The counter title for what I'm discussing would be The Case for Open Discussion & Challenging One's Ideas. This is going to be a bit more of a radical type of discussion. It's an observation I've had for sometime and I think it explains a lot of the more extremist type behavior we end up seeing in society.
The internet is by far the greatest achievement with regard to our ability to transmit, exchange and consume ideas. There is so much information on the internet that no one on this planet could possibly consume it all. Humans from around the world have easy access and means to communicate near instantaneously.
The problem I see is how some people choose to use the internet. Since there is too much to possibly consume, an individual needs to make a value judgment on what they're going to consume. All this means is that people will consume videos that they judge will entertain them, learn about things that they judge to be value to them and in the case of ideology (politics, religion, morality) items that they judge a value to them.
My argument is that this type of value judgment leads to more extreme views. Views such as conspiracy theories, self alienation & victimization from society and in some ways manifesting in violent acts.
The Internet's Political Forums versus Pre-Internet
Political views have to be about the most valuable resource in understanding the way someone thinks and looks at problems. There are a wide range of varying ideas that go well beyond simple left-right political dynamics.
Mainstream Politics Online
People who hold more mainstream political views tend to end up at mainstream type forums. These forums are in a more agreeable "culture" when it comes to discussion. You may not agree totally with most people, but differences may only be slight. This in itself isn't necessarily a good thing, but since the middle/center/moderate/mainstream typically isn't indulging in the extreme fringes, it's less likely to get in the crazy. Though, that's not to say that the mainstream can't end up in vary odd places.
It's important to note that mainstream forums are unable to have a narrow focus and encompass a wide range of people. This means that you do end up with ideas presented that start to verge away from the mainstream - though these ideas are not as common as the mainstream.
Diverging into the Fringe Online
I'd argue that fringe is best described by the degree that one diverges away from the mainstream. That's not to say that fringe ideas are bad or lead to violence. For example, pacifism isn't a popular idea in today's society, but it is highly unlikely it would lead to violence, plus many in the mainstream are at least sympathetic to the idea.
Since one seeks out to consume things that bring value to their life, inevitably they will end up at forums with similar views. This is nothing strange. Two problems arise when one chooses to engage on a mainstream forum as someone in the fringe. First, it becomes an exhausting grind to have a discussion. Every idea is either ignored (completely) or jumped on negatively. This results in many users signing off and returning to their more fringe forums. Secondly, there is a form of alienation. Where a fringe user looks at things in a very hopeless way where the cards are stacked against them. Eventually they return to their fringe forums.
This was an interesting time precisely because fringe outlets were most likely too fringe to exist. That's not to say they didn't, obviously racist groups like the KKK had their means of communicating internally. But the difference for an average Joe was that all they had was the mainstream outlets. They'd have to go into town, to the bingo hall and have a discussion with friends and associates. Finding more fringe groups required a lot more work than that of the internet, plus there is an aspect of anonymity that wasn't available to people, like on the internet.
What ends up happening?
The fringe ends up on fringe forums discussing fringe ideas with other people that hold the same fringe ideas. There is a general tone and frustration with their views in society due to alienation - and there may even be feelings of victimization. What happens is something known as a circle jerk. This is self congratulations and kudos given to everyone for expressing roughly the same ideas. This is where the real problem arises and going forward I'll refer to this phenomenon as a circle jerk.
A circle jerk over time creates a few things,
- Ideas and views appear to be better argued than they really are.
- Ideas and views appear to be more acceptable as correct to the general public.
- Ideas and views appear to be morally superior than others.
- Ideas and views center around a narrative of something to hate (bourgeoisie, the government, the rich, oil companies, etc)
- Due to the above, one can go beyond rules or what is acceptable for their ideas and views.
This result is a problem due to how devoid it is of reality because there is no open discussion & challenging of ideas.
* Now I'd like to point out that I don't blame the mainstream for facilitating the fringe. No one is owed a free pass on their ideas and defacto acceptance of them. I do however think the mainstream suffer from the same problem as the fringe and produces the same circle jerk results (see above bullet points), but this typically results in just a stronger mainstream (whatever that happens to be at any given time).
Examples in Action
At this point all I've presented to you is a theory of how people look at the internet and consume the content they want. I also explained how people end up on their forums reinforcing their ideas by circle jerking. It's time to present a few examples to help.
9/11 Conspiracy Theories
When it comes to Americans, polling on 9/11 is quite shocking. There are a lot of ways to orient data depending on how the question was asked, but anywhere between 20% to 50% of Americans believe in some conspiracy theory related to 9/11. This can be as simple as a belief that the government knew and did nothing, all the way to cruise missiles hitting the Pentagon. I found the Scripps Howard polling on July 2006 to be the most direct with it's questions.
Americans aren't the only ones off base here. In September 2006, Ipsos Reid poll found that 22% of Canadians believe that Bin Laden had nothing to do with the attacks and that the plot was by influential Americans. This trend continues world wide, demonstrated by the work of WorldPublicOpinion.org (a project managed by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at University of Maryland, College Park).
Another interesting statement from the world poll was...
