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Trump and the Dangers of Social Media

photograph of President Trump's twitter bio displayed on tablet

In the era of Trump, social media has been both the medium through which political opinions are disseminated and a subject of political controversy itself. Every new incendiary tweet feeds into another circular discussion about the role sites like Twitter and Facebook should have in political discourse, and the recent attack on the U.S. Capitol by right-wing terrorists is no different. In what NPR described as “the most sweeping punishment any major social media company has ever taken against Trump,” Twitter has banned the president from using their platform. Not long before Twitter’s announcement, Facebook banned him as well, and now Parler, the conservative alternative to Twitter, has been removed from the app store by Apple.

While these companies are certainly justified in their desire to prevent further violence, is this all too little, too late? Much in the same way that members of the current administration have come under fire for resigning with only two weeks left in office, and not earlier, it seems that social media sites could have acted sooner to squash disinformation and radical coordination, potentially averting acts of domestic terror like this one.

At the same time, there isn’t a simple way to cleanse social media sites of white supremacist violence; white supremacy is insidious and often very difficult to detect through an algorithm. This places social media sites in an unwinnable situation: if you allow QAnon conspiracy theories to flourish unchecked, then you end up with a wide base of xenophobic militants with a deep hatred for the left. But if you force conspiracy theorists off your site, they either migrate to new, more accommodating platforms (like Parler), or resort to an ever-evolving lexicon of dog-whistles that are much harder to keep track of.

Furthermore, banning Trump supporters from social media sites only feeds into their imagined oppression; what they view as “censorship” (broad social condemnation for racist or simply untrue opinions) only serves as proof that their First Amendment rights are being trampled upon. This view, of course, ignores the fact that the First Amendment is something the government upholds, not private companies, which Trump-appointee Justice Kavanaugh affirmed in the Supreme Court in 2019. But much in the same way that the Confederacy’s romantic appeal relies on its defeat, right-wing pundits who are banned from tweeting might become martyrs for their base, adding more fuel to the fire of their cause. As David Graham points out, that process has already begun; insurrectionists are claiming the status of victims, and even Republican politicians who condemn the violence in one moment tacitly validate the rage of conspiracy theorists in another.

The ethical dilemma faced by social media sites at this watershed moment encompasses more than just politics. It also encompasses the idea of truth itself. As Andrew Marantz explained in The New Yorker,

“For more than five years now, a complacent chorus of politicians and talking heads has advised us to ignore Trump’s tweets. They were just words, after all. Twitter is not real life. Sticks and stones may break our bones, but Trump’s lies and insults and white-supremacist propaganda and snarling provocations would never hurt us.” But, Marantz goes on, “The words of a President matter. Trump’s tweets have always been consequential, just as all of our online excrescences are consequential—not because they are always noble or wise or true but for the opposite reason. What we say, online and offline, affects what we believe and what we do—in other words, who we are.”

We have to rise about our irony and detachment, and understand as a nation that language is not divorced from reality. Conspiracy theories, which depend in large part on language games and fantasy, must be addressed to prevent further violence, and only an openness to truth can help us move beyond them as a nation.

Duties to Vaccinate, Duties to Inform

image of 2021 with vaccine vial and syringe representing two of the numbers

The news these days has been dominated by information about the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, something that has felt like the first really good bit of news pertaining to the pandemic since it started. While there is reason for optimism, however, it is not as though the deployment of a vaccine will end the pandemic overnight: in addition to logistical problems of production and distribution, recent research suggests that it may still be possible that vaccinated individuals could spread the disease, even if they themselves will not contract it. As such, it’s not as though we can all just throw our masks in the garbage and start going to music festivals the day the vaccines start to roll out. This is not to say that things won’t get better, but that it might take a while.

You would think that the development of a vaccine would be universally regarded as good news, and that pretty much everyone would want to get vaccinated. However, when surveyed, large portions of the US population have responded that they would be hesitant to receive a vaccine, or else would outright refuse it. These numbers have varied over the months: according to the PEW research center, in May 27% said they would “probably not” or “definitely not” get the vaccine, while that number increased to 49% in September, before going back down to 39% in November. It’s not clear whether these numbers will change as more information becomes available, however; similarly, when people actually start receiving the vaccine and seeing that it’s not dangerous one might expect these numbers to go down.

