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Why Some Fear “Replacement”

photograph of cracked brick wall with several different colors of peeling paint

On Saturday, May 14th, yet another mass shooting occurred in the United States. Ten people were killed, and three more injured. This was not a random act of violence. The shooter drove about three hours to reach a grocery store in Buffalo, NY rather than a location closer to his home in Conklin, NY. He claims he chose this area as it had the highest percentage Black population of potential target locations. Why target a Black neighborhood? The shooter apparently believes white Americans are being “replaced” by other racial and ethnic groups.

The once fringe idea of “replacement” has become mainstream.

This is the conspiracy theory that some group is working to ensure the decline of the white population in the U.S. and Western Europe, in order to “replace” them with people of other races and ethnicities. Originally presented as an anti-Semitic conspiracy, “replacement” has entered into American politics in a different form; some Republican politicians and media pundits claim that Democrats want increased immigration for the purpose of “replacing” white, conservative-leaning voters with those more likely to vote blue.

It is very easy to dismiss the idea of “replacement.” Indeed, much recent reporting immediately labels it racist without much explanation (never mind that the account is factually mistaken). But given the trend of claiming that left-leaning individuals call any idea they do not like “racist,” it’s worth spelling out exactly why fearing “replacement” relies on racist assumptions.

First, it is worth noting that “replacement” for political gain would be a poor plan. Immigrants are not a monolith. For instance, Donald Trump actually gained support among Hispanic voters between 2016 and 2020. In general, the relationship between demography and political outcomes is not so clean cut. Further, the plan would take a long time to develop – you must be a legal resident for five years before qualifying for citizenship, not including time it takes to apply for and receive a green card, provided one even qualifies. Of course, this may dovetail with other conspiracies.

Second, there is something antidemocratic about feeling threatened by “replacement.” It is impossible for an electorate to remain static. Between each election, some children reach voting age, some voters die, events happen which change our views and which motivate us to get out the vote or simply stay home. Just as Heraclitus suggested we can never step in the same river twice, we can never have the same election twice. Provided that elections are fair, open, and secure, objecting to a changing electorate because you perceive that your favored political goals will be threatened is to deny the starting premise of democracy – that every citizen’s political preference counts equally.

To fear changing demographics out of concern for the impact on elections is to value your preferred outcomes over the equality of your fellow citizens.

So perhaps some find the idea of “replacement” frightening because they fear its impacts on culture. They might view it as a kind of cultural genocide; the decreasing portion of the white population threatens to destroy white, American culture and replace it with something else.

In 1753, Benjamin Franklin expressed anxieties about German immigration into the colonies. He claimed that, although some Germans are virtuous, the majority of the new immigrants were the “most ignorant or stupid sort of their nation.” He bemoaned that they do not bother to learn English, instead creating German language newspapers and street signs in both English and German. He feared that, unless German immigration was limited, “they will soon so outnumber us, that … [we will not] be able to preserve our language, and even our Government will become precarious.”

In 2022, Americans eat bratwurst and frankfurters with sauerkraut. We send our children to Kindergarten. The most popular American beers originated from Adolph Coors, Adolphus Busch and Frederick Miller. Franklin’s concerns about German immigration echo those we hear today about immigrants from different places. But Germans did not replace Americans or topple the government.

Instead, these immigrants altered our culture. Like our electorates, our culture is never static. It is constantly changing, in response to global events and in response to new knowledge and traditions that immigrants bring. As our culture changes, who we label as outsiders changes; two hundred years ago, it was non-Anglos and non-Protestants.

If Franklin was wrong to fear German influence on American culture, it’s hard to see any relevant difference with fearing the effects of contemporary immigration.

Some fear “replacement” for a different reason, claiming that changing demographics will result in new majorities exacting revenge. The idea being that, after white citizens become a political minority, the new political majority will engage in retributive measures for past injustices.

This view of the dangers of “replacement” indicates that a majority can use our political institutions in ways that unjustly harm minorities. In fact, it seems to even acknowledge that this has occurred. So, why leave that system intact? The far better response would be to reform or maybe even replace current systems that allow a majority to perpetuate injustices against a minority.

And we now see clearly why fear of “replacement” stems from racism. Being afraid of changing demographics requires denying that all citizens of a nation deserve an equal say in how it is run. It means conceiving of a particular culture as superior to another. And, ultimately, it involves thinking our institutions ought to be designed in ways that allow a majority to commit injustices against a minority. In these ways, the person who fears “replacement” endorses a hierarchical worldview where some deserve to count for more, are superior to, and deserve power over, others. It is only through this lens that a change in racial and ethnic demographics can be worrisome.

But given all this, why would anyone find the idea of “replacement” a compelling one? Finding an answer to this question is crucial if we are to counteract it. The U.S. is still very segregated. This is due to the interaction of numerous historical, political, and economic factors, at both the local and national levels. I grew up in a suburb of Buffalo, called Hamburg. According to 2021 data, the population of Hamburg is 96.1% white. 2021 census estimates that 95.7% of the population of Conklin is white. These figures are remarkable given that the U.S. as a whole is 57.6% white.

To live in a place like Hamburg or Conklin is to live in a white world. You can complete an entire day in town – a trip to the grocery store, a doctor’s appointment and a deposit at the bank – and only encounter white people.

It is no wonder why some may feel threatened by the idea of “replacement”; a world where people of color are increasingly visible is not their world. They have little exposure to a world that is not (nearly) entirely white, thus the prospect of it triggers the fear of the unknown. Hence why “replacement” is frightening – it threatens to “destroy” their world.

So, responding to terrorist acts like those in Buffalo requires a lot more than athletes telling us to choose love or teaching President Biden about “Buffalove.” It requires significant institutional change. To truly eliminate the grip that ideas like “replacement” have on some, we must work to counteract the injustices that leave many of us living in separate worlds. Given the increasing frequency of racially-motivated terrorist acts in the U.S., this task is only becoming more pressing.

Taking Pleasure at the Ultimate Self-Own?

photograph of Herman Cain

Does Reddit.com’s r/HermanCainAward wrongfully celebrate COVID-19 deaths? To some, the subreddit is a brutal, yet necessary look at the toll of vaccine misinformation and the deaths that follow. To others, it is a cesspit of schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the pain of others) that has few, if any, redeeming qualities.

The description of the popular forum reads: “Nominees have made public declaration of their anti-mask, anti-vax, or COVID-hoax views, followed by admission to hospital for COVID. The Award is granted upon the nominee’s release from their Earthly shackles.”