Though people with greater education generally have greater exposure to news, those with greater education were only slightly more likely to attribute 9/11 to al Qaeda. Steven Kull comments, "It does not appear that these beliefs can simply be attributed to a lack of exposure to information."
Conspiracy Theory Pundits
The circle jerk phenomenon isn't exclusive to the internet. The internet is merely a medium, just as radio, television and even in person meetings are their own medium. If this is the content you exclusively consume, you run into the same problems.
Alex Jones is a conspiracy theorist radio host. New York magazing describes Jones as "America's leading conspiracy theorist". Texas Monthly reports that his viewership reaches 2 million listeners weekly and his websites a staggering number of unique users.
The 2014 Las Vegas Shooters, Jerad and Amanda Miller were fans of Alex Jones and other libertarian politicians, members of a Jones website and wrote content on it. Figuring out whether Jones was an influential part of their motives is impossible, but what is undeniable is the fringe of where they stood. Let's look at a snippit of their events,
On June 8, 2014, the Millers first went to a CiCi's Pizza restaurant on foot at 11:22 a.m., finding Las Vegas police officers Igor Soldo and Alyn Beck, who were eating at the restaurant on their lunch break. Prior to the shooting, they had observed the restaurant. Jerad Miller fatally shot Soldo in the back of the head with a handgun, then shot Beck in the throat. Both Millers then killed Beck by shooting him multiple times after he attempted to fire back. Afterwards, they dragged the officers' bodies out of their booth and covered Beck with a yellow Gadsden flag and a swastika. They also pinned a note on Soldo's body, which read: "This is the beginning of the revolution."
And just to head back to Alex Jones, on his website they posted The Police (to Kill or not to Kill), which was never deleted.
Jones isn't the only player in the radio market. There are far too many to mention, but a few additional ones would be Jeff Rense and David Icke.
James von Brunn
This is one case that I personally dug into that is quite the oddest. This is the guy that shot up the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.. Even though this was a very old man, he had quite a life on the internet in fringe groups. Not to mention he enjoyed a previous conspiracy related kidnapping of Federal Reserve officials in the 80s.
If your unfamiliar with this type of conspiracy it is popular among the neo-confederate and Murray Rothbard influenced libertarians (such as Ron Paul). Much of this group is (or has been infiltrated without criticism) filled with racist bigots and the very least, racist innuendo.
James von Brunn used a Yahoo newsgroup to discuss his ideas, plus had a website where he sold his books Kill the Best Gentiles and A New Hard-Hitting Exposé of the Jew Conspiracy to Destroy the White Gene Pool.
With all the examples I've given, you could say these are odd nuts. And I agree. They're the odd ones out that turn to such extreme ends, but they all hold ideas and unchallenged ideas. Even though some may act on their conspiracies violently, doesn't negate many others that simply believe it, fester with it and can eventually be problematic or enable/protect/sympathize with those that do the violence.
Everyone holds ideas, even the ones that hold some of the crazier ideas. They're ideas none the less and they have consequences. A person should seek out challenges to their views in order to reason, think and really work through why they believe something.
The internet gives people this opportunity to experience many different views and discuss various topics with many different backgrounds. The problem is that people don't like to be challenged. They like to take the path of least resistance and that inevitably leads them into positions where they discuss ideas with people that are most likely to agree with them.
People that hold more fringe views will feel alienated (there own doing) and seek out fringe communities to discuss ideas. Pre-internet, this was much harder to accomplish because you would have to talk to people in your town and couldn't really screen by some ideological purity. Today ideas are discussed in a very self congratulatory way, with no criticism and lots of pats on the back. This makes people think their ideas are not only stronger, but more mainstream (unspoken majority) and more likely to act to fix the injustice (the fact that their ideas aren't as popular as they see it).
I'm not trying to pigeon hole those that discuss in an ideological pure space as violent extremists or even unhealthy. It is unhealthy, intellectually, if that's your only outlet and it can lead down a bad path. It may not lead to violence, but it may lead to enabling violence or sympathizing with it.
One must seek out other views to be challenged. That's not to say you must surrender your views. If one believes their views and ideas to be right, they should be able to present a reasonable argument for them and win people over. If you can't accept that premise, you won't be appropriately challenged. It's in your interest to do this. Being able to understand other views and the disagreements with your ideas, allows you to understand whether your views are sound. It is in your interest to know your views are sound and that's something you can't get in a ideological safe space.
- Opinion Polls About 9/11 Conspiracy Theories - Wikipedia
- One in 5 Canadians see 9/11 as US Plot - Poll - Reuters
- International Poll: No Consensus on Who was Behind 9/11 - WorldPublicOpinion.org
- Alex Jones is about to Explode - Texas Monthly (2010)
- Jerad Miller Posts at Alex Jones' Infowars - Little Green Footballs
- 2014 Las Vegas Shootings - Wikipedia
- Von Brunn Background - Anti-Defamation League
- James Von Brunn Indicted for Murder of Special Police Officer Stephen Johns and Hate Crimes Charges for Attack on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum - Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
- James von Brunn - A great workout of the man.