Here’s a bulletin that should surprise no one: there’s a lot of wrong information out there. And by “out there” I mean not only the scientific literature, of course, although there’s certainly plenty of that. But there’s a taxonomy of wrongness, and the biggest split comes between “honestly intended but mistaken” and “deliberately faked”. You can further subdivide those, too, of course. The first category splits into things like “mistaken, and it’s the same mistake anyone else would have made”, “mistaken, because they haven’t seen this latest stuff, and if they had they’d have realized”, “mistaken, because of outright incompetence” and the like, while the second divides out into various categories such as “faked, for a joke”, “faked, cynically for cash”, and “faked, out of sheer malevolent intent”. There are more.
This is on my mind this morning since several people have called my attention to a video clip that’s going around on various social media. I am not going to link to the damned thing, for reasons that will become apparent, but since it’s already had sixty godzillion views on Facebook and such, it wouldn’t matter that much if I did. This is the “How to tell if your food is fake” one, as some will have guessed. And the video itself is not just the usual wrongheaded crap that we all know and love, the stuff about how your ice cream is beaded with beaver secretions (I really enjoyed writing that phrase), how GMOs are altering your DNA on the fly, how all the fruits and vegetables you eat have been stripped of every possible nutrient by Big Agriculture or are roughly 20% glyphosate by weight – all that sort of thing. I think that (most of) the people who spread that junk actually believe it, God help them. (Your ice cream really isn’t full of beaver exudate, by the way: castoreum is too expensive).
But the video I’m talking about is different. It’s faked. Top to bottom, in every possible way, deliberately faked. For example, it includes a simple test you can do to see if your rice has been adulterated – wanna know how? You take some and sprinkle it in a frying pan and heat it up, you see, and the faked rice will have grains that melt, ’cause they’re made of plastic. Yeah. That’s the sort of thing I mean. Complete nonsense, and nonsense that had to take some time and effort to film, because believe me, you’re not going to get much melting when you stir any real-world rice around in a frying pan, although you can toast it a bit that way to give some more flavor to your pullao. And did you know, that you can see if you’ve bought the fake salt, because when you try to dissolve it in water it’ll turn cloudy just exactly like a glass of milk, because it’s full of chalk? Sure thing, dude. And so very much on. Every one of these “tests” is complete bull, and what’ll happen is that some poor sap will go see if their rice melts or their ice cream fizzes, and it won’t of course, and they’ll be relieved that their food isn’t that awful fake stuff that’s out there, and they’ll share it with all their friends so they can make sure, too.
Here’s a thread on Twitter that goes into some of these, and it notes that even Facebook, which is a cesspool of misinformation, has now flagged the video as perhaps factually inaccurate. This after between 50 and 100 million views. We can expect to see these claims echoing for months or even years, too, thanks to all the losers and tools who scrape content off of such things. To steal a line from Robert Heinlein, when the first spaceship leaves Earth orbit on its way to Alpha Centauri, there will still be people heating up their rice in a frying pan because they just heard that it might be half plastic.
A reasonable follow-up question is, why go to all the trouble of faking such crap? Well, here comes my general principle that most questions that can be phrased in the form of “I wonder how come they. . .” are answered with “money”. In this case, clicks. Lots and lots of clicks. It’s the same thing that drives all sorts of horrible YouTube channels and Instagram accounts and Facebook pages. Clicks are traffic are advertisements are money. And the platforms themselves, as has become depressingly apparent, do not give the ghost of a damn what makes people click, just so long as they’re parked in front of a screen for demonstrably lengthy periods of time so they can be served ads. It’s all content, right?
What’s coming up next is far from an original thought, but I had not really considered this sort of thing as a side effect of the spread of information via the Internet. I was an early and enthusiastic techno-optimist back in the late 1980s and early 1990s as connectivity began to spread into the general population – I well recall telling people that I’d set up something called an “e-mail account”, only to have them ask curiously what that was and why I thought I might want one. And I evangelized even the early internet, pre-web, Usenet and WAIS and Gopher and all the rest of it, and I recall using Telnet to log into the system at CERN where a guy named Tim Berners-Lee had set up a system of text-based hyperlinks that I’d heard about and wanted to experience. I really thought that making information available all over the world was a wonderful thing, and on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays I still do.
But what I hadn’t considered (and again, I’m far from alone in this) was the opportunity for misinformation to spread itself. Neither had I considered Gresham’s Law (“Bad money drives out the good”). The analogy is not exact, because Gresham was referring to the way that the more valuable circulating money would be taken out of circulation by people holding on to it themselves, but the information analogy is that the crappier information tends to get spread more because it’s more exciting and clicky and shareable. As opposed to the boring old truth. The saying that I should have been paying attention to, I suppose, is the one that’s attributed to Swift (and many others), to the effect that rumor is halfway around the world while truth is still lacing up its shoes. True that. People believe things for all sorts of reasons, and they trust (or distrust) sources for all kinds as well. But none of this is helped by having actual incentives to spread crap, since the crap turns out to be a better platform to goose the traffic numbers and serve ads.
The other problem, since I’m spouting unoriginal thoughts, is that there are a lot of people out there who have some combination of (1) wanting to believe odd information because it makes them feel smart, and (2) not actually being very smart. It’s a dangerous mixture. Like this woman in Houston, who is one of the new legion of flat-earth believers out there. Those lost souls are a similar crowd to the moon-landing-denialists, of which I’ve run into many over the years, starting in 1969 when I was seven years old and we’d just actually landed on the damned moon. The flat-earthers are even dumber than that, if anything, but there are scads of web sites and YouTube videos that skip through specious “proofs” that the Earth can’t be round, some of which date back hundreds of years and many of which are on a level (flat-earth joke there) with “because if it were all the kangaroos in Australia would fall off”. And people watch these, one after the other, because they’re like so fascinating, and there are just a couple of ads to get through before the next video loads, and. . .
Consider that poor person in that last link: she doesn’t believe in gravity, you see, because things drop or float just because they’re lighter or heavier than air, y’know, and she doesn’t even take the next little tiny step to wonder how we are able to say that things weigh different amounts or have different densities at all. Nope, she’s too busy believing in chemtrails and such, and being sure that there aren’t any other planets at all because all the so-called “outer space” pictures are faked. (That’s a real belief out there, and if I ever run into one of those people in person my poor wife is going to have to call for backup before I end up getting booked for assault. My sympathies in such matters are completely with Buzz Aldrin.) To paraphrase Chesterton, it’s not that these people believe in nothing, it’s that they’ll believe in anything. But if we’re talking about stupidity, turning this whole process into a business model was one of the stupidest things we ever did.