I've mentioned here before that I recently wrote a novel about an addiction support group for conspiracy theorists who accidentally blow a hole in reality (any publishers or lit agents out there: hit me up). One of the fun writing challenges with the book was trying to get the characters to reach common ground, despite the irreconcilable differences between each of their respective conspiracy beliefs. If these are people who have all chosen to seek help for their obsessions, then how can any of them rightly tell anyone else that what they believe is weird or wrong — even if that belief involves God, or gravity?
The answer didn't come easy in dramatic writing. In reality, it comes even harder for places like the long-standing fact-checking site Snopes. Over at Medium, author Colin Dickey (Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places and The Unidentified: Mythical Monsters, Alien Encounters, and Our Obsession with the Unexplained) has a great essay exploring the 25-year history of the site, and the unique predicament it finds itself in during a time when different Americans have radically different definitions of "objective reality." As Dickey relays, the early days of Snopes were spent debunking urban legends like Bigfoot and the rumors of Halloween candy that had been secretly injected with HIV-laced needles — which sounds absurd, but was in fact an important service in those early days of the Internet:
Once these urban legends moved to the internet, they became singularly vulnerable to debunking, and Snopes proved that sunlight was indeed a magnificent disinfectant. The power of an urban legend depends in part on its vagueness, but also its specificity. […] Friend-of-a-friend stories lose their believability once you can Google the friend of a friend's actual name, and they lose much of their power once you can trace how they've mutated and spread, placing each story alongside all of its various variants. Snopes was able to build its reputation and its following on this pretense — that diligent research could discredit even the most virulent of stories.
Reading Snopes in the era of urban legends reassured us that the world wasn't as scary as we thought, but it did more than that. Urban legends also have the capacity to generate shame. Believing them is seductive, but as soon as one is debunked, you might feel dumb and sheepish for thinking you could ever believe it in the first place. Snopes allowed us to feel superior to those who'd been duped while covering up our own gullibility. It was the lights in the theater coming on after the horror movie—reassuring, but in a way where no one ever had to know how scared you were in the dark.
(That passage reminds me of a joke I've heard a few variations on recently — the idea that our parents used to warn us about all the scary strangers on the Internet, and now they'll harpoon their lives because of a Satanic Democrat Pizza Pedophile Ring or 5G internet-laced COVID vaccine rumor they saw on Facebook.)
But, Dickey explains, the post-9/11 era brought some new challenges to Snopes' reliable debunking tactics:
The slow evolution of Snopes' focus began with the September 11 attacks, as the Mikkelsons found themselves increasingly responding to conspiratorial (and often anti-Semitic) rumors about who brought down the towers. By the time Barack Obama was elected, the partisan nature of such rumors was increasingly evident: Despite attempts to maintain neutrality (David Mikkelson told Wired's Michelle Dean that he was "essentially apolitical"), Fox News and other right-wing sources targeted Snopes as a stalking-horse for liberal bias. And as conspiracy theories surrounding Snopes continued to swirl, the site itself slowly moved from deep-fried rodents to the Deep State.
Conspiracy theories also invert those feelings of gullibility when one has fallen for an urban legend. With conspiracy theories, it's the sheeple willing to take the word of public health experts and politicians who are the naive ones. Given their perpetual ironic distance from accepted fact, conspiracy theorists resist being shamed no matter how much debunking you subject them to.
As such, Snopes' long-held formula of wry, patient debunking has increasingly fallen on deaf ears. And as authority, expertise, and facts themselves have all been called into question, the whole mechanism of debunking has lost its power.
It's a thoughtful essay, that gets at a lot of the hard questions around ideas of "fact-checking" and "objectivity." There are lots of valid critiques about these things—how even what we think of as a fact-based retort is inherently framed by our own pre-existing unconscious biases, which affects the language we use in describing those facts, which prevents us from presenting them as something truly "objective," et cetera. But, as with any grain of truth, those legitimate questions can easily be weaponized by bad faith actors and turned into dangerous propaganda in the form of conspiracies. And it's hard to stop that without tearing down the entire pedagogical and philosophical system our society was built on.
Snopes Debunked the World. Then the World Changed. [Colin Dickey / Snopes]
Image: Markus Allen / Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)