Reasons for current levels of skepticism vary: while much has been made about the wildest conspiracy theories floating around Facebook – Bill Gates is trying to mind control you, or something – it seems more likely that the majority of skeptics are driven more by concerns about making the best decisions given limited information, combined perhaps with a distrust of medical experts. The question then becomes how we can best communicate scientific information to those who are skeptical. Indeed, this is a problem that we have been facing since the pandemic started: first it was information regarding the need for social distancing, then for wearing masks, and now for getting vaccinated. While at no point have we found the magic solution, it is worth considering what our roles in this process should be.

I think we have a certain obligation in this regard: beyond getting the vaccine itself, we also ought to try to inform others as best we can.

Here’s why I think this. Part of the problem in communicating information to a lot of skeptical people is that it will be difficult to find sources of information that everyone finds trustworthy. To try to address this concern, former presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton have stated that they would all receive the vaccine on camera to show that it is safe, with the goal of appealing to as politically diverse a population as possible. Given that a number of issues surrounding COVID-19 have become politicized, this seems like a good strategy: if those on one side of the political spectrum are less likely to trust someone from the other side, then having representatives of both sides together to present a unified message may help convince a larger audience.

(Other campaigns seem less promising: Trump, for instance, reportedly attempted to develop videos to be played on YouTube promoting the vaccine using only celebrities that were not critical of Trump or some of the causes that he does not support, such as having voted for Obama in the past or being in favor of gay rights. The number of people who met these criteria turned out to be very short.)

While trust can be affected by one’s general political position, there are additional divisions that may affect who one deems trustworthy. This can be seen in recent polls measuring Americans’ willingness to receive the vaccines that target more specific demographics. For instance, some have expressed concern that Black Americans may be particularly prone to skepticism regarding the vaccine, prompting members of various Black communities to attempt to communicate the importance of getting vaccinated. In an even more specific study, one recent poll reported that over half of New York City firefighters would refuse a vaccine. Here union leaders seem to be going in the wrong direction, stating that they would not require first respondents to be vaccinated, and that they would respect the decisions of their members.

We can see, then, that while major figures like former U.S. presidents may be seen as trustworthy sources, there is also a role for less prominent individuals to convey information to skeptical individuals. Given the importance of having as many people receive the vaccine as possible, the duty to try to inform others extends, I think, to pretty much everyone: while not everyone is a community leader, one may nevertheless be considered a trustworthy source of information by one’s friends and family, and may be able to communicate such information more effectively than former presidents or celebrities, given that one may share more values with those one is close to. When it comes to the COVID vaccine, then, one’s obligations may extend beyond just getting the vaccine oneself, and may include duties to help inform others.

How to Spot an Anti-Semitic Trope, and What to Do About It

photograph of Chicago Tribune building

On July 22, 2020, the Chicago Tribune’s lead columnist, John Kass, published a piece entitled “Something grows in the big cities run by Democrats: an overwhelming sense of lawlessness.” In it he claimed that the billionaire George Soros, who is Jewish, is responsible for clandestinely remaking the justice system by spending “millions of dollars to help elect social justice warriors as prosecutors.” The column provoked an enormous backlash, with the executive board of the Tribune reporters’ union, the Chicago Tribune Guild, issuing a letter decrying the column as an “odious, anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.” Kass was subsequently demoted from his perch on page 2 of the newspaper, which he has occupied for 23 years. Nevertheless, he defiantly penned a response in which he declared himself a victim of “cancel culture.”

This ugly episode raises a host of interesting philosophical issues, chief among which are the following: how can we know what counts as an anti-Semitic trope? And what should be done with those who peddle them? I will consider these questions in turn.

Modern anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory with roots in the Tsarist forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This document purported to be the minutes of a late-19th-century meeting of Jewish leaders, the titular “Elders,” in which they conspire to conquer the world through such means as control of the economy and the press, and subversion of the morals of the non-Jewish world. Thus, the anti-Semitic conspiracy theory posits a clandestine Jewish scheme to take control of society’s institutions, such as the stock market, the legal system, the education system, and so on, with the ultimate aim of Jewish world rule.

What, then, is an anti-Semitic trope? I suggest that one important kind of anti-Semitic trope is a narrative, or fragment of a narrative, about attempts by powerful Jewish figures to control, subvert, or alter important social institutions, and in particular economic institutions. That narrative can take many, sometimes contradictory forms; for example, the Nazis accused Jews of both predatory capitalism and Bolshevism. Thus, when Kass writes that Soros “remakes the justice system in urban America, flying under the radar,” there is an unmistakable suggestion of the kind of secret effort to alter and control institutions that is characteristic of anti-Semitic thinking in general.

