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Tech Companies Are Destroying Our Society One Conspiracy Theory at a Time
And I'm furious with tech companies for letting it happen.
People fall in love with their conspiracy theories.
Actually, it’s less like love, more like infatuation.
They become obsessed with them. They tiptoe around the proverbial rabbit hole until they cross the event horizon, at which point, they raise their arms above their heads, press their open palms flat against one another in the diver’s stance, and take the deepest plunge they possibly can.
Conspiracy theories are ruining our relationships. Nay-sayers will tell you that what Twitter isn’t reality and that the internet isn’t reflective of real life. This is true—up to a point. After a certain threshold is crossed, the deranged ramblings online begin to spill over into real life.
We’re living in an age of moral panics. One after another, moral panics sweep our country, infecting the minds of people across America—and beyond. For the uninitiated, moral panics are periods of intense societal concern and anxiety about a perceived threat or problem that, they believe, endanger morals, values, and the well-being of their communities or societies.
The problem is, the objects of these fears aren’t true. It’s mass hysteria.
These problems arise when an issue or group is portrayed in media or public discourse as posing a significant risk to social order and personal safety.
During a moral panic, people exaggerate and distort reality. They misrepresent the issue at hand, causing widespread fear and outrage. This creates a positive feedback loop where more outrage results in increased attention to the non-issue, calls for action, and the implementation of policies to address the perceived threat.
Did you know only 1.3% of prescription stimulant users misuse their prescription? And only 0.5% of people have stimulant misuse disorder (addiction). 5.1% of people misuse psychotherapeutic medications of any kind. These stats don’t come from conspiracy theory land—they come from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Yet, the media is always pounding into our heads how widespread the prescription drug crisis is. You think people everywhere dropping like flies and that overdoses and deaths make up a substantial number of prescription drug users.
0.020% of Americans died from a drug overdose in 2018 and that includes street drugs, not only prescription drugs. It’s an extremely minor risk.
Moral panics tend to involve a scapegoat or a group that’s blamed for a problem. The outrage machine churns through people like a cow grazing on blades of grass. This month, it’s gays; next month, it’s immigrants. The media amplifies these messages, we all know it. This has been happening since I was a child in the 1990s.
But now, moral panics have gone high-tech. The internet creates and disseminates conspiracy theories in hyper-speed. People are afraid of everything. Remember the Tide Pod Challenge?
People Magazine said:
Health experts are warning against a potentially deadly social media craze called “The Tide Pod Challenge,” in which participants film themselves biting into the soap-filled capsules.
ABC News chimed in with the headline Why Internet Crazy the ‘Tide Pod challenge’ is dangerous, potentially deadly. Pretty soon, memes were shared and everyone was talking about all these “stupid kids” eating Tide Pods. The story was highly meme-able.
Consumer Reports wrote, in 2017, that investigations found only eight reports of deaths from Tide Pod consumption. That was a lot of panic over eight people.
Tech companies have done nothing to curb the spread of conspiracy theories and other moral panics. They’ve done incalculable damage by making it worse. They’ve made bad ideas more spreadable.
You can say all you want about “good speech is the only way to defeat bad speech” but that ignores the problem. It’s just like people saying “good guys with guns stop bad guys with guns” while children are summarily executed in schools across America while armed—and trained—police officers piss their pants outside the building.
The panic is ripping our families apart.
The rise of different flavors of moral panic crazy, like QAnon, has left a lot of ruined marriages and kids without parents, usually fathers, in its wake. TikTok is bringing together a generation of young people who’ve lost parents and families to internet conspiracy theories. There are now self-help groups for wives whose families were destroyed after their husbands fell in love with conspiracy theories.
We even have terms for it. People who’ve lost loved ones to Qanon specifically now call themselves “Qanon orphans.”
writes for The Turtle Diaries about a man who murdered his wife and shot one of his daughters while under the sway of Qanon (I highly suggest subscribing to The Turtle Diaries, as Amanda tracks Qanon and right-wing conspiracy theories from the inside).
This family’s story is heartbreaking.
It’s more common than you think—it’s certainly more common than Tide Pod deaths.
I’ve lost a lot of friends to conspiracy theories over the years. I’ve lost fewer friends than I can count on one hand to drug overdoses (of any kind). But I’ve lost a lot more friends after they drifted away into psychosis after falling in love with conspiracy theories.
I’m a big sports fan. I’ve worked in politics for 13 years and, honestly, sometimes I need something meaningless to fill my life to take a break from talking about the important stuff. Sports are helpful with this.
But I’ve lost most of my sports-fan friends. What was once a robust group of friends that could joke and bust each other’s balls about teams winning and losing became something of a nightmare over the years. One by one, people went down rabbit holes about how the NBA and NFL are conducting secret conspiracies with liberals to persecute conservatives.
When the NBA allowed players to put a social message of their choosing on their jerseys, many players—most of whom are black—chose to go with Black Lives Matter slogans. This outraged many people who were bombarded by right-wing messages about how they want to oppress white people. I’m not sure if they’re aware, but professional sports has always been run by corporations pushing messages on us.
If I can ignore 2 minutes of Pepsi ads, they should be able to ignore slogans about social justice. I don’t like or drink Pepsi products. But they can’t.
And there’s a reason they can’t. They’re mostly narcissists. I don’t say that to be impolite. Research has shown that narcissism is a strong predictor of conspiracy theory beliefs.
You know what else is a predictor of conspiracy theory beliefs?
You can either be a free thinker or a critical thinker—but you can’t be both, by definition.
Other friends have fallen into the traps set forth by “fitness” influencer who are decidedly unhealthy. People who believe that pumping your body full of illegal steroids and eating nothing but meat on the carnivore diet—that Joe Rogan flirted with and Jordan Peterson took a full bite out of—make obviously unhealthy choices.
The carnivore diet is unambiguously bad for you. It’s a troll diet that was invented to “own the libs”—conservative cranks are so willing to own the libs, they’ll sacrifice their lives to do it. We saw this with the wanton disregard for COVID-19 precautions.
Just like the anti-public health sentiment surrounding COVID-19, the carnivore diet grew up in the internet, morphing into something else. Now, it’s a big business and people are swearing it cures depression “in a half an hour,” among other things.
An army of influencers swear that plants are harmful. A whole religion has now formed around what was originally a way to troll the libs.
See, these kinds of conspiracy theories destroy people’s ability to relate. They can’t enjoy inconsequential things like sports games anymore. They can’t even agree on what’s healthy. After all, how do you relate to someone who literally believes that eating vegetables will harm or kill you? How do you invite that friend out to dinner?
The spread and influences of these theories have made it increasingly difficult for people to connect and relate. Belief in these theories erode trust. Conspiracy theorists become deeply skeptical of “mainstream” information and adopt a cult mentality, hanging on to every word of their favorite influencers.
Once someone is willing to reject any and all evidence because bullshit caters to their narcissistic feelings, all bets are off. There’s no saving them. It’s almost impossible to dislodge these beliefs once they’re formed. Which is why the failure of tech companies to do something about these messages is a colossal failure that’s going to take at least a generation to fix.
They’ve erected zero guardrails to stop the spread of obviously fake information. These messages about carnivore diets and LBGTQ+ people grooming children are spreading faster than ever. Just like the anti-vax message is spreading. Just like the flat earth bullshit is spreading.
And the trajectory shows us that tech companies have zero interest in doing anything about it. They just want business as usual, even if it means more and more people die, more families are shattered, and more lives are ruined.
This is a guest post by Joe Duncan. Check out my Substack at The Science of Sex,