An average post contains multiple screenshots of social media posts made by someone who expresses anti-vax views followed by screenshots of friends or family members reporting on the person’s sickness with COVID and, often, subsequent death. The victim’s social media posts are usually right-wing and often feature conspiracy theories as well as a set of common memes.

Outside of the nominations, one can find community support posts as well as “IPAs” or “Immunized to Prevent Award” posts, in which users report getting vaccinated after witnessing the horror presented in the forum. There are also “Redemption Awards” for those who change their minds about the vaccine, often as they are dying. (Last fall, the subreddit changed its rules to require that all names and faces of non-public figures be redacted.)

The Herman Cain Award is named after Herman Cain, a Black Republican who ran for president in 2012 and co-chaired “Black Voices for Trump” in the recent election cycle. Cain, who had prior health issues, opposed mask mandates and attended a Trump rally in Tulsa on June 20, 2020, where he was photographed not wearing a mask in a crowd of people not wearing masks. Shortly after, Cain tested positive for COVID and was hospitalized. Cain died from COVID six weeks later at 74 years of age.

To gain a better understanding of the rich, ethical dimensions the subreddit presents, there are a few questions we should ask: What is the narrative of HCA posts, and what feelings do these narratives engender? Do HCA posts, taken as a whole, accurately reflect the world around us?

Let’s start with the narratives. Perhaps the most obvious one is a narrative of righteous comeuppance. HCA nominees and winners have endangered not only themselves but also others, and they have reaped the consequences of their actions. This seems to be the primary lens of HCA viewers, who often make posts venting about the harms of anti-vax sentiments and actions.

This narrative tends to produce a sense of righteousness and stability, along with reassurance of one’s experience of the world and the moral responsibility that nominees bear. This sentiment acts as a counter to gaslighting resulting from widespread denial of the reality of the pandemic, perhaps expressed by close friends and family.

The second narrative lens appropriate for HCA content is tragedy. This is not necessarily distinct from the first lens, but it emphasizes more strongly the unnecessary suffering caused by the pandemic and our collective response to it. This lens, perhaps more than the first, encourages us to see HCA nominees as persons whose lives have value.

Pity might be too much to expect, given that the nominees are facing the consequences of their own actions, but the tragic reading does produce genuine horror at the suffering that could have been prevented. At best, this horror keeps us alive to the value of the lives lost. At worst, it devolves into a numbed-out nihilism, as we can no longer bear the burden of moral harms witnessed. It’s very easy to doom-scroll through r/HCA posts and lose hope at the possibility of change.

The third narrative is less noble than the first two. This is the narrative of the self-own — with motives that are tribal, petty, and wishing ill upon those who purport to make the pandemic worse. It is a narrative we might easily slip into from the first. This variant cares less about what is fair or appropriate and more about being right or superior. We might be especially worried about this, as the subreddit feeds off of other polarized dynamics that arise from tribal divides on the left/right spectrum. This, I believe, is the narrative that has primarily concerned those who have written against r/HermanCainAward, contending that it produces schadenfreude.

But what is troubling here is not merely pleasure in the pain of others but something stronger: pleasure in the death of others (and if not death, then extreme physical distress). Is it ever permissible to take pleasure in the death or pain of others? It seems acceptable to take comfort in knowing someone can no longer do any harm, but a preventable death is a bad thing that we should never see as good.

If we take pleasure in the deaths of others, we must either take up some view on which their death is deserved and proportional to their crimes or else discount the value of that person’s life. Neither is an attractive option. Even if nominees have caused the deaths of others by spreading the virus, it is a strong view to claim that their own deaths are deserved because of their actions. And assuming that their deaths were deserved, it still might seem unsavory to take pleasure in their punishment. But the predominant kind of gratification appears to fall into the category of feeling somehow superior to those who are dying. Self-satisfaction at the downfall of others is rather ugly.

These critiques do not rule out righteous anger or the recognition that r/HCA nominees have flouted moral requirements. But they do require that we not reduce them to faceless, nameless monsters that lose their humanity when relegated to a series of memes. The Reddit.com rule changes actively made this aspect worse, even if they helped to prevent doxing.

Does r/HCA currently represent the reality of vaccine denial? The answer seems to be no. The posts that receive attention on r/HCA are for those who are hospitalized and sometimes die from the virus, but there are other unvaccinated individuals who have relatively mundane experiences of the virus. Yes, the unvaccinated are significantly more likely to die, but r/HCA displays the same kind of data skewing as the programming on The Weather Channel — the most extreme cases are given the most attention.

Is there some version of r/HCA that could preserve its prosocial functions and avoid its morally problematic elements? Perhaps, but it would look drastically different from the current subreddit. First, the subreddit would need to include more representative individual stories that capture the variety of experiences of those living through a pandemic. Second, the people featured would need to be more humanized, with more details about their lives included beyond their online, meme-sharing activities. Third, the community should be reworked so it is not constructed in an us-vs.-them dichotomy, where pro-vaxxers are unequivocally the good guys and anti-vaxxers are unequivocally the bad guys.

Would the subreddit be as popular if it were reconstructed in that way? Probably not. But we might start to see each other as human again.

Ethical Considerations in the Lab-Leak Theory

3D image of Covid-19 virus cells

President Biden announced recently that he would be launching an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. While the standard narrative over much of the course of the pandemic has been that it was initially transmitted to humans via contact with animals in Wuhan, China – thought by many to be bats, although there have also been theories that pangolins could have been involved – a second possibility has also been entertained, namely that the virus originated in a virology lab. Indeed, this was one of the favorite theories of Donald Trump, who, on several occasions, simply stated that the virus originated in a lab, although he failed to provide any evidence for his assertions. The so-called “lab-leak” theory soon took on the status of a conspiracy theory: it was explicitly rejected by numerous scientists, and its association with Trump and other members of the alt-right greatly hindered any credibility that the theory may have had within the scientific community. With Trump out of office, however, questions about the plausibility of the theory have resurfaced, and there has been enough pressure for Biden to open the investigation.

Should Biden have opened his investigation into the lab-leak theory? While it might seem like a question that can be answered by considering the science – i.e., by looking at whether there is good evidence for the theory, whether expert scientific opinion considers it a plausible hypothesis, etc. – there are other ethical factors that we should consider, as well.

Here’s one sense in which it seems that such an investigation is worthwhile: it is always worthwhile to try to learn the truth. Now, there are a lot of truths that we might think really don’t add that much value to our lives – I can spend a lot of time counting the number of blades of grass on my lawn, for example, and at the end of a very long day will possess a shiny new true belief, but hardly anyone would think that I had spent my time wisely. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is of substantial importance, and so learning about where it came from may seem like an investigation that is worth pursuing for its own sake.