Suppose there is a group of powerful persons, most of whom happen to be Jewish, that actually does seek to control or subvert some important institution. An example might be pro-Israel groups’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy, a phenomenon controversially documented by Alan Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. Would the rough account laid out in the last paragraph make any criticism of these groups’ efforts an anti-Semitic trope? The worry implicit in this question is that labeling such criticisms as “anti-Semitic” would prevent legitimate criticisms of the “Israel lobby” from being made.

Before explaining my response to this worry, it is worth noting other ways of responding to it. We might try to distinguish legitimate criticisms from anti-Semitic tropes by insisting that the latter must be a false narrative — i.e., they must fail to refer to any actual conspiracy or nefarious effort. On this view, an anti-Semitic trope is, as such, a kind of slander. However, this would still leave justified, but false, criticisms vulnerable to being labelled anti-Semitic tropes. Suppose Mearsheimer and Walt were wrong about the existence of an “Israel lobby.” Many would still want to deny that their book traffics in anti-Semitic tropes. On the other hand, suppose that they are correct. One can still imagine an actual anti-Semite condemning the Israel lobby using anti-Semitic tropes.

Perhaps instead we should draw a distinction between conspiracies that are composed of Jews and Jewish conspiracies. A Jewish conspiracy is an effort to subvert or control some important institution on behalf of the Jews, or in the perceived interests of the Jews as a group. Only statements that are meant to refer to a Jewish conspiracy in this sense are trafficking in the kind of anti-Semitic trope defined above. This seems like a promising distinction, but it suggests that in order to know whether some statement expresses this anti-Semitic trope, we need to know what the speaker means by it. Did Kass mean to posit some Jewish conspiracy, or just a conspiracy by someone who happens to be Jewish?

Every utterance has both a literal and a use-meaning (philosophers refer to these as an utterance’s “locution” and “illocution,” respectively). The literal meaning is the statement’s “propositional content”; it is what the speaker says. The use-meaning is the intention of the speaker in making the utterance; it is what a speaker means. For example, if someone says “I stand for the national anthem,” the literal meaning of the utterance is that they stand when the national anthem plays. However, the speaker may intend to convey that she is patriotic.

We can use this distinction and the distinction between a Jewish conspiracy and a conspiracy by Jews to develop an account of a certain kind of anti-Semitic trope. On this account, a statement expresses this kind of anti-Semitic trope only if it purports to refer to some conspiracy or effort by Jewish persons to control or subvert some institution, and the speaker means to refer to a Jewish conspiracy or effort, and not just a conspiracy or effort by Jews. Anti-Semitic tropes, then, are in this case the products of both the literal and the use-meaning of statements.

Furthermore, I propose that the ethical status of utterances that fulfill the content requirement for being an anti-Semitic trope is critically dependent upon their use-meaning. A person can non-culpably utter a statement with the same content as an anti-Semitic trope if she did not intend to suggest a Jewish conspiracy and could not reasonably have foreseen that it was anti-Semitic, or if she took adequate, good-faith measures to make it understood that she was not intending to suggest a Jewish conspiracy. As with other kinds of wrongdoing, culpability increases with the degree to which the literal anti-Semitism of the utterance was known to or intended by the speaker. Nevertheless, a harsher, “strict liability” regime for utterances with the same content as anti-Semitic tropes would unduly restrict political discourse, such as criticism of Jewish donors to progressive causes.

That said, Kass deserves the criticism he has received. On the one hand, the fact that conservatives have argued that Kass did not use anti-Semitic tropes on the grounds that he did not intend to posit a Jewish conspiracy supports my contention that anti-Semitic tropes are products of both literal and use-meaning. On the other hand, one could reasonably believe that Kass did intend to posit a Jewish conspiracy. Kass must be aware that conspiracy theories specifically revolving around George Soros are circulated widely by open anti-Semites, and he seems to place undeserved emphasis on the contribution of this particular wealthy Jewish businessman to progressive political causes in a political system in which multimillion-dollar campaign contributions are not at all infrequent.

