If you have been paying attention the the news, you might have heard a number of stories about how professional troll farms have purposely spread discord on social media by posting intentionally false and misleading propaganda. That itself is a story whose scope is not yet known, but hopefully I can write about it someday soon. But even without such calculated interference, social media has been the breeding ground for conspiracy theories and calculated outrage of late, and by of late, I mean the last seven years. I have tried to think why the outraged reactions and wild speculations that have taken hold on social medial have become so prevalent, and why I have been more or less immune.
I was inoculated during my zine years, which started in the late 1990s. Back in 1997, when I first learned about Reading Frenzy, the store in Portland, Oregon that sold only zines and other small media. Some of these were glossy art zines that had advertising and were really just small press magazines, but many of them were black and white, photocopied at Kinko's, long arm stapled zines, sold for one dollar. Somtimes they had drawings and comics, sometimes they had personal stories, sometimes they had articles or pictures cut out from magazines and collaged together. Sometimes they were slice of life, sometimes they were vaguely political, sometimes they were surreal art student stuff. For the most part, they were actively against what we saw as "the system", expressions of individuality in an age where people were consumers, not producers, of stories. At the time, I learned about so many alternative lifestyles: my first real understanding of transgender issues came from a zine. One of my zine friends was a manual laborer who bicycled around Florida, producing zines while living semi-homeless. I read a zine about how AIDS wasn't real, but was caused by aspartame. I read proto-hipster edgy zines about the Church of the Subgenius. Lots of veganism and punk rock. I also made my own zines, comics with crude drawings. Everything was available, but for all of it, I had to pay a dollar. I had to decide to spend time and money on acquiring the zines. There was some minimum standard of quality I would look for when perusing the shelf full of random zines, deciding which out-there viewpoint was worth spending a dollar to reading about. And for the people making the zines, this was even more true: before deciding whether they wanted to insist the world was flat, they had to figure out whether they wanted to get out their scissors, glue stick, and long arm stapler, and spend hours designing their flat earth zine, which they would then have to find some way to distribute. So no matter how wild someone's thinking was, there was this barrier of time, money and effort to just spouting off anything. I became inoculated (and I know that term is somewhat ironic in this discussion of conspiracy theories) to wild thinking, because I saw what people were willing to put effort into, and what they were not.
Even in the early days of webpages, of html and finding an ISP to host pages, there was still some barriers to entry, and also some easy tells about effort: too much comic sans and marquee tags were a sign that the reptillian conspiracy theories being espoused perhaps shouldn't be take too seriously. But now, with social media, there is no barrier of effort to people sharing things instantly. Especially as Baby Boomers entered Facebook, a generation who had grown on on mainstream media, who had three news anchors telling basically the same story, would have to learn to sift through alternative sources and decide which ones were tenable or not. But instead of using this as a chance to think more critically, they ended up treating these stories with the same credulity that they used to treat Tom Brokaw. And I think this is because they never had to get their hands dirty, so to speak, looking through shelves of badly stapled 5 by 8 inch zines, and deciding which one to buy. (Or weren't navigating the internet pre-google, trying to find webpages that looked credible; or weren't tuning in at 2 AM to a locally-produced show on a black and white television, etc. ) I think my early experience with alternative media, at a time when there was an actual difference between alternative media and mainstream media, was an important part of developing my critical thinking skills, and I dearly wish that more people had this opportunity to get their toes in the water before jumping in the deep end of the pool of alternative facts.