on the internet get referred to as memes and because people talk about information spread on the internet as viral)1.

One of my central theses in regards to Rumours is that they are a reliable; the way Rumours are transmitted in a community of speakers and hearers should give us pretty good grounds to say that the Rumour is likely to be true (the full story is much fleshed out and hopefully will see print pending the next set of revisions). However, my analysis somewhat relies on people doing some work to check out or verify the Rumours that they hear, and sometimes (perhaps often) it astounds me that this just doesn’t seem to happen2. Take the recent ‘meme’ about Facebook allowing third-party advertisers to use user pictures without explicit permission of the users themselves; I’ve seen several colleagues spread this rumour without bothering to do the one, easy step that every educated person should do; go to Snopes.com and check to see whether it is an urban legend (because it is)

Now, the fact that I did shows that the checks and balances of the Rumour transmission process occurs and hopefully my actions will not stop friends of mine from passing on the falsehood but will also make them more likely to check the status of the next Rumour they hear… Well, that’s what I hope, but ‘hope’ springs eternal and rarely ever quenches the thirst.

It’s tricky, I admit. If Rumours are reliable, as I argue, then people probably do have a prima facie reason to take them on trust, especially if they come from a trustworthy source, but, then again, the Facebook rumour asserts something quite… well, if not exactly incredible something that is fairly damning and should be unexpected; thus, because it is unexpected, people should think ‘Okay, my source might be good, its a Rumour so its likely to be true, but given how remarkable this claim is I should be a little sceptical of it and just go check Snopes.com.”

Which made me wonder why people didn’t. A simple answer would be that we expect this kind of behaviour from entities like Facebook, which is symptomatic, I think, of a kind of Conspiracism. We have this pre-existing belief that entities like Facebook, et al, are, despite protests to the contrary, up to no good. We believe that these entities are likely to be conspiring against us, and so rumours such like ‘Facebook is allowing advertisers to use our photos’ isn’t really all that unexpected or incredible at all; it fits with our other beliefs.

Now, there is a debate as to how rational that set of beliefs (about evil corporations and what they are up to) are, and that debate will inform the debate about when we should bother to check what our sources tell us. I was suspicious about the Facebook rumour so I checked it out; other people weren’t. Now it turns out that my suspicion was correct and the credulity expressed by others was not, but given that we are talking about reliable processes it may turn out that my suspicion was actually a bit malformed and perhaps I should have been credulous… Which is where it becomes all the more tricky and I decide to leave this to another time, a time, hopefully, that produces a conference paper or even a journal article.

Food for thought.

Notes

  1. Steve Clarke, in ‘Conspiracy Theorizing and the Internet’ has touched upon the way Conspiracy Theories are spread and a paper I have in circulation runs a comparison between Conspiracy Theories and Rumours, so intellectual profit can be made from all of this.
  2. Especially when its people I know and respect.

Thoughts on Facebook

Well, it’s been a few days and I must say that Facebook has a horrible user interface. That, however, isn’t anywhere near as important as the scary interconnectedness of all things that Facebook ably demonstrates; Dirk Gently would be able to solve pretty much everything using Facebook. All things are connected to it and everyone you know, it seems, know each other.

Now, I realise that the notion of ‘Friend’ on Facebook is fairly loose; acquaintances are ‘Friends,’ colleagues are ‘Friends,’ et al, and to this you can add the stigma attached to not friending when they request it off of you. This means that ‘Friend’ in Facebook land is a term that really doesn’t resemble ‘Friend’ in the common parlance. Still, even granting this loose notion the number of people who know of your other ‘Friends’ is staggering; the human population is much smaller than I ever thought, or, at least, the interconnectedness of the human population is much greater than previously I had expected/accepted.

Which makes sense. I go on a lot about how the basic unit of humanity is not the individual but the group (which is two or more people1), and that high group cohesion is a good thing. This all feeds into my pragmatic coherentist reliabilism, where social knowledge is developed, maintained and disseminated by group activity; Facebook, as an example of how we know others, seems to show that friendship networks (for Facebook’s definition of ‘Friend’) are more pervasive than I thought.

Although, really, I shouldn’t have thought otherwise. I admit to my misanthropy quite happily, so my optimism about human nature is fairly low and my expectations for it working out in the end even lower, but still, given that I wholeheartedly think that humans exist in relationship to other humans it only makes sense that these relationships should be complex. Facebook complexifies2 slightly further, but, well, what is humanity and its nature if not just a little overwrought and dramatic in its failure to be simple?

Of course, I may well be over thinking the entire deal; like a kid in a candy store I’m probably seeing too much in this social networking thing. I can see that, eventually, the novelty of adding friends will just become quite dull and I’m not convinced quizzes are the answer…

Talking about pessimism, this article on the death of Facebook looks like a classic case of an academic also over thinking Facebook.

At least I am not alone.

Notes

  1. The other day, when talking with Mr. Litterick, we did discuss whether one could be alone if there were no other people. I don’t think you could be alone if there was no one else around. We then ended up talking about Hegel and god-entities and whether the god-entity would ever forgive you for wiping out all other life; it would eventually get lonely, you see, and might have to forgive…
  2. If that is even a real word