ESCAPING THE RABBIT HOLE: How to Debunk Conspiracy Theories Using Facts, Logic, and Respect
$18.99 trade paper, available now
Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: The Earth is flat, the World Trade Center collapse was a controlled demolition, planes are spraying poison to control the weather, and actors faked the Sandy Hook massacre….
All these claims are bunk: falsehoods, mistakes, and in some cases, outright lies. But many people passionately believe one or more of these conspiracy theories. They consume countless books and videos, join like-minded online communities, try to convert those around them, and even, on occasion, alienate their own friends and family. Why is this, and how can you help people, especially those closest to you, break free from the downward spiral of conspiracy thinking?
In Escaping the Rabbit Hole, author Mick West shares over a decade’s worth of knowledge and experience investigating and debunking false conspiracy theories through his forum, MetaBunk.org, and sets forth a practical guide to helping friends and loved ones recognize these theories for what they really are.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the most successful approaches to helping individuals escape a rabbit hole aren’t comprised of simply explaining why they are wrong; rather, West’s tried-and-tested approach emphasizes clear communication based on mutual respect, honesty, openness, and patience.
West puts his debunking techniques and best practices to the test with four of the most popular false conspiracy theories today (Chemtrails, 9/11 Controlled Demolition, False Flags, and Flat Earth) — providing road maps to help you to understand your friend and help them escape the rabbit hole. These are accompanied by real-life case studies of individuals who, with help, were able to break free from conspiracism.
With sections on:
Mick West has put forth a conclusive, well-researched, practical reference on why people fall down the conspiracy theory rabbit hole and how you can help them escape.
I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.
My Review: Okay, I thought as I read The Twittering Machine, I've got the stakes clear in my head and I know where I fall in relation to the problem of social media's misuses by conspiracists. Now what?
The reason I love social media, in a nutshell, is: This book's existence would never have made it to my attention without social media, specifically bookish social media eg, LibraryThing, Goodreads, and Edelweiss+. I am clear enough on the issues created that I saw immediately how useful this book's message and techniques would be to me. This leads me to a confession: I am very much in need of help figuring out how to speak to conspiracists respectfully, or even just politely. My contempt and derision for and of them is part of what entrenches their adherence to these beliefs. How better to express one's rejection of being rejected than to double down?
Help me Obi-Mick West, you're my only hope, I thought as I began this read. My prayers were answered with a "sure, no sweat there, Grasshopper." (Have I used enough ancient-history media references to make my age obvious? I got more if you want 'em.) Author West is clearly in the business of debunking for a considerable span (see his amazing site Metabunk.org). He's lauded by the publishers of Skeptic and Skeptical Inquirer magazines, as well as producers of The David Pakman Show, The Skeptic Zone, and even The Joe Rogan Experience. He is, in short, in command of his material.
It’s also tempting to simply label conspiracy theories as either "mainstream" or "fringe." Journalist Paul Musgrave referenced this dichotomy when he wrote in the Washington Post: Less than two months into the administration, the danger is no longer that Trump will make conspiracy thinking mainstream. That has already come to pass. Musgrave obviously does not mean that shape-shifting lizard overlords have become mainstream. Nor does he mean that Flat Earth, Chemtrails, or even 9/ 11 Truth are mainstream. What he’s really talking about is a fairly small shift in a dividing line on the conspiracy spectrum. Most fringe conspiracy theories remain fringe, most mainstream theories remain mainstream. But, Musgrave argues, there’s been a shift that’s allowed the bottom part of the fringe to enter into the mainstream.
Finding someone else's words to make your central argument for you requires deep involvement in and command of the landscape you're describing. And describing the landscape is the first part of the task of teaching others what you know. An equally urgent need is to show the potential future debunkers what the stakes are, simply, directly, and convincingly:
These false conspiracy theories are a problem. They hurt individuals by affecting their life choices, in terms of money, health, and social interactions. They hurt society by distracting from the very real problems of corruption and decreasing citizens’ genuine participation in democracy.
Helping a friend break free from the spiral of conspiracism is not easy and it will take time. No matter how politely you do it you are still challenging some fundamental aspects of their identity. They will push back, and they may fight you. But it is an immensely valuable thing that you are doing for them. Freeing their minds from the burden of conspiracy theories and letting them see and participate in the world more as it really is. Do not give up. The stories in this book prove that people do get out with help.