At the same time, there are also potential practical benefits to learning the truth of the matter about the origin of COVID-19. The pandemic has raised many questions about how we should react to the next one, and what we can do to prevent it. Making sure that we have the correct theory of the origin of the virus would then no doubt be useful when thinking about responses to future outbreaks. So here are two points in favor of conducting the investigation: we can learn the truth of something important, and we might be able to become better prepared for similar events in the future.

However, there are also some potential drawbacks. Specifically, there have been concerns that, especially during the previous administration, the impetus for discussing the lab-leak theory was not an attempt to make sure that one’s science was correct, but to find a scapegoat. The theory comes in two different forms. According to one version, the virus was intentionally released from the lab, for whatever reason. If this were to be the case, then there would be a definitive place to direct one’s blame. This version of the theory, however, falls predominantly within the realm of conspiracy theory. The other, more popular version states that while the virus originated in a lab, its transmission into the surrounding population was an accident. Even if this is the case, though, it would seem to represent an act of negligence, and thus the lab, the scientists, and the government would be blameworthy for it.

One of the early criticisms of Trump’s endorsement of the lab-leak theory was that given that it was driven by the search for someone to blame instead of a theory that was best supported by evidence, he was fanning the flames of anti-Asian racism. Indeed, by insisting on the truth of the theory without evidence, as well as consistently referring to the coronavirus as the “China virus,” incidents of anti-Asian racism increased during the course of the pandemic in the U.S.

Here, then, is a concern with Biden’s investigation: opening an official investigation into the lab-leak theory gives legitimacy to a view that has been considered by many to be little more than a conspiracy theory, which may again result in an increase in incidents of anti-Asian racism. Given the potential ethically problematic results of the inquiry, we can then ask: is it worth it?

What is perhaps encouraging is that Biden’s investigation seems to be motivated more by dissent within parts of the scientific community than by the political search for a scapegoat. We might still be concerned, however, that people will not be good at distinguishing versions of the theory under consideration. As noted above, there are two versions of the lab-leak theory, one more distinctly conspiratorial than the other. However, by giving credence to the view that the virus accidentally leaked from the lab, one may instead interpret this as giving more credence to the other.

This is not to say that the investigation is a bad idea. Instead, it should remind us that inquiry is never conducted in a vacuum, and that which questions are worth investigating may depend not solely on the evidence, but on the ethical consequences of doing so.

UFOs and Hume on Miracles

photograph of silhouetted figure shining flashlight at light source in the night sky

UFOs appear to be having a cultural moment. A Pentagon report laying out what U.S. intelligence agencies know about UFOs — or, to use the government’s preferred acronym, UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena) — is expected at the beginning of June. A recent “60 Minutes” segment included interviews with two former Navy pilots who described their encounters with a UFO. The New Yorker ran a long piece about UFOs in its May 10th issue. And last week former Nevada senator Harry Reid penned a long reflection in The New York Times about his interest in the phenomenon.

It is relatively common to see UFOs, such as those tracked by Navy fighters’ infrared weapons cameras, described as “defying the laws of physics”; for example, flying at many times the speed of sound and then coming to an abrupt halt, without any visible means of propulsion. Being woefully ignorant about those laws, it is difficult for me to tell whether this is journalistic hyperbole or a claim to be taken literally. But if we do take it literally, then we can call on the great Scottish philosopher David Hume to help us decide what to believe.

Hume famously defined a “miracle” as a violation of a law of nature. For Hume, a law of nature obtains only when we have an extensive, and exceptionless, experience of a certain kind of phenomenon: for example, our extensive experience of human beings dying “establishes” the law that all human beings die. (As this example suggests, violations of laws of nature are not impossible or inconceivable; they are simply counterinstances to our extensive, exceptionless experience.) If UFOs really defy the laws of physics, then they perform miracles in the Humean sense.

Hume argued that no testimony — i.e., a person’s statement that something is true — can establish the existence of miracles. His argument can be summarized as follows:

1. The evidence against the existence of a miracle is as strong as it possibly could be.

A law of nature is established on the basis of experience, which is the only kind of evidence we can have for a causal proposition. And our experience is both extensive and exceptionless, so it furnishes evidence that is as strong as experiential evidence could be.

2. The evidence for the existence of a miracle from testimony, while perhaps very strong, is weaker than the evidence against the existence of a miracle.

Hume avers that it is always more probable that testimony is false — that the person giving the testimony “either deceive[s] or [has been] deceived” — than that a miracle has occurred. Put another way: to constitute stronger evidence than that which we have against the existence of a miracle, testimonial evidence for a miracle must be such that its falsehood would itself be a miracle — in fact, would itself be a greater miracle than that which the testimony is evidence for.  But for any given piece of testimony, there is always a non-miraculous possibility of its falsehood.

3. We ought to proportion our belief according to our evidence, and evidence for contradictory conclusions cancels out.

Hume here appeals to “evidentialism,” the commonsense idea that we ought to proportion our belief in a proposition to the evidence we have for it. In addition, he says that evidence for a proposition and evidence for its negation “destroy” each other.

4. Therefore, whenever our evidence for a miracle is based entirely on testimony, we ought to believe that it did not occur.

Since the evidence against the existence of a miracle is always stronger than testimonial evidence for it, when testimonial evidence is all the evidence we have for a miracle, we ought to believe that the miracle did not exist or did not occur.

We can now see how the argument can be applied to UFOs. If UFOs really perform miracles, then any testimonial evidence for the existence of UFOs is always weaker than the evidence against their existence. Therefore, we should reject the existence of UFOs if the only evidence we have for them is based on testimony.

It might be objected that we have non-testimonial evidence for UFOs, such as the infrared camera videos. However, these videos are by themselves difficult for most people to interpret or understand, as are most of the alleged photographs of UFOs. The layman must instead rely on the testimony of experts to interpret the videos or photographs for him or her. Thus, even when photographs or videos are held up as evidence of UFOs, it is really the testimony of experts, who provide authoritative interpretations of these materials, that is doing the evidentiary work. And this leads us back to Hume’s problem.

Of course, Hume’s argument is not without its many detractors; objections are legion. One objection revolves around what Hume says about the “Indian prince, who refused to believe the first relations concerning the effects of frost …” The Indian prince had an extensive, exceptionless experience of water in a liquid state. Frost is a counterinstance of the “law” that water is always liquid. Does it follow, then, that the Indian prince could not justifiably believe in frost on the basis of any testimony, no matter how strong? Hume’s response is that solid water is an experience that is not contrary to the prince’s experience, although it is also not conformable to it. The more general problem is that Hume needs to allow for progress in the sciences, including the revision of our understanding of the natural laws. Like many of Hume’s arguments, his argument about miracles set the agenda for much of the succeeding discussion, but left many questions unanswered.

