Story Telling and Conspiracy Theories

I’m fascinated by stories – not so much with the content but with their role in society and the ways in which they bind us together in groups (and, as a result, also divide us).  With the rise of fake news, it’s very easy to put what seems like an unstoppable torrent of conspiracy theories as being peddled by the ignorant few (albeit, in some cases, a huge number in itself).

Yet is that too simplistic?

In ‘The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human’, Jonathan Gottschall makes an interesting point which I’ve been thinking about recently:-

“It’s tempting to blame general backwardness or ignorance for this epidemic of conspiracy. Tempting, but wrong. As David Aaronovitch explains in his book ‘Voodoo Histories’,

‘Conspiracy theories originate and are largely circulated among the educated and middle class. The imagined model of an ignorant, priest-ridden peasantry or proletariat, replacing religious and superstitious belief with equally far-fetched notions of how society works, turns out to be completely wrong. It has typically been the professors, the university students, the managers, the journalists, and the civil servants who have concocted and disseminated the conspiracies.’

Conspiracy theories are not, then, the province of a googly-eyed lunatic fringe. Conspiratorial thinking is not limited to the stupid, the ignorant, or the crazy. It is a reflex of the storytelling mind’s compulsive need for meaningful experience”.

Post-Truth Politics and Parenting

Some of you might have noticed that there’s some kind of voting thing taking place in the US today. And as ever there’s a battle raging to mobilise supporters of both persuasions to get out today and vote since whoever gets the voters out, wins the election. It’s easier said than done. But’s it’s kind of the way things work…

But a couple of things to consider. Let’s start with Time Magazine’s Word of the Year for 2016, ‘Post-Truth’. We’ve already seen Twitter take action in deleting 10,000 bot accounts and Facebook has blocked, er, 115 accounts that were attempting to influence the results. But if all that is happening is that you are managing to get people out to vote who have been misinformed by fake news, then does that ultimately deliver us a better world?

It’s become a real issue and yet another thing to add to the list for any parent as they try to guide their offspring into a world that is vastly different from their own experience of youth. Surveys have shown that often it’s the youngest who can be attracted to populist positions (see cynicism, authoritarianism, nativism and xenophobia) and it’s obvious that the YouTube algorithms will reward the most extremist views in front of anyone, not just the young.

Without going in over my head into the depths of political science, I did find this idea of continuous voting by Steve Randy Waldman fascinating. Part of the problem is that elections are predictable – you know they’re coming and that gives the power brokers the ability to attempt to manipulate the narrative by crafting a variety of high-profile and factually inaccurate media stories in the run-up which reflect favourably on a particular candidate.

This thought experiment suggested having 5% of the electorate vote each month on candidates; then the results of such elections only being delivered according to the random flip of a virtual coin resulting in heads. Put simply: no politician knows when he or she may be replaced, which encourages each one to work with his or her constituency to provide value over the long terms, rather than focusing on the more superficial ‘marketing sprints’ that we tend to see in democracies around the world these days near election time.