What he does in the text that follows is provide simple and easily absorbed ways to get your embroiled friend or loved one to engage with you on their chosen "alternative facts" so you can get past the initial resistance that is inevitable. Anyone who seeks out alternative facts is already feeling lost, or powerless, or just fed up. The rabbit holes they fall down are coping mechanisms and become, like any group identification, part of their identity and sense of self and purpose in the world.
This is something literally all of us seek. Some choose religious affiliations to build social networks through; others politics; still others identity issues. All of us, without exception, build identities. It is here that Author West does something I very badly needed done: He states that conspiracists aren't stupid, as a rule, but simply lack a wide array of "relevant information sources." It can be fatal to anyone's objective thinking to limit the sources of information one consults...it reduces the opportunities to compare and contrast the sources' sources, so to speak. Do I trust Fox News? Not to tell me the truth; but I still engage with it, in a limited fashion, to learn what will be floating past my deck chair as the great liner United States sinks.
Where I got to after reading this book was someplace I really wanted to get: Accepting that, while I am sure there are conspiracies out there in the world, there are no reasons to accept conspiracies as the one true explanation for the events of the day. I think that belief, here reinforced, is the solid rock to stand on when speaking to people who aren't moored in consensus reality. It's a lot harder for me personally to engage with the people involved deeply in some of the conspiracy theories politely. That being a personal issue, rooted in my own mishegas, I didn't expect Author West's book to help me address it as much as it did.
Most people can escape the rabbit hole of conspiracy thinking because most people who get stuck down there are ordinary people like you and me. They are not, as a rule, any more or less crazy than the general population. People don't get sucked into conspiracy theories because they are mentally ill or deficient, they get sucked in because they watched some videos at a point in their lives when those videos resonated. They stay down there because they lack exposure to other information sources. They lack relevant facts, they lack context, and they lack perspectives on, and other ways of thinking about, the issues. These are all resources you can bring to them. The most effective way to bring that information to your friend is with honesty and with respect. Mocking and harsh criticism do not work because people push back when they feel threatened. Even if you feel their position is ludicrous, respectful disagreement works better than derision.
Simple. Actionable. Applicable to me, on a personal level. Maybe it can give you the support you need in resisting the encroachment of this dangerously misguided thinking deeper into the Body Politic of a threatened democracy.
THE TWITTERING MACHINE
$26.95 hardcover, available in the US and Canada only now
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Rating: 4* of five
The Publisher Says: A brilliant probe into the political and psychological effects of our changing relationship with social media
Former social media executives tell us that the system is an addiction-machine. We are users, waiting for our next hit as we like, comment and share. We write to the machine as individuals, but it responds by aggregating our fantasies, desires and frailties into data, and returning them to us as a commodity experience.
The Twittering Machine is an unflinching view into the calamities of digital life: the circus of online trolling, flourishing alt-right subcultures, pervasive corporate surveillance, and the virtual data mines of Facebook and Google where we spend considerable portions of our free time. In this polemical tour de force, Richard Seymour shows how the digital world is changing the ways we speak, write, and think.
Through journalism, psychoanalytic reflection and insights from users, developers, security experts and others, Seymour probes the human side of the machine, asking what we’re getting out of it, and what we’re getting into. Social media held out the promise that we could make our own history–to what extent did we choose the nightmare that it has become?
I RECEIVED A DRC FROM THE PUBLISHER VIA EDELWEISS+. THANK YOU.
My Review: The author, a trenchant leftist social and political analyst, refers in his choice of title for this book to artist Paul Klee's watercolor painting, "Twittering Machine," from 1922:
In many ways, Author Seymour couldn't have chosen a better image to hang his leftist social analysis of social media on. The facts of modern social life are such that we're enmeshed in the internet to a greater degree than even when he was working on this book, or even when the publisher brought it out in September 2020...the middle of the crisis times of COVID-19's ongoing plague. I literally can not interact with the bureaucracies that control my life without internet access. My assisted-living facility has always provided wi-fi access and a bank of desktop computers...recently they've upgraded our wi-fi to better serve an increasingly online population of elders. This is the best time to think about the issues surrounding social media's impact on the societal world we all, regardless of age or level of active participation, live in.