Still, Hume’s argument against miracles is undeniably compelling. As applied to UFOs, the argument shows us the limits of testimony, however well-intentioned or authoritative.

Testimony, Conspiracy Theories, and Hume on Miracles

abstract painting of two faces without eyes facing away from one another

In his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume reports a local rumor from a town in Spain conveyed to him, with a healthy amount of skepticism, by a cardinal. The story was about a man who had undergone a rather miraculous recovery from an ailment. As Hume describes it,

“He had been seen, for so long a time, wanting a leg; but recovered that limb by the rubbing of holy oil upon the stump; and the cardinal assures us that he saw him with two legs.”

The townsfolk were all ardent believers in the miracle, and it was accepted by “all the canons of the church.” The story spread and was believed on the basis of testimony, and was able to pass and be sustained as easily as it was, in part, because of a shared trust among members of the community. Nevertheless, the cardinal himself gave no credence to the story. Despite the fact that many people were willing to testify to its truth, a story about such an event is just not the kind of thing that has any meaningful likelihood of being true. The cardinal “therefore concluded, like a just reasoner, that such an evidence carried falsehood upon the very face of it, and that a miracle, supported by any human testimony, was more properly a subject of derision than of argument.”

Hume relates other stories, common at the time he was writing, of people offering and accepting accounts of miracles. He argues that to adjudicate these matters, our evidence consists in our set of past observations. Miracles are violations of the laws of nature. When we consider whether we ought to believe in miracles on the basis of testimony, we must weigh our past observations of the workings of the laws of nature against our observations regarding the veracity of testimony. The former will always win. We will always have more evidence to support the idea that the laws of nature will remain constant than we will to support the belief in eyewitness testimony which reports that those laws have been broken. As Hume himself states, “the knavery and folly of men are such common phenomena, that I should rather believe the most extraordinary events to arise from their concurrence, than admit of so signal a violation of the laws of nature.”

Hume is not just reporting historical fact but is also prescient (though he might object to that characterization) when he says, “men, in all ages, have been so much imposed on by ridiculous stories of that kind.” More than 250 years later, we’re contending with elaborate conspiracies such as shape-shifting reptilian overlords, 5-G towers that transmit coronavirus, vaccines that implant microchips, and wild accusations of widespread voter fraud sufficient to change the outcome of the election. The Q-Anon conspiracy theory even has representation in the House of Representatives. Believers in this conspiracy think that a powerful cabal of pedophilic baby-eating democrats is secretly running the world, and a child-sex ring. A secret whistleblowing governmental agent — Q — is conveying all of this information to true patriots on internet chat rooms. Q-Anon spread in much the same way that the story about holy water being used to grow new limbs spread — through testimony.

Hume points out that the practice of coming to know things on the basis of testimony depends on certain enduring features of human nature.

“Were not the memory tenacious to a certain degree, had not men commonly an inclination to truth and a principle of probity; were they not sensible to shame, when detected in a falsehood: Were not these, I say, discovered by experience to be qualities, inherent in human nature, we should never repose the least confidence in human testimony. A man delirious, or noted for falsehood and villainy, has no manner of authority with us.”

Society couldn’t function if we couldn’t rely on testimonial evidence. The present political climate elicits feelings of impending existential dread — a sense that truth and meaning are bleeding off the page like amateur watercolor, leaving no visible boundaries. The characteristics that Hume describes are being worn down. We’ve been told not to rely on our memories; it is unpatriotic to pay too much attention to the past. There are no behaviors that should make anyone feel shame; to suggest that someone ought to feel ashamed for deceiving and misleading is to “cancel” that person. In an environment immersed in “alternative facts,” there is no inclination toward truth or “principle of probity.” It is little wonder that in this environment people favor the likelihood of the existence of liberal pedophilic cannibals over the likelihood that anthropogenic climate change is occurring.

With the possible exception of the lizard people who can transform into humans, these conspiracy theories aren’t violations of the laws of nature. That said, a similar kind of inductive argument is possible. Most of these conspiracy theories require a level of seamless complicity among many, many people, who then leave behind no compelling evidence. Election fraud conspiracies, for example, require complicity across states, political parties, and branches of government. So, we’re left with two broad options. Either every person played their role in this flawlessly, leaving behind no trace, or the theory is false, and it arose from “the knavery and folly” of human beings as has so often happened throughout human history. There is a much stronger inductive argument for the latter.

All of this has a moral component to it, but it is difficult to know exactly how to identify it. As Hume points out, humans have certain dispositions that incline them toward truth. On the other hand, they also have strong tendencies to believe nonsense, especially if that nonsense is coherent with what they already believed or might otherwise make them feel good. We could say that everyone ought to have higher epistemic standards, but ought implies can — it makes no sense to say that a person ought to use better methods to form their beliefs when their psychologies prevent them from having any control over such things. There may be no ultimate solution, but there might be some chance that things could improve. Making things better might not be a matter of changing individual minds, but, instead, altering the environments in which those minds are formed. Education should be a high priority and well-funded. We must have policies that reward honesty among public officials and there must be serious consequences when our public figures tell lies.

Under Discussion: Conspiracy Theories, Climate Change, and the Crisis of Trust

photograph of several snowballs at the bottom of hill with tracks trailing behind

This piece is part of an Under Discussion series. To read more about this week’s topic and see more pieces from this series visit Under Discussion: Combating Climate Change.

On February 26th, 2015, Republican Senator James Inhofe carried a plastic bag filled with snow into the Capitol Building; in his now-infamous “Snowball Speech” criticizing the Democrats for their focus on climate policy, the senior senator from Oklahoma said “In case we have forgotten — because we keep hearing that 2014 has been the warmest year on record — I ask the chair: you know what this is [he holds up a softball-sized snowball]? It’s a snowball that’s just from outside here. So, it’s very, very cold out.”

Of course, Inhofe’s snowball disproved the reality of climate change no moreso than a heat wave in January disproves the reality of Winter (at least for now). But that didn’t stop Inhofe from chuckling through his hasty generalization of what’s proper to conclude about historical trends in temperature and other metrics from a random snow sample he happened to see on his way to work. The difference between climate and weather is a basic distinction that Inhofe simply ignored for the sake of a quip.

Given Inhofe’s career of expressed skepticism towards the science supporting climate change (something about which Inhofe himself said he “thought it must be true until I found out what it would cost”), we might think this was just a political stunt. However, it was one that resonates with a not-insignificant chunk of our society. While popular consensus still technically leans towards recognizing the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change (something about which expert consensus overwhelming agrees), there remains a stubborn minority of Americans who are convinced (to varying degrees and for various reasons) that climate change either does not warrant significant political or financial attention or that it is simply a hoax — just one more example of so-called “fake news.”

The Prindle Post has spent the past week exploring the complicated issue of how to address climate change — a thorny problem that interweaves questions of political risk, economic uncertainty, and genuine danger for both present and future generations. But the hope of successfully coordinating our efforts in the ways necessary to shift current climate trends seems particularly unrealistic when climate change deniers (who make up between 10 and 15% of the population) continue to spin conspiracy theories about the scientists, the science, and the “real” schemes secretly motivating both.

For example, in a video created last year by the conservative media production company PragerU, Alex Epstein (author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels) argues that “climate change alarmism” exaggerates the threat of the “genuine” science while intimating that such distortions are actually motivated by a desire to justify “an unprecedented increase in government power.” For another, prior to taking office, former President Donald Trump claimed that global warming was “created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” — a sentiment he echoed during his first presidential campaign when he explicitly called it a “hoax.” And as recently as this month, Fox News host Sean Hannity criticized President Joe Biden’s aggressive climate plan as something designed to benefit “hostile [foreign] regimes”: “Mark my words,” said Hannity, “this will not end well.” In different ways, each of these suggest that the real story about climate change is some terrible secret (often involving corrupt or otherwise evil agents), so the “official” story (about how human activity has provoked wildly unprecedented global temperature shifts) should be doubted.

At least some forms of climate change denial are easy to explain, such as ExxonMobil’s well-documented, decades-long disinformation campaign about the evidence for a link between human activity (in particular, activity related to things like carbon emissions) and global temperatures; given that ExxonMobil’s nature as an energy company depends on carbon-emitting practices, it has always had good reason to protect its operations by deceiving the public about matters of scientific fact. In a similar way, politicians hungry for votes can use the rhetoric of climate skepticism to signal to their supporters in return for political capital; when Ted Cruz said recently that the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement (PCA) prioritizes the “views of the citizens of Paris” over the “jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh,” the junior senator from Texas was clearly more concerned about scoring partisan points than accurately representing the nature of the PCA (which, for example, received no substantive input from the people of Paris).

But conspiracy theories about climate change — like conspiracy theories about anything — don’t require elite figures like Cruz or Hannity to be maintained (however helpful celebrity endorsements might be); much of their viability stems from the naturally enjoyable experience of the cognitive processes that underlie conspiratorial thinking. For example, in his book Conspiracy Theories, Quassim Cassam explains how the story-like nature of conspiracy theories (especially grandiose ones that posit particularly complicated connections or conclusions) provides a kind of cognitive pleasure for the person who entertains them; as he says towards the end of chapter two, conspiracy theories “invest random events with a deeper significance, which they wouldn’t otherwise have” in a way that can satisfy apophenic desires of all stripes. Moreover, conspiracy theories allow the conspiracy theorist to imagine themselves as superior to others, either for cleverly figuring out a puzzling truth or for being a hero “who doggedly takes on the forces of the deep state or the new world order in the interests of making sure that the public knows what’s really going on beneath the surface.” The ease with which we can access and disseminate information online only exacerbates this problem (for just one example: consider the recent spread of the QAnon slogan #SaveTheChildren).

Similarly, Tom Stafford discusses the biases at play when we take the time to think through things for ourselves (or when we “do our own research” about an already much-researched topic); at the end of that process, we might well be loathe to give up our conclusions because “we value the effort we put in to gathering information” and “enjoy the feelings of mastery that results from insight” (even if that “insight” is targeting nothing true). In short: if you build it yourself, you’re more apt to experience feelings of loss aversion about it — and this apparently applies to mental states or beliefs just as much as to other things in the world. Furthermore, given the web of suspicion about many different agencies, studies, scientists, and data points that is required to maintain doubts about something like climate change, Stafford’s “epistemic IKEA effect” seems useful for explaining not only the phenomenon of climate change skepticism, but how climate skeptics are more likely than most to believe in conspiracy theories about other topics as well.

So, importantly, contrary to the stereotypical image, conspiracy theorists are not just half-crazed hermits with walls of photographs connected by string; careful thought, reasoned argument, and even the citation of evidence are common elements of a conspiracy theorist’s case for their position — the problem is simply that they’re applying those tools towards objectively invalid ends. Sometimes, conspiracy theorists (such as those who believe that JFK, Princess Diana, or Jeffrey Epstein were killed by various complicated networks of culprits) might be relatively harmless. But when conspiracy theories have political consequences, such as in the case of climate change denial, they have ethical consequences as well.

Of course, what to do about conspiracy theories regarding climate change is far from clear. Although various proposals have been put forth for how to deal with conspiracy theories in general, researchers currently seem to agree mainly on one practical thing: straightforward confrontation of conspiracy theorists’ beliefs is almost certainly a bad move. An attempt to debunk an interlocutor, particularly in public, will (perhaps understandably) tend to trigger a backfire effect and simply provoke them into a defensive posture, rather than maintain a common ground of trust from which conversations can proceed. While some might find the sarcastic ridiculing of climate deniers entertaining, those jokes also feed a standard component of the kind of echo chambers that fuel conspiratorial thinking: distrust of outsiders who believe things that contradict the conspiracy theory.

In his work on echo chambers, C. Thi Nguyen has highlighted the role of trust for breaking through the epistemic barriers around conspiracy theories that end up fueling (and being fueled by) political and other social divisions. Though we often take it for granted, trusting strangers to tell us the truth is a fundamental component of living in and contributing to the collective project of society together. In a very real way, our collective scientific processes — and, hopefully, the governmental policies based on them — depend on the presumption that the people involved are trustworthy. But by rejecting that starting point, conspiracy theories (about climate change or anything else) reject one of the fundamental elements that makes public cooperation possible.

This crisis of trust cannot be fixed simply by shoehorning legislation through committees, regulating social media posts, encouraging companies to deploy trendy, green-themed advertising campaigns, or shaming relatives who roll their eyes at the near-unanimous consensus of climate scientists — indeed, however commendable (and, in some cases, necessary) such tactics are for quickly calming the rapidly-changing climate, they also encourage the continued entrenchment of climate skepticism and denial. If we wish to make comprehensive headway on tackling climate change together, we must at least pragmatically attend to even the most anti-science perspectives for the sake of promoting respectful discourse that can help repair the broken relationships which have rent our social fabric into its hyperpartisan state. Such a project might even serve to mitigate the effects of other echo chambers along the way; an ebbing tide calms all conspiracy theories, as it were.

