Opinion

Are you sceptical enough to navigate a minefield of conspiracy theories?

Fake news has turned the world into a pressure cooker of aggression and misinformation — and social media is full of it, writes Deborah Steinmair

18 February 2021 - 09:12 By Deborah Steinmair
'Many conspiracy theories are intentionally manufactured, cooked up like crack in a caravan.'
'Many conspiracy theories are intentionally manufactured, cooked up like crack in a caravan.'
Image: Angela Tuck

We live in a town house complex. It’s a hotbed of domestic drama, especially in these desperate days when low grade depression lurks just beneath the surface.

One morning we were woken by a woman’s blood-curdling screams. Our next-door neighbour’s. Immediately footsteps sounded and knuckles hit wood — other neighbours coming to intervene.

Through the window we could see traumatised kids locked out on the balcony with an older brother attempting to comfort them. How many people does a three-bedroom flat accommodate?

They left soon after, to be succeed by another sizeable family, one of whose members plays the recorder badly, another strumming a guitar.

The unit on our other side is used, I believe, by the security police for temporary accommodation of people in witness protection. Its inhabitants — there has been a quite a turnover these eight years — are like ghosts you neither see nor hear.

The other night, late, something upsetting caught my eye through the high bathroom window: At the unit across from us a man stood hunched up in the rain in front of a closed door. His head was pressed to the wall. He stood motionlessly, slightly rocking on his heels.

I was wide-awake immediately, with stories exploding in my head. He’d come home late and inebriated, he’d lost his key and his wife refused to open the door.

At that very house we once witnessed a small drama. A grandmother (we suspect) who watched the children in the afternoons while their mom was at work, had locked out a small boy who had been, presumably, disobedient. He rattled the Trellidor, screaming hysterically. My beloved marched over at once and ordered her to unlock the door, or we would phone the police.

And now this — the bedraggled man shivering in the rain.

I woke my beloved, that intrepid warrior for justice. Surely we couldn’t leave him there? Her sleep-befuddled eyes looked left and right through the window. She saw nothing. Right in front of you, over there, I pointed. Nothing, she said.

The despondent, drunken man in my mind was an innocent shrub lightly stirring in the breeze. Time for an appointment with Specsavers?

That reminded me of fake news. Sometimes, presumably, its origins are genuinely innocent: somebody sees or hears something and jumps to false conclusions, doesn’t know a hawk from a handsaw, sees a plume of smoke and assumes a fire. It snowballs.

But often conspiracy theories are intentionally manufactured, cooked up like crack in a caravan. Fanatics know exactly what the lowest common denominator is, which buzzwords and hashtags will incite the rabble and cause the reptile brains to combust.

'QANON HAS A HOST OF SUPPORTERS IN SA'

Like QAnon. In 2017 somebody with the pseudonym Q made a series of postings on a virtual notice board called 4chan. He said to have “Q clearing” which was supposedly a level of American security clearing. The messages were often cryptic and spiced with slogans and pro-Trump rhetoric. Like the rabid babbling of a lay preacher.

These posts set off millions of people. The underlying theory? Trump is waging a secret, holy war against high-profile satanists and paedophiles in government, business and the media.

Wild rumours of a pizza restaurant as a front for a paedophile ring. Hillary Clinton’s arrest is imminent. There exists an international Illuminati of creepy, zombie-like super rich who have themselves injected with the cells of babies and grow indecently old. Names like that of George Soros are spewed. On photos the rims of their eyes are always tinted red.

Supporters grasp at news reports, history, Nostradamus and numerology to reach their ridiculous conclusions.

An outspoken supporter of QAnon, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, was elected to Congress. She is a sloppy piece of work. Hare-brained theories she has sent forth into the world include the after: The Camp Fire wildfires in California in 2018 were caused by space laser beams directed by a prominent Jewish family, the Clintons had John F Kennedy killed, various bonkers 9/11 scenarios, school shootings were staged. She spews racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. She sports a mask with the slogans: TRUMP WON or CENSORED.

There’s no real need for fake news in SA — the truth is grotesque and disturbing enough. Still, certain urban myths persist, like the Night of the Long Knives

Crazies release a flood of crackpot fabrications on to the internet.

I have read, for example, that Michelle Obama is actually a man. Her skull is apparently too big for a woman’s and the relation between her features typically male. There are doctored photos of a cucumber lurking under her skirt. So-called “birthers” claim that Barack Obama (allegedly actually called Barry Soetoro) was not born in the US.

QAnon has a host of supporters in SA. Maybe they deflect attention from our own miseries, economic and otherwise. There’s no real need for fake news here — the truth is grotesque and disturbing enough. Still, certain urban myths persist, like the Night of the Long Knives and other vague Siener van Rensburg prophecies. We are all visionaries — what we see is our arse.

ARE WE SUFFICIENTLY SCEPTICAL?

People are infinitely gullible.

In 1938 a radio drama caused widespread public unrest in the US. It was an adaptation of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898); a sci-fi novel about a Martian invasion. It was narrated in Orson Welles’s booming voice laden with authority, and the time and locality were transposed to the US in 1938. The drama was sporadically interrupted by “breaking news” reports of extraterrestrial invasions.

This signalled the end of people’s blind belief in the truth of everything they heard on the radio. I don’t know if we have become sufficiently sceptical of everything we read, especially on social media.

There is an excellent Polish film about fake news on Netflix, The Hater. Tomasz, a creepy former law student, becomes an unscrupulous digital consultant. He destroys a political candidate through a barrage of fake news, lies and misdirection. In the guise of an Islamaphobic right-winger he creates false social media personalities and plants encrypted messages in a video game, thus gaining entrance to the mind of a white loser still living with his grandmother and nurturing an obsession with fire arms.

Let us desist from stoking fires and relaying fake news, like a rural telephone exchange full of static.

This article was originally published on the Vrye Weekblad website. Click here to read the original Afrikaans version.