This is not going to be a popular opinion. This is going to hurt some feelings. Good.
Imagine there’s an asteroid streaking across the galaxy straight for Earth. At first, it’s detected by long-range telescopes. An enthusiastic-if-poorly-bathed Astronomer wearing Crocs and a Carl Sagan t-shirt does the math and confirms that it’s on a path likely to impact with us. But of course, being a Scientist, he can’t guarantee it will or it won’t: he just gives it a higher probability.
After jumping through hoops of bureaucracy, alarms are raised, and eventually key people in government are notified. Every day the asteroid gets closer–it’s visible now, looming larger in the sky every day. The secret can’t be kept any more, the public is informed of the situation.
And the public doesn’t give a shit.
“We’ll be fine”, post some people on Twitter, “they say it’s smaller than Rhode Island, how much damage can it do?”
“Fake News”, chime in others via Facebook, “This is just a conspiracy by Big Science to sell more books.”
“God will keep us safe”, is printed in the church newsletter, “this isn’t mentioned anywhere in the scripture and even the ‘Scientists’ won’t admit it’s going to hit us for sure“.
Now you’d assume that regardless of how “the public” feels about the subject or how little they understand it, that there are experts in high places in government who are working to solve the problem anyway. After all, it doesn’t matter what the average person thinks, as long as we have people in positions of power and authority who are fully qualified, capable, and understand not only the fine details and nuances of the problem, but how to address it holistically and completely.
Unfortunately, you live in a Democracy. And in this democracy “the public” has elected the third in a line of reality television stars as President. The current one nominated an actor from Star Trek to run NASA. She’s a fantastic Starfleet Captain, but in the real world she dropped out of college her freshman year to go into acting. At least her show had great ratings.
But that doesn’t matter anyway, because even if there were a competent and qualified individual heading up the organization, most of your elected officials are firmly in either the denial or supernatural solution camps, and don’t see the need to spend any resources on addressing the crisis.
So, of course, everybody fucking dies. Except in this scenario-I-just-completely-made up, the French, who set up a mining colony on the moon a few years earlier.
I know, this was a ridiculous bit–it’s a gross simplification of the way things are, the “people” are caricatures or even strawmen, and this could never happen. Maybe, maybe not. Maybe that’s not the point. Maybe I didn’t want to bludgeon you over the head at the start of the article with a more realistic and therefore more depressing threat such as vaccine denialism causing a global pandemic. Does that sound a little more likely to you?
Great. Because two of the four major candidates for President of the United States expressed doubts about the benefits of vaccines. Are your sphincters sufficiently puckered? One of those two actually won–how about now?
The Stupid Threat
As the saying goes, in a Democracy you get the government you deserve. Which is a relatively candy-coated way of expressing a concept that should, if carefully considered, terrify the living shit out of you: Democracy is only a functional system of government if the people casting votes are highly educated, informed, invested in their own governance, and most importantly, capable of critical thinking.
That last bit is the key to everything. Because if the people who are empowered to cast ballots aren’t astute enough to recognize the difference between facts and propaganda, between appealers to emotion and providers of information, or especially, between media outlets more interested in confirming your bias rather than correcting your understanding, they are supremely vulnerable to being manipulated by anyone with the resources to identify and target them with bullshit.
Yes, this piece is somewhat political. Yes, Bullshido normally attempts to steer clear of direct political commentary because that’s not our normal wheelhouse; our mission is to expose bullshit.
Here’s the thing though: in a world where people get their news from social media, Bullshit is a weapon. And some nations are going so far as to fire it indiscriminately at every target possible. For example, a certain country we’ll call “Steve” has lately been operating a full-scale information war on the western world, adopting tactics from a book entitled “Foundations of Geopolitics, The Geopolitical Future of… Steve“. Here’s an excerpt:
Steve should use its special services within the borders of the United States to fuel instability and separatism, for instance, provoke “Afro-American racists”. Steve should “introduce geopolitical disorder into internal American activity, encouraging all kinds of separatism and ethnic, social and racial conflicts, actively supporting all dissident movements – extremist, racist, and sectarian groups, thus destabilizing internal political processes in the U.S. It would also make sense simultaneously to support isolationist tendencies in American politics.”
And if you haven’t noticed this going on, it’s probably because you don’t consume media from the more abject bullshit media sources on the Internet, or maybe it’s because you don’t have a lot of idiots on your respective friends lists sharing content from those sources. Steve’s agitators, bots, and campaigns aren’t targeting the educated classes of foreign countries. Their biggest bang for the buck are the poorly-informed, marginally educated, and most likely to consume media primarily for the purpose of confirming their own biases rather than informing themselves.
Here’s an example that just happened last week:
It might be reasonable to assume that not everyone is sophisticated enough to recognize a clear example of Photoshop when they see one, but you’d think everyone would be smart enough to realize that burning a flag inside a building would trigger the damn sprinkler system.
We should clarify that we’re certainly not implying all social media accounts that share BS like this are agents of the Ru.. Steve; many are simply in it to bask in the “likes” and notoriety, some are even trolling for nihilistic ‘lulz’. And this problem is certainly not limited to a particular “side” on the left-right political spectrum. But regardless of the intent or the source, the effect is the same: an increased signal-to-noise ratio that makes the already difficult prospect of being an informed citizen virtually impossible without a highly refined set of cognitive tools needed to discern signal from noise, or fact from nonsense; a tool set that the average person clearly does not possess.
Being susceptible to bullshit makes you a liability to Democracy. If your critical thinking skills are poor–such as not immediately connecting the consequences of burning a flag in a multi-million dollar building, let alone the likelihood of a whole team dancing while an American flag burned–you’re going to vote for whoever can manipulate you the most. And while almost all politics involves manipulating how people feel about things, politicians who rely on flat-out-lies to win are never going to be acting in the interest of the people who vote for them. Nobody’s going to respect a rube, let alone care about their interests beyond what it takes to take advantage of their stupidity.
Modern civilization has always been precariously propped up through the efforts of supremely talented, knowledgeable, and skilled men and women at all levels of public life. But unless the highest level of the government they work for are staffed and operated by equally skilled and knowledgeable men and women, said government will eventually come along and kick the legs out from those competent people–the legs which happen to be supporting the whole damn operation.
And what do you think the results of that would be? Oh, at least as bad the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs; just over a longer period of time with more suffering and misery.
The most depressing TV series finale ever
[…] in spotting trolls or agitators as we are, and as we’ve been covering for a while, that is a serious problem because more and more people–especially active voters–get their news from social media […]
[…] is a medically and scientifically complicated topic that is even further complicated by the public’s lack of medical and scientific knowledge. And you triple-down on the complexity once you figure in social factors such as body image […]
Very on point. Cheesy moon aside, we’re also seeing Ru… Steve’s stinky influence in French politics, and its appeal to some people, who get their news from Facebook and their political analysis from their local butcher.
We’re all in trouble, and I worry for our children.
One minor detail. Burning a flag isn’t going to set off the sprinkler system. They’re activated by heat (the liquid inside a glass cylinder boiling and creating enough pressure to break the cylinder and open the valve) not by smoke.