How to implement such a policy at an effective scale is a problem for a different expert (what would a “trust-promotion campaign” even look like?). In the end, destabilizing echo chambers might well be the kind of thing that governmental (or otherwise “official”) action can’t accomplish: the respectful discourse required to manifest what Nguyen calls a “social-epistemic reboot” might well fall to individuals building relationships with other individuals, enriching the soil of our social lives so that our epistemic lives can collectively grow strong.

But one thing is clear: the deep roots of conspiratorial theorizing in America about climate change must be considered and addressed if we hope to untangle this knotty existential problem. Without doing so, any substantive attempt to take action on climate policy stands a snowball’s chance on the rapidly-warming Earth.

The Dangerous Allure of Conspiracy Theories

photograph of QAnon sign at rally

Once again, the world is on fire. Every day seems to bring a new catastrophe, another phase of a slowly unfolding apocalypse. We naturally intuit that spontaneous combustion is impossible, so a sinister individual (or a sinister group of individuals) must be responsible for the presence of evil in the world. Some speculate that the most recent bout of wildfires in California were ignited by a giant laser (though no one can agree on who fired the lasers in the first place), while others across the globe set 5G towers ablaze out of fear that this frightening new technology was created by a malevolent organization to hasten the spread of coronavirus. Events as disparate as the recent explosion in Beirut to the rise in income inequality have been subsumed into a vast web of conspiracy and intrigue. Conspiracy theorists see themselves as crusaders against the arsonists at the very pinnacle of society, and are taking to internet forums to demand retribution for perceived wrongs.

The conspiracy theorists’ framework for making sense of the world is a dangerously attractive one. Despite mainstream disdain for nutjobs in tinfoil hats, conspiracy theories (and those who unravel them) have been glamorized in pop culture through films like The Matrix and The Da Vinci Code, both of which involve a single individual unraveling the lies perpetuated by a malevolent but often invisible cadre of villains. Real-life conspiracy theorists also model themselves after the archetypal detective of popular crime fiction. This character possesses authority to sort truth from untruth, often in the face of hostility or danger, and acts as an agent for the common good.

But in many ways, the conspiracy theorist is the inverse of the detective; the latter operates within the system of legality, often working directly for the powers-that-be, which requires an implicit trust in authority. They usually hunt down someone who has broken the law, and who is therefore on the fringes of the system. Furthermore, the detective gathers empirical evidence which forms the justification for their pursuit. The conspiracy theorist, on the other hand, is on the outside looking in, and displays a consistent mistrust of both the state and the press as sources of truth. Though conspiracy theorists ostensibly obsess over paper trails and blurry photographs, their evidence (which is almost always misconstrued or fabricated) doesn’t matter nearly as much as the conclusion. As Michael Barkun explains in A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America,

the more sweeping a conspiracy theory’s claims, the less relevant evidence becomes …. This paradox occurs because conspiracy theories are at their heart nonfalsifiable. No matter how much evidence their adherents accumulate, belief in a conspiracy theory ultimately becomes a matter of faith rather than proof.

In that sense, most conspiracy theorists are less concerned with uncovering the truth than confirming what they already believe. This is supported by a 2016 study, which identifies partisanship as an crucial factor in measuring how likely someone is to buy into conspiracy theories. The researchers determined that “political socialization and psychological traits are likely the most important influences” on whether or not someone will find themselves watching documentaries on ancient aliens or writing lengthy Facebook posts about lizard people masquerading as world leaders. For example, “Republicans are the most likely to believe in the media conspiracy followed by Independents and Democrats. This is because Republicans have for decades been told by their elites that the media are biased and potentially corrupt.” The study concludes that people from both ends of the political spectrum can be predisposed to see a conspiracy where there isn’t one, but partisanship is ultimately the more important predictor whether a person will believe a specific theory than any other factor. In other words, Democrats rarely buy into conspiracy theories about their own party, and vice versa with Republicans. The enemy is never one of us.

It’s no wonder the tinfoil-hat mindset is so addictive. It’s like being in a hall of mirrors, where all you can see is your own flattering image repeated endlessly. Michael J. Wood suggests in another 2016 study that “people who are aware of past malfeasance by powerful actors in society might extrapolate from known abuses of power to more speculative ones,” or that “people with more conspiracist world views might be more likely to seek out information on criminal acts carried out by officials in the past, while those with less conspiracist world views might ignore or reject such information.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, fed by a sense of predetermined mistrust that is only confirmed by every photoshopped UFO. Conspiracy theories can be easily adapted to suit our own personal needs, which further fuels the narcissism. As one recent study on a conspiracy theory involving Bill Gates, coronavirus, and satanic cults points out,

there’s never just one version of a conspiracy theory — and that’s part of their power and reach. Often, there are as many variants on a given conspiracy theory as there are theorists, if not more. Each individual can shape and reshape whatever version of the theory they choose to believe, incorporating some narrative elements and rejecting others.

This mutable quality makes conspiracy theories personal, as easily integratable into our sense of self as any hobby or lifestyle choice. Even worse, the very nature of social media amplifies the potency of conspiracy theories. The study explains that

where conspiracists are the most engaged users on a given niche topic or search term, they both generate content and effectively train recommendation algorithms to recommend the conspiracy theory to other users. This means that, when there’s a rush of interest, as precipitated in this case by the Covid-19 crisis, large numbers of users may be driven towards pre-existing conspiratorial content and narratives.

The more people fear something, the more likely an algorithm will be to offer them palliative conspiracy theories, and the echo chamber grows even more.

Both of the studies previously mentioned suggest that there is a predisposition to believe in conspiracy theories that transcends political alliance, but where does that predisposition come from? It seems most likely that conspiracy beliefs are driven by anxiety, paranoia, feelings of powerlessness, and a desire for authority. A desire for authority is especially evident at gatherings of flat-earthers, a group that consistently mimics the tone and language academic conferences. Conspiracies rely on what Barkun called “stigmatized knowledge,” or “claims to truth that the claimants regard as verified despite the marginalization of those claims by the institutions that conventionally distinguish between knowledge and error — universities, communities of scientific researchers, and the like.” People feel cut off from the traditional locus of knowledge, so they create their own alternative epistemology, which restores their sense of authority and control.

