Sunday, February 5, 2023
Feb. 5, 2023

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Jayne: Score one for conspiracies

By , Columbian Opinion Page Editor

Did you hear the latest conspiracy theory?

You see, the Seahawks did not really lose Super Bowl XLIX against the Patriots. They handed off to Marshawn Lynch on the 1-yard line and scored the winning touchdown with 20 seconds to play.

Really! You can watch it on YouTube!

Well, maybe after I create the video, complete with 27 8-by-10 color glossy photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph explaining what each one is. I’ll add some ominous music to lend gravitas, and then post it on Facebook and get my friends to share. And then YouTube will start to recommend it. And before long it will be a movement! Millions of people will believe the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLIX, in spite of what their eyes told them four years ago.

Because that is the way these things work. As a recent headline in The New York Times asked: “YouTube Unleashed a Conspiracy Theory Boom. Can It Be Contained?”

Good question. From theories about the moon landing being a hoax to 9/11 being an inside job to the earth being flat, there is no shortage of reminders about humans’ willingness to be duped. As P.T. Barnum said, there’s a sucker born every minute. Some people claim he never uttered those words — but that’s probably a conspiracy.

Anyway, a recent study by Texas Tech University found that attendees at flat earth conferences typically cite YouTube videos as a primary influence in their belief that the earth is not round. Having never watched such a video, I’m not sure how they explain why people don’t literally fall of the edge, but I’m sure there is an answer.

“There’s a lot of helpful information on YouTube,” professor Asheley Landrum said, “but also a lot of misinformation. Believing the earth is flat is of itself not necessarily harmful, but it comes packaged with a distrust of institutions and authority more generally.” To which a certain segment of the population would reply that Landrum is obviously part of the deep state.

Some of this apparently is fueled by YouTube’s algorithm for recommending videos. If you watch a 9/11 conspiracy video, you are more likely to find a moon landing conspiracy video next on your list — rather than, say, interviews with people who lost relatives on 9/11 or people who were in the World Trade Center.

Because of this, YouTube is changing how it figures which videos to recommend, reducing the spread of “borderline content and content that could misinform users in harmful ways.” For examples, it cited “videos promoting a phony miracle cure for a serious illness, claiming the earth is flat or making blatantly false claims about historic events like 9/11.”

Of course, “borderline” and “misinform” and “harmful” are in the eye of the beholder. But repeated exposure to “information” alters our viewpoint — regardless of how untrue it might be. As Mike Caulfield, the director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver tweeted recently: “I will say this until I am blue in the face — repeated exposure to disinformation doesn’t just confirm your priors, it warps your world and gets you to adopt beliefs that initially seemed ridiculous to you.”

There is nothing new about this. As a pair of European researchers detailed in 2017, “Contrary to common assumptions, belief in conspiracy theories has been prevalent throughout human history.” It’s just that they are much easier to share in the digital age.

Take the anti-vaccine movement. Despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, millions of people have come to believe that vaccines are linked to autism. The result: An outbreak that has infected at least 70 people in Clark County.

Or take climate change. Despite near unanimity among climate scientists, millions of people believe the earth is not warming or that change is not caused by human activity. The result: Well, we might find out the hard way.

All of which, I suppose, is a reminder to be discerning about your sources of information. Lest you come to believe the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLIX.