The great conservative philosopher Joseph de Maistre said, “False opinions are like false money, struck first of all by guilty men and thereafter circulated by honest people who perpetuate the crime without knowing what they are doing.” When it comes to the flow of information, the honestly naive can be a force multiplier, spreading a falsehood well beyond its intended audience. Like counterfeit money, the cost of falsehoods and bad ideas are socialized over the whole of the society.
The de Maistre quote assumes the initial falsehood is intentional. The person promoting a false opinion or shoddy expertise is doing so on purpose. Maybe they are just fleecing the public or maybe they are seeking attention. Regardless of the motivation, they are doing so intentionally and knowingly. The same results, however, occur when the false opinion or inaccurate statement of fact is made sincerely. The same price is paid by society, perhaps even a higher price than from malice.
Stupidity has a cost. Every society, even small ones, pay a stupid tax, a price for believing and repeating things that are false. Inevitably, all facts result in some action, so the falsehood, assumed to be fact, will lead to an action. That action, based in an untruth, will come with a price. Maybe the price will be small, like women wasting money on tarot card readers. Maybe it will be high, like putting women into positions of authority based on the lunacy of feminism.
Further, the stupidity of false notions is not universal. Dumb people believe in ghosts and magic, while smart people fall for things like libertarianism. Belief in ghosts may be silly, but it is generally harmless. Crackpot ideas like communism and libertarianism, on the other hand, are very dangerous. It turns out that who is passing around the counterfeit idea counts for as much as the idea itself. Smart people falling for dumb ideas is far more dangerous than dumb people being dumb.
Like money, there are at least two qualities popular nonsense. One is the volume of it in circulation and the other is its velocity. The volume seems pretty obvious. At the extreme, if everything people think is true is actually false, they will not be around very long before they act in such a way that ends their existence. An example would be the Xhosa cattle-killing movement and famine of 1856. There is an absolute limit to the amount of stupid any people can indulge.
The velocity is something new to this age. Not entirely new, as pamphleteers then newspapers industrialized word of mouth. By the 19th century, dumb ideas and false beliefs could move around a society far faster than ever before. Radio and then television further accelerated the velocity of stupid. Now, of course, that velocity has reach something close to light speed. A dumb idea can be around the world before the person coining it has even realized they coined it.
No one knows just how this velocity of stupid changes the nature of stupid. In the current panic, for example, there are people who spend their days flooding social media with falsehoods, which get repeated a billion times. Given how many people are intensely on-line, it stands to reason that even if the overall volume of stupid stuff is still low, the speed it travels makes it feel like the volume is much higher. That velocity of stupid is chasing out the prudent and skeptical ideas for most people.
One key to managing a crisis, regardless of the type of government, is to make sure the rulers can communicate clearly with the people. Even authoritarian societies have to rely in people making good decisions in the moment. If the instructions of the rulers are caught up in the blender of rumors, deliberately false ideas and malicious scare mongering, those instructions are worthless. They either fall into the bucket of things no one believes or they get lost in the whirlwind of nonsense.
In light of the last few days, censuring the internet starts to make some sense. If the flu numbers get much worse, it is possible the public starts to embrace the genuinely crazy ideas flying around the internet. A public panic would only serve to make the situation worse, despite what the scare mongers contest. Muzzling the sorts of people who preface every social media post with “Breaking” followed by a fake news story makes a lot of sense from the perspective of the people in charge.
On the other hand, the internet may be creating a “boy who cried wolf” environment where no one believes any warnings. The situation in Italy is pretty serious, but the authorities are struggling to get the public to be serious. After the nth time being told the world is about to end, people are no longer willing to believe it. Even public officials have grown tired of the atmosphere of permanent crisis that has come to define the internet age. The stupid tax makes everything seem stupid.
Logic says a society bombarded by a barrage of false ideas and crazy assertions is headed for a bad end. On the other hand, maybe having people in charge of public discourse is itself a dumb idea. The dumbest idea. The reason people are willing to put a dementia patient in the White House is that a babbling old man is no different than the other options. None of it matters, so why not put Joe Biden in charge? The internet has brought us to the Marching Morons point of civilization.
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