Given these facts, the best we can say for Kass is that he was negligent in his use of language with the same content as anti-Semitic tropes: he should have known that claiming George Soros is responsible for clandestine funding of progressive causes dovetails with anti-Semitic propaganda, and he should have done something to allay concerns that he intended to suggest a Jewish conspiracy. Moreover, although I believe that those who decry “cancel culture” have legitimate concerns, Kass’s claim that he is a victim of it is a good example of powerful people crying “censorship!” when they encounter criticism. If strong criticism is deserved, a person in a free society must bear its costs.

Time for a Paradigm Shift: COVID-19 and Human Consumption

photograph of pangolin lumbering toward camera in barren landscape

There is much that we still don’t know about COVID-19. To attain a more adequate understanding of the virus, we need to know where it originated and how it passes from one being to another. To control the outbreak and to reduce the likelihood that this will happen with great frequency in the future, it’s important that it’s not only scientists and medical professionals who have this knowledge. The general public needs to understand how human action contributes to tragedies of this magnitude. After all, this pandemic is just one plot line in a much longer and more complicated story about the human relationship with the natural world.

Conspiracy theories abound on the topic of the origin of the virus, some of which spread rapidly because their advocates have large megaphones. Some people believe that it was whipped up in a laboratory at the request of Bill Gates. In a 2015 Ted Talk, Gates warned that one of the most probable causes of future significant loss of life would be an epidemic. His remarks were offered, in part, in response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014, and, in particular, on what he took to be an inadequate response to that outbreak by the international community. He suggested that the Ebola outbreak should serve as a wakeup call, prompting us to prepare for the pandemic to come. He explained the conditions under which a new, faster virus might spread and offered suggestions for how we might be prepared. Conspiracy theorists used this as evidence that Gates had some prior knowledge of the outbreak—prior knowledge that he only could have had if he was responsible for the creation of the virus. Gates has advocated for digital markers to keep track of spread and testing status. Some have interpreted that as a call for human beings to be implanted with microchips so that they can be monitored and controlled by powerful people.

Other conspiracy theorists believe that COVID-19 is caused by 5G technology. In a textbook case of a false cause fallacy, people observed that 5G towers were constructed in hard hit areas shortly before the virus began to spread. They concluded that 5G towers emitted radiation that activated the coronavirus, and that this was all a plot by the Powers That Be to depopulate the earth.

What we believe about the origin of the virus matters. This pandemic has consequences that are so significant that they are likely to motivate action, even in the case of people who might not otherwise be motivated much to change their regular practices. For example, a person who genuinely believes that COVID-19 is activated by 5G networks is likely to do whatever is in their power not to live next to a 5G tower, and there is a good chance that they will publicly advocate against the technology. People who believe Bill Gates is using the technology to control the global population will be unlikely to participate in any form of digital monitoring, even if such monitoring looks nothing like an implanted microchip.

It’s vital that people understand that we are dealing with a zoonotic virus, which means that it originated in other animals and then spread to human beings. There is some scientific consensus that the virus originated in horseshoe bats. The evidence for this is the strong similarity between the genetic sequence of the bat coronavirus and the genetic sequence of the virus that causes COVID-19. More recently, evidence has suggested that pangolins served as an intermediary, transmitting the virus from bats to humans.

Many in the west have probably never heard of pangolins, but they are the world’s most trafficked animals. They live in the woodlands and savannas of Southern, Central, and Eastern Africa and in various locations in Asia. They are unique because they are the only mammals with scales. When a pangolin encounters a predator, it will roll up into a ball and its scales will provide a protective armor, rendering it virtually impenetrable to the lions, tigers, and leopards that might attempt to eat it.

The scales of the pangolin have historically been used for more than just armor against predators. For thousands of years, local tribes have used the animals for medicinal purposes. An article in a 1938 volume of Nature describes this practice:

“The animal itself is eaten, but a greater danger arises from the belief that the scales have medicinal value. Fresh scales are never used, but dried scales are roasted, washed, cooked in oil, butter, vinegar, boy’s urine, or roasted with earth or oyster-shells, to cure a variety of ills. Amongst these are excessive nervousness and hysterical crying in children, women possessed by devils and ogres, malarial fever and deafness.”

One might think that practices have changed since 1938, but they haven’t. Pangolin scales are still frequently used in traditional Chinese medicine. We aren’t dealing only with local trade; this practice frequently crosses continents. In fact, pangolins are sold so frequently that experts believe that they certainly would have been present at the Wuhan wet market at which the virus is originally believed to have transferred to humans.

