Why Censoring Conspiracy Theories Tends to Backfire

A resource becomes more valuable as it becomes more scarce. Why would it be any different with information?

There is a spectrum of opinion on censorship. At one end, you have unbridled speech in all contexts and circumstances, and on the other end, policing of all ideas which are considered to be dangerous. Debates surrounding pornography, for instance, are very interesting, because it is not immediately clear whether it should be treated as media, or as something like a drug, given its effect on the mind, and especially the minds of children.

I remember watching a 9/11 truther documentary, a classic ‘Jet Fuel Can’t Melt Steel Beams’ type of production suggesting that the twin towers which collapsed in the 2001 terrorist attack in New York could not have been due to being struck by airplanes. I was young, probably about 13 years old, and I remember thinking it was a pretty compelling film. At the time, I did not have the critical thinking faculties which would make any mature adult skeptical of this type of presentation, nor did I have the fact-checking skills with which to find the real answers. What was interesting about the documentary, and this applies also to many conspiracy theories, is that most of the information contained in the film was accurate. It’s true that jet fuel can’t melt steel beams. This does not mean that there could not have been factors other than the relationship between jet fuel and steel which may have resulted from the impact of a commercial airliner, leading to the collapse of the towers. Instead of using blatant falsehood to make a false statement, theories like these tend to use truth selectively, in order to prove something that is almost certainly not true.

Should this film, and films like it, have been censored because they reached a conspiratorial conclusion? In any case, they weren’t, to my knowledge. Unless public shaming is a form of censorship.

As a more current example, we might examine the discussion around the coronavirus pandemic. Recently there have been multiple viral videos about the origins of the virus, the people involved, and their supposed secret agendas, that are being removed by the platforms to which they were uploaded. I won’t be assessing the merits of the videos here, of course. Again, like most conspiracy theories, I’m assuming they are a mix of facts, and misinterpretations thereof.

Something happens, though, when such blatant energy is invested in censoring content, even the sketchiest of content. First, it creates a scarcity that results in extra demand. If someone were to link to a video on YouTube which was removed so quickly that a person attempting to view it was unable, their curiosity would increase exponentially. Had they been able to view it, they would likely have given up on it within the first few minutes. Remember, most people don’t like conspiracy theorists. We call them that as an insult.

However, when one’s curiosity is peaked, and because of the internet, they can easily just paste the title of the video into Google and find one of the many re-uploaded versions of it. By the time they find the content, it will be treated as something with way more value than if it had just been another silly conspiracy video among the many that are already available. This one is special, because the system is trying to silence it. And ironically, the effort to remove it ensures that multiple copies of it will be made and distributed online.

In addition to there being an added demand for the forbidden content, a certain underdog phenomenon also becomes a factor. When people see giant companies like Google, Apple, Twitter, or Facebook making determinations on our behalf about what information is true or false, it’s hard not to feel like there’s a bit of a Big Brother aspect to the whole ordeal. These are companies who track our every movement just because we own a certain brand of phone, or use a certain app. They seem to feel entitled to know everything about their users, but their opinion about their users is that they are too stupid to make their own evaluations regarding the information that makes its way onto the media platforms. This is an easy recipe for a reactionary sentiment in favor of the conspiracy theorists.

The inconsistency of the standard makes the motive behind the censure look rather suspect, and this worsens the backfire. If I want to find a conspiracy video online, I can easily do so. If it really is about spreading lies, why is the effort so concentrated when it comes to this epidemic? Public health? If someone thinks Dr. Fauci is cackling in his lair on a conference call with Bill Gates while revising their plan to use vaccines to inject nanobots into the world population for purposes of world domination, I am trying to imagine how that opinion would endanger them or anyone else. If I were to believe that COVID-19 was generated in a U.S. laboratory, then exported to China so they could help us develop weapons of biological warfare, I’m not sure that would affect how often I wash my hands, or to what extent I practice social distancing. If any of those conspiracies were real, well then you would have a public health concern; no one wants nanobots and/or biological warfare. But simply believing that they are real when they are not is not a threat to society. There does not seem to be a compelling reason to devote any special attention to eradicating these theories more than the plethora of others.

As previously mentioned, the tendency for conspiracy theories to be deceptively twisted together with real facts means that they are impossible to censor without a backlash of eager believers ready to point out that, well, it’s true that chimeric, bat-related coronavirus research was carried out by some U.S. research lab a few years prior to the outbreak. Just like the steel bars and jet fuel, this does not even approximate any kind of basis for the kinds of scenarios being posited by some people. What I mean to point out is that the deck is stacked against you. In a sense, when it comes to censoring conspiracy theories, you’re damned if  you do and you’re damned if you don’t. You’re likely more damned if you do, though.

There are nooks and crannies of the internet that we could certainly do without. Fortunately, they mostly remain just that: nooks and crannies. If censorship has the unintentional effect of provoking massive campaigns devoted to preserving the false information that has been forcibly removed, maybe it would be less harmful in the end to employ the more organic, democratic censorship tactic of public shaming.

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