If the social industry is an addiction machine, the addictive behaviour it is closest to is gambling: a rigged lottery. Every gambler trusts in a few abstract symbols—the dots on a dice, numerals, suits, red or black, the graphemes on a fruit machine—to tell them who they are. In most cases, the answer is brutal and swift: you are a loser and you are going home with nothing. The true gambler takes a perverse joy in anteing up, putting their whole being at stake. On social media, you scratch out a few words, a few symbols, and press ‘send’, rolling the dice. The internet will tell you who you are, and what your destiny is through arithmetic ‘likes’, ‘shares’ and ‘comments’.
It is this weird truth that dictates our modern media landscape. It is a symptom and a cause, simultaneously. Gamblers don't gamble because gambling is available, they gamble because they must. Addicts aren't getting high, in whatever way they do so, because the means to do it exist; they do it because they must.
The Twittering Machine may be a horror story, but it is one that involves all of us as users. We are part of the machine, and we find our satisfactions in it, however destructive they may be. And this horror story is only possible in a society that is busily producing horrors. We are only up for addiction to mood-altering devices because our emotions seem to need managing, if not bludgeoning by relentless stimulus. We are only happy to drop into the dead-zone trance because of whatever is disappointing in the world of the living. Twitter toxicity is only endurable because it seems less worse than the alternatives. "No addiction," as Francis Spufford has written, "is ever explained by examining the drug. The drug didn’t cause the need. A tour of a brewery won’t explain why somebody became an alcoholic."
What this book does, and does well, is present the case that the social media landscape, while it requires social media to exist, doesn't exist in a vacuum but in an economic system that needs growth of use and therefore numbers of users to make its owners as powerful as they desire to be. The platforms offer us a digital space that enables connection and rewards separation from all but those we most want to be like.
Yet, we are not Skinner's rats. Even Skinner's rats were not Skinner's rats: the patterns of addictive behavior displayed by rats in the Skinner Box were only displayed by rats in isolation, outside of their normal sociable habitat. For human beings, addictions have subjective meanings, as does depression. Marcus Gilroy-Ware's study of social media suggests that what we encounter in our feeds is hedonic stimulation, various moods and sources of arousal—from outrage porn to food porn to porn—which enable us to manage our emotions. In addition that, however, it's also true that we can become attached to the miseries of online life, a state of perpetual outrage and antagonism.
What I enjoyed about this read was the sense that, in detaching his analysis from blaming Social Media™ and attaching it to the capitalist profit-motive driven mindset, he validated my sense that it's all, au fond, about greed...theirs for money and power, ours for meaning and purpose. The result is, as Elon Musk tweeted after his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter was completed last week, a situation in which a capitalist says that Twitter "...cannot become a free-for-all hellscape." I quibble with "become" in that sentence:
...if we get hooked on a machine that purports to tell us, among other things, how other people see us—or a version of ourselves, a delegated online image—that suggests something has already gone wrong in our relationships with others. The global rise in depression—currently the world's most widespread illness, having risen some 18 per cent since 2005—is worsened for many people by the social industry. There is a particularly strong correlation between depression and the use of Instagram among young people. But social industry platforms didn't invent depression; they exploited it. And to loosen their grip, one would have to explore what has gone wrong elsewhere.
How this Brave New Twitter will cope with the simultaneous free-speech absolutism of Musk, the capitalist need to growgrowgrow, and the social need to reduce harm to the people who make up the ailing Body Politic will be a fascinating collision to watch. Armor yourselves against the smaller pieces of social-fabric shrapnel with the wise words of a man of principle, intellectual clarity, and a powerful communication style.
I'll leave the last words to Author Seymour at his most openly anti-capitalist (thereby closest to my heart):
The internet's history also shows us that when we rely on the private sector and its hallowed bromide of 'innovation,' quite often that will result in technical innovations that are designed for manipulation, surveillance and exploitation.
The tax-evading, offshore wealth-hoarding, data-monopolizing, privacy-invading silicon giants benefit from the internet's 'free market' mythology, but the brief flourishing of Minitel shows is that other ways, other worlds, other platforms, are possible. The question is, given that there's no way to reverse history, how can we actualize these possibilities? What sort of power do we have? As users, it turns out, very little. We are not voters on the platforms; we are not even customers. We are the unpaid products of raw material. We could, if we were organized, withdraw our labor power, commit social media suicide: but then what other platforms do we have access to with anything like the same reach?