Echo Chambers

Right, so off the edge a bit here.  The insanity of the news cycle is really getting to me.


Men in Black has one particular quote that has struck me for a long time.

A person is smart, people are dumb.

We’ve all been teenagers, and peer pressure certainly was a driver for some dumb stuff.  I figured this would stop applying once people get educated and mature. Not so much.

This behavior isn’t always bad.  Think of a comedy club.  It’s a whole lot easier to laugh if other people are laughing.  Or a concert, where you will sing along if other people are as well.   Heck, any professional sport event fits this (football in Europe is notorious for this).

The anti-vax movement is a solid example of dumb.  This really sucks because the people in the movement already have their vaccines – they are putting their kids at risk.  The large bursts of whooping cough in these groups is both preventable and infuriating.  The sort of good news out of this is that during the COVID pandemic, you don’t find too many of them making headlines.  The ones you do end up being religious nuts who end up dying.

There’s the never ending ‘pills and herbs’ groups that are sold to cure everything.  Canada has some interesting laws to prevent this model from working as compared to other countries, but it’s still impressive to see folks hawking snake oil cures.  Clearly people are desperate and looking for any option.  Hot Dog Water is the natural conclusion to this madness.

I had a born again friend try to convince me that the world was 5,000 years old and presented me ‘scientific material’ to prove his point.  Event horizons were used to explain light from stars that were far away.  At the time I was studying computer engineering in university, and first year physics was enough to debunk nearly every argument.  But I had that information, he didn’t.

The 5G conspiracy is the new one, where people are burning towers cause they think it’s the cause of COVID.   Just… wow.

The Need

There’s no way to avoid these groups from forming.  Some of them start off as jokes (Birds aren’t real) and develop a cult following.  Some start off as small ideas and then blow up to crazy levels as people make more and more outlandish justifications.  Obfuscation is a main tool to keep people hooked, where the reasoning behind the actions are so complex that people just give up and accept the answer.

Yet all these people involved have a fundamental need to know.  Maybe they have a basic question and a rat hole develops that they can’t get out of.  Maybe they have a fundamental need to belong and stay with the group that shares one fundamental thing in common and just ‘learn to accept’ the other stuff.  Maybe a life event occurs and the group that provides the most support is also the most fringe.  That need will never go away.

The Echo

Ignore social media for a minute and let’s say you’ve found like minded people.  To get more information about the movement, you need access to the mouthpiece’s information.  That occurs through local events (rallies) or through distributed media.  It’s a slow burn, with ferverous spikes when people meet.  Since those events are relatively spread out, the people are interacting with other people in other times.  Cults saw this as bad, and the worst prevent socializing with people outside the group (Scientology much?)  If you can talk to other people, you’re exposed to other ideas, and that generally means you ask more questions.  Questions are good for the person – bad for the nut movement.

Add in social media now.  It’s a 24×7 surround sound box of nutjob videos, podcasts, and streams.  Social media algorithms make recommendations that just drag you farther down the rabbit hole.  If you find a ‘5G causes COVID’ video, it’s not because you were looking for it – it’s because an IT system recommended it to you.  And if you view it, the other recommended videos will be in a similar vein.

There are plenty of reports and studies on the far-right movements that took wind in the last 5 years.  Nearly all of them fueled by smart people taking advantage of social media.  Think about it for a second.  Of the people you meet every day, the amount you consider ‘special’ should be relatively small.  But there’s enough of them out there to make people some money.  Using tools like Facebook or Twitter to focus your message on these people is much more effective that say, auto-dialers or mail outs.  And once you have their attention, it costs pennies to drive out new material to keep them coming back.

The telltale sign of this behavior is the hypocrisy of the group.  Rather than operate on a set of ethics and rules, they work on social order.  It’s an Us vs Them mentality.  The Us part can do whatever we want, and often the ‘leader’ is allowed extraordinary leeway. Megachurches around the world ask for tithes so their leaders can buy jets.   But the people outside the church are all greedy.  My leader is a king, but their leader is a dictator.  Uh huh.

The Cure

There is only ever one cure, and it’s sunshine.  People get educated.  People use researched facts.  People stand up to scrutiny.  People need to meet other people and share their ideas.

My born-again friend from earlier realized that he had lost his entire circle of friends.  The ‘church’ he was with restricted him from doing almost everything he enjoyed doing.  When his kids started asking questions as to why their family was different than others, that’s when it started to click.  He made a choice to step away from that cliff.  He still practices, just with a more open minded group.

Instead of focusing on the group, we need to focus on the people.  It’s not possible to destroy an idea with facts, the people in that group are immune to facts.  But you can focus on the person, and their needs and values.  There’s enough converted white nationalists to prove that model works.

A person needs to feel valued and that they belong.  A person is smart.



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