Conspiracy theories are also rooted in a basic desire for narrative structure. Faced with a bewildering deluge of competing and fragmentary narratives, conspiracy theories cobble together half-truths and outright lies into a story that is more coherent and exciting than reality. The conspiracy theories that attempt to explain coronavirus provide a good example of this process. The first stirrings of the virus began in the winter of 2019, then rapidly accelerated without warning and altered the global landscape seemingly overnight. Our healthcare system and government failed to respond with any measure of success, and hundreds of thousands of Americans died over the span of a few months. The reality of the situation flies in the face of narrative structure — the familiar rhythm of rising action-climax-falling action, the cast of identifiable good guys and bad guys, the ultimate moral victory that redeems needless suffering by giving it purpose. In the dearth of narrative structure, theorists suggest that Bill Gates planned the virus decades ago, citing his charity work as an elaborate cover-up for nefarious misdeeds. The system itself isn’t broken or unequipped to handle the pandemic because of austerity. Rather, it was the result of a single bad actor.

Terrible events are no longer random, but imbued with moral and narrative significance. Michael Barkun argues that this is a comfort, but also a factor that further drives conspiracy theories:

the conspiracy theorist’s view is both frightening and reassuring. It is frightening because it magnifies the power of evil, leading in some cases to an outright dualism in which light and darkness struggle for cosmic supremacy. At the same time, however, it is reassuring, for it promises a world that is meaningful rather than arbitrary. Not only are events nonrandom, but the clear identification of evil gives the conspiracist a definable enemy against which to struggle, endowing life with purpose.

A group of outsiders (wealthy Jewish people, the “liberal elite,” the immigrant) are Othered within the discourse of theorists, rendered as villains capable of superhuman feats. The QAnon theory in particular feels more like the Marvel cinematic universe than a coherent ideology, with its bloated cast of heroes teaming up for an Avengers-style takedown of the bad guys. Some of our best impulses — our love of storytelling, a desire to see through the lies of the powerful — are twisted and made ugly in the world of online conspiracy forums.

The prominence of conspiracy theories in political discourse must be addressed. Over 70 self-professed Q supporters have run for Congress as Republicans in the past year, and as Kaitlyn Tiffany points out in an article for The Atlantic, the QAnon movement is becoming gradually more mainstream, borrowing aesthetics from the lifestyle movement and makeup tutorials make itself more palatable. “Its supporters are so enthusiastic, and so active online, that their participation levels resemble stan Twitter more than they do any typical political movement. QAnon has its own merch, its own microcelebrities, and a spirit of digital evangelism that requires constant posting.” Perhaps the most frightening part of this problem is the impossibility of fully addressing it, because conspiracy theorists are notoriously difficult to hold a good-faith dialogue with. Sartre’s description of anti-Semites written in the 1940s (not coincidentally, the majority of contemporary conspiracy theories are deeply anti-Semitic) is relevant here. He wrote that anti-Semites (and today, conspiracy theorists)

know that their statements are empty and contestable; but it amuses them to make such statements: it is their adversary whose duty it is to choose his words seriously because he believes in words. They have a right to play. They even like to play with speech because by putting forth ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutor; they are enchanted with their unfairness because for them it is not a question of persuading by good arguing but of intimidating or disorienting.

This quote raises the frightening possibility that not all conspiracy theorists truly believe what they say, that their disinterest in evidence is less an intellectual blindspot than a source of amusement. Sartre helps us see why conspiracy theories often operate on a completely different wavelength, one that seems to preclude logic, rationality, and even the good-faith exchange of ideas between equals.

The fragmentation of postmodern culture has created an epistemic conundrum: on what basis do we understand reality? As the operations of governments become increasingly inscrutable to those without education, as the concept of truth itself seems under attack, how do we make sense of the forces that determine the contours of our lives? Furthermore, as Wood points out, mistrust in the government isn’t always baseless, so how do we determine which threats are real and which are imagined?

There aren’t simple answers to these questions. The only thing we can do is address the needs that inspire people to seek out conspiracy theories in the first place. People have always had an impulse to attack their anxieties in the form of a constructed Other, to close themselves off, to distrust difference, to force the world to conform to a single master narrative, so it’s tempting to say that there will probably never be a way to completely eradicate insidious conspiracy theories entirely. Maybe the solution is to encourage the pursuit of self-knowledge, our own biases and desires, before we pursue an understanding of forces beyond our control.

Parler and the Problems of a “Free Speech” Social Network

Image of many blank speech bubbles forming a cloud

Twitter is something of a mess. It has been criticized by individuals from both ends of the political spectrum for either not doing enough to stem the tide of misinformation and hateful content, or of doing too much, and restricting what some see as their right to free expression. Recently, some of those who have chastised the platform for restricting free speech have called for a move to a different social media platform, one where opinions – particularly conservative opinions – could be expressed without fear of censorship. A Twitter-alternative that has seen substantial growth recently is called Parler: calling itself the “Free Speech Social Network,” its userbase gained almost half a million users in a single week, partially because of a backlash to Twitter’s recent fact-checking of a Tweet made by Donald Trump. Although the CEO of Parler stated that he wanted the platform to be a space in which anyone on the political spectrum could participate in discussions without fear of censorship, there is no question that it has become dominated by those on the political right.

It is perhaps easy to understand the appeal of such a platform: if one is worried about censorship, or if one wants to engage with those who have divergent political opinions, one might think that a forum in which there are fewer restrictions on what can be expressed would be beneficial for productive debate. After all, some have expressed concern about online censorship, specifically in terms of what is seen as an overreactive “cancel culture,” in which individuals are punished (some say disproportionately) for expressing their opinions. For example consider the following from a recent article in Harper’s Magazine, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”:

“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

So, what better way to defeat bad ideas than to provide a platform in which they can be brought out into the open, carefully considered, and argued away? Isn’t a “Free Speech Social Network” a good idea?

Not really. An assumption for the argument in favor of a platform that allows uncensored expressions of opinions is that while it may see an increase in the number of hateful or uninformed views, the benefits of having those ideas in the open to analyze and argue against will outweigh the costs. Indeed, the hope is that a lack of censorship or fact-checking will make debate more productive, and that by allowing the expression of “bad ideas” we can, in fact, “defeat” them. In reality, the platform is awash with dangerous misinformation and conspiracy theories, and while contrarian views are occasionally presented, there is little in the way of productive debate to be found.

