Cryptozoology, conspiracy and the laws of general ignorance

There have been several formative books on the psychology of deception, both as practiced upon others and the self. Some that stand out include the 1981 publication of Jan Harold Brunvand’s 1981 book The Vanishing Hitchhiker (the first of his nine books on urban myths and legends of the modern era), James Randi’s Flim-Flam! from the following year, through to Michael Shermer’s 1997 classic Why People Believe Weird Things. Throw in the venerable Snopes founded in 1995, and Truth or Fiction, online since 1998, as well as the countless others we’ve overlooked, and it would seem that the literature on uncovering the unreal is far-reaching and pervasive and persuasive. Except that it’s not.

It is abundantly clear that the internet is the best generator and transmitter of fraudulent information every invented, a conclusion also reached by the author of the Washington Post’s column ‘What was fake on the Internet this week’ has decided to stop publishing. As the final column notes, the target market for outlandishly unreal (and frequently politically biased) stories doesn’t necessarily care whether they’re ‘true’ or not. It quotes Walter Quattrociocchi, an expert in online disinformation: ‘Essentially, he explained, institutional distrust is so high right now, and cognitive bias so strong always, that the people who fall for hoax news stories are frequently only interested in consuming information that conforms with their views — even when it’s demonstrably fake.’ In other words, it’s only going to get worse.

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