2020 will go down in the history books because of the coronavirus. This virus was a new one to humans and we notice the new. Conspiracy Theories are not new to humans but I think 2020 will be remembered as the year that conspiracies went global.
We’ve long been used to a niche of people who believe unconventional things: the US government was behind 9/11, the moon landings were faked, the earth is flat, the Loch Ness Monster and mermaids are real but the dinosaurs and Jesus were not. Mostly we have been content to let those people be because they were few and far between and we regarded them as mostly harmless.
But then came the internet and these people found each other, they read each other’s blogs and ‘research’ and they dug ever deeper down the rabbit hole while all the time believing they and their new friends were the ones that had swallowed the red pill. Conspiracies like viruses spread on contact with an infected carrier.
In the early years of the internet these conspiracies remained mostly tucked away and you’d only really find them if you went looking for them. And then one day we invented Social Media and everyone signed up and began to share their ‘truth’ and like others. And then we invented encrypted messaging services. We could both spread the word and protect the herd.
Social media allowed for the easy normalisation of marginal views and put them on a comparable field with traditional journalism, helping them gather momentum and undermine trust in our news sources. Algorithms then went to work reinforcing those views and separating you from divergent views. Once sucked into that vortex it became almost impossible to break out. The echo chamber is too mild a term for what happens. Humans, who have always been susceptible to polarisation, fell hard. We began to not even comprehend the world-view or thought processes of those who thought differently. We mostly concluded that they hadn’t been thinking at all. John Dyer writes,
At its best, the internet can be a place where we connect with those who differ and confront both the joys and sufferings of those we only rarely encounter. Unfortunately, it seems that our subjugation to algorithms often stultifies our thinking and pushes us further apart. Rather than learning to converse in meaningful ways, we tend to fill our online discussions with empty talk and virtue signalling.After Binging on the Internet in 2020, We Need a Major Knowledge-Diet Overhaul
During the last four years, particularly in America with their chief conspirator at the helm, the signs of cracks in civil society grew and then 2020 came along. 2020 revealed, how deep and wide the problem had become. What was cracked had become a chasm.
Part of the alternative narrative was that the big-tech companies, who had been happily profiting from conspiracies as much as anyone (Twitter, Facebook and Google), were seen to be part of the problem. They were on the ‘left’ and couldn’t be trusted. When it reality they’re on the side of money and will blow with whoever they think they can make the most from. So by the time they finally reacted it was far too late. The horse has bolted but at least now they’ve shut the barn door. And instead of those angry and disenfranchised being a few middle aged blokes and their blogs as it might have been in an earlier internet era, it’s tens of millions of people. Capitalism being what it is (without morals), will soon ensure that The internet has plenty of places willing to find a home for that many people.
Why it is worse
Although the numbers of people directly dying from believing a conspiracy theory is still relatively small the collateral damage is pretty big. An earthquake in a western city can do incredible damage worth tens or even hundreds of billions worth of damage but only a few lives are lost. The truth crisis is a bit like that. All sorts of institutions are crumbling under the onslaught of a mass of people passionate about things that are not true. Churches are splitting, capitols are stormed, democracy is threatened and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Some are thinking of drastic ‘solutions’.
I won’t make a single tweet into a big pile of bird *#%! but this particular correspondent said he knew lots of people talking about it. The echo chamber at work and this time the numbers are large and the division wide. It all seems much worse in America but it would be naive to think the problem hasn’t spread far and wide. As of now, there is almost nothing, that any politician on right or left can do that won’t confirm the worst fears of their opponents. Nothing. At all. Every single decision President Biden makes over the next four years will likely only make things worse in the eyes of people who believe him to be an illegitimately elected president. So ideas that seemed far fetched now are likely to not seem nearly so far-fetched in four years time. This alternate informational reality is the biggest problem countries like America faces and other Western countries should think hard about how to respond.
What about the church?
So in a globalised world where the person in your church has equal access to true and false narratives what are we to do? What should we make of headlines like Trump’s Christian supporters and the march on the Capitol. It is easy to be discouraged and disheartened at the corruption of a church that has believed the lie of nationalism, while others believe that the church is leading the way in resisting a more civil but equally ungodly progressive government that is happy to legislate the death of the unborn, the death of the elderly, the erosion of male and female, buy off Islamic fundamentalists. We can look at all that and as Alan Jacobs writes
It is extremely discouraging for me to see so many Christians, and so many churches, losing all sense of their mission and purpose — and at such a crucial time. Political conflicts and anxieties are at the forefront of American minds right now, but in another few days the catastrophic effects of the coronavirus will loom into our general view again. (They never should have left it.) I find myself thinking about all the ways that many American churches have soldiered on bravely through the miseries of the past year — and about all the ways that other churches have stoked political conflict, denied the truth about disease and elections alike, angrily demanded their rights … and ignored their mission, which is, after all, to seek and save those who are lost.essential reading for skeptics (and others)
But all is, probably, not lost.
Itching ears that listen to lies is not a new problem but scripture gives us hope. If we can promote kindness in our conversation, create opportunities for differing views to be heard and do the patient work of the peacemaker we can guard the church from this far more troubling virus.
Some suggested actions
- Understand the problem. There are plenty of places to look but this twitter thread reflection from Hannah Anderson, for example, is very, very helpful. Take your time to digest what she is saying.
- Encourage people to do a social media audit
- And a broader Knowledge-Diet Overhaul
- Teach them how to fact check
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