Different creatures respond to different viruses differently. An animal living in its native habitat may carry a virus that doesn’t ultimately cause it or any other creature in its immediate ecosystem any real problems. When human beings enter that ecosystem and change the dynamic, there can be devastating consequences. Viruses can be transmitted to creatures, including humans, that don’t have immunities or have bodies that are poorly suited to cope well with the virus.

There are several moral lessons we can learn from these facts to help us usher in a safer, healthier future. First, we ought to form our beliefs about the origin of disease on the basis of the evidence provided by those that study the disease, rather than on the basis of fear or confirmation bias. Coronaviruses come from animals, not from cell phone towers. This may seem like a fairly straightforward point, but the resolution of this problem, if there is one, is not as obvious as it may seem. It may be the case that, at least sometimes, people don’t choose their beliefs. Instead, at least some beliefs might be the kinds of things with which people just find themselves. A person’s belief formation practices are likely to be, at least in part, a product of environment and habituation. This means that creating a citizenry that knows how to evaluate these global problems is a social project rather than purely an individual exercise.

Second, we need to recognize COVID-19 as part of a larger environmental catastrophe caused, in part, by anthropocentrism. We treat the natural world and the living beings that call it home as mere things to be consumed. We’re prepared to commodify just about anything. To say that this tendency has come at the cost of the well-being of other creatures and the resilience and sustainability of global ecosystems would be an understatement.

Finding solutions to problems of this magnitude is difficult and complex, but one step in the right direction may be to recognize that beings other than humans can value things and beings other than humans are valuable. Humans don’t stand outside of or above the kingdom of living things, they are part of that kingdom. The fact that they have the capacity to dominate and destroy doesn’t mean that they should dominate and destroy. To do so is to fail to recognize important goods in the world.

Some might object and say that no one could have foreseen this. Traditional cultural practices are valuable and, all things being equal, they ought to be preserved. Those who practice traditional Chinese medicine and people who sell pangolins in wet markets are acting in ways that are respectful of their cultural values and necessary for preserving their way of life. The fact that a virus spread is just something that happens sometimes, for which no one is really responsible. In this way, it is much like a natural disaster, like an earthquake or a hurricane.

The problem is, the spread of a disease like this is something that we can reasonably foresee. We know that zoonotic viruses exist—we’ve encountered plenty of them. We know that we can limit the spread by leaving animals unmolested in their natural ecosystems. The spread of this kind of virus isn’t analogous to a natural disaster because we actually bear significant causal responsibility for the consequences of removing animals from those ecosystems.

These problems are also social problems with deep roots. The spread of the virus is an indictment of all kinds of social and political systems. If people feel forced into poaching animals so that they can make money to survive, that says something about the way that wealth on this planet is distributed. If people feel that they must purchase pangolin scales on a black market to cure disease, that says something about access to health care and to education. If people feel that animals must be slaughtered in wet markets to provide food for local populations, that says something about our lack of effort to implement sustainable, humane sources of food for a growing global population.

This isn’t just about this pandemic. More pandemics are inevitable if we don’t change our practices. What’s more, the problems described here are the same problems that give rise to species extinction, forest depletion, soil degradation, ocean acidification, and global warming. It’s time for a paradigm shift.

What Does Kant Have to Say about Conspiracy Theorists?

An old diagram depicting a scientist's theory about a flat earth.

The Economist reported last week that more and more Americans are coming to believe the Earth is shaped like a pancake and not like a ball. The report comes as California resident Mike Hughes, hoping to prove our home planet is flat, is finalizing plans to fling himself 1,800 feet into the atmosphere above the desert in a homemade rocket in order to take a snapshot of Earth.

These are just the latest in a recent flurry of flat-Earth blips on our national radar. In January 2016, Atlanta rapper B.o.B. unloosed a torrent of tweets insisting the Earth is flat, attracting the ultimately unheeded Twitter refutations of prominent astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson.

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Moral Obligations and Tinfoil Hats: The Ethics of Conspiracy

On, March 4th, 2017, Donald Trump claimed, without evidence, that Barack Obama wiretapped the phones at Trump Tower during the presidential election.  This is not the first baseless claim that Trump has made about the former president.  As the American population is well aware, Trump was one of the most vocal participants in the birther movement.  Even after Obama made his birth certificate public, proving that he was born in Hawaii in 1961, Trump said, in an interview with ABC News, ”Was it a birth certificate?  You tell me.  Some people say that was not his birth certificate.  Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.  I’m saying I don’t know.  Nobody knows.”

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