Here’s an example. With over 400 thousand followers on Parler, libertarian politician Ron Paul’s videos from the “Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity” receive thousands of positive votes and comments. Many of these videos have recently expressed skepticism about the dangers of coronavirus: specifically, they call into question the efficacy of tests for the virus, claiming that reports of numbers of cases have been inflated or fabricated, and argue that being made to wear facemasks is a violation of personal liberties. These views fall squarely into the camp of “bad ideas.” One might hope, though, that the community would respond with good reasons and rational debate.

Instead, we get a slew of even worse misinformation. For example, here is a representative sample of some recent comments on Paul’s video titled “Should We Trust The Covid Tests?”:

“My friends husband is world renown doctor. He is getting calls from doctors all over USA and World that tell him CV-19 Numbers are being forged.”

“Nurse all over are saying they are testing the same persons over and over and just building up the numbers not counting them as the same case, but seperate cases. Am against shut down period.”

“No. Plain and simple. COVID tests are increasingly being proven to be lies. Unless you believe the worthless MSM liberal sheep lie pushers.”

The kinds of comments are prevalent, and, as can be seen, are not defeating bad ideas, but rather reinforcing them.

Herein lies the problem: productive debate will not just magically happen once we unleash all the bad ideas into a forum. While some may be examined and defeated, others will receive support and become stronger for having been given the room to grow. Without putting any kind of restriction on the expression of misleading and false information we then risk emboldening those looking to spread politically-motivated misinformation and conspiracy theories. The result is that these bad ideas become more difficult to defeat, not easier.

If one is concerned that potential censorship on social media networks like Twitter will stifle debate, what Parler has shown so far is that a “free speech” social network is good for little other than expressing views that one would be banned for expressing elsewhere. Contrary to Parler’s stated motivations and the concerns expressed in the Harper’s letter, mere exposure is not a panacea for the problem of the bad ideas being expressed on the internet.

Conspiracy Theories and Emotions in the Time of Coronavirus

image of screen with social media app icons displayed

While it is not unusual in this day and age to come across a conspiracy theory on social media, the coronavirus pandemic seems to be producing far more than its fair share. Here are some recent examples of such theories that have been circulating:

Each theory is backed by its own kind of specious reasoning. Some, like the conspiracy theory that flu shots will result in positive coronavirus test results, are based on posts made by a discredited doctor; others, like the 5G conspiracy, appears to be a holdover from previous conspiracies about the installation of 3G cell towers, just in an updated form. For others, it is not clear whether the conspiracy theorists are motivated by political concerns (were the Dr. Fauci conspiracy true, for example, it would validate Trump’s recommendations) or something else.

Regardless, the spread of these and other conspiracy theories are not inert. For instance, those who believe in the 5G conspiracy theory have been setting 5G towers on fire in the UK. What’s more, the generation of such theories does not seem to be slowing down: in the time of writing these two paragraphs I have been notified of the existence of three conspiracy theories regarding a potential coronavirus vaccine: that the first volunteer in a UK vaccine trial has died (no, she hasn’t); that a vaccine already exists for dogs but is not being used for humans (no and no); and that a vaccine does in fact already exist, and was in fact developed as part of that UK vaccine trial I just mentioned (again, no).

While some of these theories at least purport to be based on scientific information, many just seem so far outside the realm of plausibility that it is difficult to imagine how anyone could believe them, let alone take them seriously enough to light a cellphone tower on fire. So what’s going on? Why are there so many conspiracy theories, and how is it that they’re actually getting some traction?

There are of course many potential explanations for how it is that such theories start and are spread. However, part of the explanation for why it is that coronavirus conspiracy theories in particular are so numerous could be that many people are feeling really stressed out. Consider some recent research that suggests that one’s willingness to accept fake news stories and conspiracy theories peddled online depends in part on how emotionally charged those stories are; in other words, stories that grab your attention with language that are likely to make you feel angry, sad, surprised, etc., are going to be ones that, on average, are shared among one’s friends and followers. You have probably come across this trick by producers of less-than-reputable web content before: when a headline tells you that “you won’t believe ___!” they are counting on your piqued curiosity driving you to their site. While often this is merely annoying, when it comes to fake news and conspiracy theories it can be much more dangerous.

Why it is that emotionally-charged stories are shared more is up for debate. One such theory, however, posits that being in an emotionally-charged state will make it more likely that you won’t be reasoning to the best of your abilities. For instance, I might tell you a sob-story to pull on your heartstrings in an attempt to get you to believe what I’m saying; or, I might present you with a salacious headline designed to make you angry, etc. Having put you in a certain emotional state might then result in you not critically engaging with the content of my message, which might then make it more likely that you’ll believe and/or share my story (after all, there’s no better way to express your anger than to talk about it on the internet).

Part of what might explain how the recent flurry of coronavirus-related conspiracy theories and fake news stories continue to be spread and believed, then, is that they manipulate people who are already feeling a lot of emotional strain. As many people are worried, stressed, and anxious for a multitude of pandemic-related reasons, it is perhaps not surprising that stories and theories that attempt to make one even more worried, or angry, or whatever else, should interfere with one’s ability to think as clearly as possible.

Given that these continue to be stressful times, we should probably not expect to see these conspiracy theories dwindling in numbers any time soon. At the same time, given the connection between emotional manipulation and the spread of fake news, we perhaps have another avenue by which to address the problem, namely via an increased attention on our own mental well-being. It has become a mainstay of pandemic advice that one should pay particular attention to one’s mental health, especially when one is feeling stressed and isolated. While this is good advice in general (and indeed, is good advice regardless of whether there is a pandemic or not) it may have the added benefit of reducing the spread of coronavirus-related fake news and conspiracy theories: managing one’s stress may help manage one’s ability to critically engage with information one receives online to the best of one’s ability.

Determining Moral Responsibility in the Pizzagate Shooting

On December 4th, North Carolina resident Edgar Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant, with an assault rifle strapped to his chest. Inside, he reportedly fired several shots and pointed his rifle at a Comet Ping Pong employee as the restaurant’s patrons scattered. No bystanders were injured, and once Welch failed to find what he came for, he surrendered to police.

This week, Welch will return to court in relation to the incident at Comet Ping Pong, a dramatic turn in what has become known as the “Pizzagate” conspiracy. For weeks prior to the attack, online conspiracy theorists had besieged the restaurant with baseless accusations that it has conspired with politicians like Hillary Clinton to traffic and abuse young children. Welch reportedly latched onto these conspiracies, ultimately deciding to take matters into his own hands through a vigilante “investigation.” While Welch’s legal guilt may seem straightforward, the ethical questions his case raises underscore the complexities of moral responsibility in the time of fake news.

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