The Buffalo Shooting, Conspiracy Theories, and the Information Ecosystem
To stop the spread of conspiracy theories, the information ecosystem must change.
(Edit 5/17/22: Added a link to the source behind my claim that 1 in 3 Americans believe in an electoral Great Replacement. I also added a throwaway line about demographic destiny at the end of that same paragraph.)
On May 14th—the same day that I published my piece on the leaked Roe v. Wade draft decision—a white gunman attacked a Buffalo, New York supermarket, killing 10 people, most of whom were black. A manifesto published by the gunman, who I won’t name here, cited extreme racist, anti-Semitic, and anti-immigrant beliefs, including a belief in the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory, in which politicians/elites are supposedly orchestrating the racial, cultural, or electoral (depending on who you ask) replacement of native-born Americans via more liberal immigration policy.
Since then, the discourse surrounding the shooting concerned itself a lot more with the Great Replacement theory, rather than on gun control as one might have expected. There’s also been a lot of blame being thrown around, especially at prominent Republican figures such as Tucker Carlson, who has explicitly endorsed the Great Replacement theory on his show at Fox News.
Ideas resembling the Great Replacement have been floating around for far longer than social media has existed. And now, around a third of Americans (1 in 3 people!) believe in the electoral variety of the theory, while around 3 in 10 worry that immigration will lead to a loss of their economic, political, and cultural influence. It’s tempting to think that if there were a way to shut up Carlson and others who peddle the Great Replacement nonsense, it will simply go away, and tragedies like the Buffalo shooting would never have happened. But unfortunately, that’s not how the world works. (Liberal gloating about “demographic destiny” doesn’t help, either.)
I can’t say for certain how much social media played a role in the shooter’s radicalization, but I do agree that if not for how quickly and smoothly information flows on sites like Twitter and Facebook, he might not have been exposed to the ideology that compelled him to act. This is where my agreement with many liberals ends, however; more and greater top-down moderation is not the way to stop the spread of conspiracy theories, disinformation, or misinformation. All that’s going to do is feed into the narrative that big tech companies are censoring conservative or right-wing viewpoints—and by extension, feed into people’s interest in looking into those beliefs and taking them seriously. After all, the logic goes, if something is being censored, then it’s probably sufficiently harmful to the interests of powerful elites that they would warrant it worthy of censorship.
So, what can we do, then? How do we stop the spread of conspiracy theories so that we don’t get another Buffalo shooting?
The answer is: You can’t. At least, not entirely.
There will always be avenues on which information travels, and so long as those avenues exist, misinformation and conspiracy theories will always be among those ideas. And since humans aren’t purely rational beings, false information will always travel faster than the truth will. Instead of trying to moderate conspiracy theories from the top down—and possibly end up punishing ideas that are more worthy of consideration in the process—the information ecosystem itself needs to change. Currently, the social media landscape is like an ice-skating rink—there’s nothing preventing users from spreading whatever information they find interesting, irrespective of whether that information corresponds with reality. By the time the truth can put on its pants and start making its way around, enough people have been convinced by the lies that they won’t bother double-checking and will be unlikely to change their minds.
Thus, it’s necessary to change the ground that information walks on so that the truth can get a chance to catch up. Some partial solutions would be to get rid of the like and share buttons; change the algorithms so that they don’t place users into information silos; and dramatically increase or even eliminate character limits, so that users are encouraged to write more nuanced posts that don’t provide immediate gratification for readers. That’s just some of the things that need to be different; in my opinion, social media would ideally mirror the physical public square as much as it’s able.
I can’t say I have all the answers, however. And I can’t say that changing the social media ecosystem is the solution that will solve the problem of misinformation and conspiracy theories in the United States, or the radicalization that results from such things. But social media as it currently stands certainly isn’t making things better, either; the way I see it, it’s exacerbating already-present social dynamics that are leading to events like the Buffalo shooting. Something needs to be done about it. But unless or until someone tries to start a new social networking website that makes an honest attempt at doing what I suggested above, I’m not optimistic about the prospects.