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The Problem With Debunking Conspiracies

In this day and age, it's nearly impossible. But we've still got to try

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If you’ve lived online – or just in the world – for any significant amount of time, you’ll know that it’s difficult to dissuade people of just about anything, let alone something they’ve heard from hundreds or thousands of people, some of whom are popular public figures. On this week’s episode of Aftermath Hours, we discuss what reporting on something like the Sweet Baby Inc conspiracy entails.

Elsewhere in the episode, Chris takes us down an impressively deep Sanrio rabbit hole, and we reflect on WB’s no good, very bad week – which even as of today keeps getting worse. But it’s not all downer news; at one point, we learn about a YouTube channel dedicated to pig racing. So at least there’s that. 

You can find this week's episode below and on Spotify, Apple, or wherever else you prefer to listen to podcasts. If you like what you hear, make sure to leave a review so that we don’t have to unionize against ourselves to push back against us laying ourselves off. 

Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Riley: This kind of thing is always hard to write about. You have all these threads, and as we've learned from our colleagues who cover misinformation, how do you talk about misinformation without spreading it? 

Nathan: When I do a piece like this, there are a few things I think about, but one thing that's been stuck in my head ever since I learned it is: When it comes to misinformation -- when it comes to facts that are just straight up incorrect -- the problem with the way the human brain receives information is that repetition solidifies something in our minds. That can be true even when you've heard something incorrect, a rumor, or a falsehood several times, and one of those times was a debunking. The problem is, we slowly but surely forget the context in which we received information, and a year or two later, your brain might even process that debunking as reinforcing that misinformation -- as "Oh yeah, I heard that somewhere." That kind of a thing.

So it's really hard. It's still good to debunk stuff, but debunking in broad strokes does not work. Because also, in the modern internet landscape, people are not incentivized to receive new information and say "Oh, I was wrong. I should reconsider and go educate myself." They're incentivized to say "What I believed before is definitely true. I'm gonna dig my heels in. This is part of a larger crusade against me, and I've got to fight back." And there are all these other people saying "Yeah, you should fight back!" It's a real can of worms.

Riley: It's hard because with a lot of conspiracies, there's often a grain of truth. There's what people think about The Media, but then sometimes news reports are biased. How do you thread that needle? I think you hit that well [in your piece] when you talk about the DEI industry. Like, this is an industry that makes money.

Nathan: Yeah, it's worth billions of dollars! And that's the issue: Things like DEI -- which by the way, Sweet Baby isn't a DEI firm. DEI tends to center around hiring and personnel and other forms of equity and inclusion within the workplace, whereas Sweet Baby consults on projects and helps them tackle diverse subject matter, but they don't advise on hiring and things of that nature.

Anyway, despite this massive moral panic around it that doesn't really make much sense, DEI does have problems. A lot of the practices it employs -- various forms of implicit bias training -- don't work for a lot of people. They can reinforce biases, unfortunately. But you have all this funding going into these things. What is the point if they're not really working? So the goal of helping people create workplaces and spaces that are more equitable is good, but the ways these companies are going about it is not great -- and is pretty much always in service of capital, because they've realized that diverse workplaces are more profitable. So the incentive structure is also not good. It's a giant mess, but the reason people are so up in arms about it is not the reason it actually needs to be more critically examined. 

Chris: Yeah, there's not nothing there, but it's not what they think is there. It's also like, conspiracies and conspiracy YouTube really always give me a headache. It's just like, go outside a little bit. But like you said, there's a there there. It's just not the there that you think it is.

The problem with a lot of these people is that they're going after things in a really dumb way, which is depressing because you can actually have a really complicated discussion about the things they're talking about, and it's a more interesting conversation than "They made Suicide Squad gay and now I'm mad." They can't contend with the totality of capital and how capital uses diversity as a cudgel. They can't think about the way these things are actually managed, and they also can't accept a boring answer, like somebody saying that they just wrote a little bit on a game. I think they think it's like "Here's your mandated genders." They think it's like giving somebody a rifle. It's not! It's more boring, but it's also more interesting. 

Nathan: Right, like even if we're just talking about the idea of ESG investment, the first letter in the acronym is "environmental," but it's not difficult for oil companies to qualify for ESG investment. That seems bad! That seems like something that shouldn't be possible.

Chris: Probably not good! There's a lot of greenwashing involved in it. That shit makes me mad for a bunch of reasons, but mainly because it's like "We can use the stock market to solve something caused by capital." No you can't! Green energy being cheap hasn't solved everything, because that's not how that works. You can have that discussion! But ETF funds making your games gay isn't it. They're not!  

(Podcast production by Multitude.)

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