Not long ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop on Connecticut Avenue in Washington D.C. when I saw an alarming number of police and secret service cars zip by, lights blazing. It didn’t take long before we heard what was happening; a few blocks away, a crazy man was shooting up a local pizza joint.
Not just any pizza joint; Comet Pizza. One by one, the locals all rolled their eyes. Comet had been caught in the Internet’s conspiracy nuthouse for some time. (I won’t repeat the conspiracy– Google it if you must.) Folks had feared something like this would eventually happen. Someone — in this case, 28-year-old Edgar Maddison Welch — took things to far. The conspiracy leapt from the play world of the Internet to the real world. As prosecutors pointed out, only through sheer luck was no one hurt that day.
As I sat watching all this unfold, I had a really sick feeling in my stomach. I’ve written about the Internet’s dark side for years. I’ve covered the terrible things that can happen when the Net decides to gang up on someone, mostly from a cubicle near Seattle. But here I was, quite by accident, just a few steps away from conspiracy theories’ most notorious spillover into real life.
Since then, it feels like conspiracy mongering has only gotten worse, and it makes me think dark thoughts, like this: Is the Internet good or bad for knowledge? The question has no answer, but I’ve taken to framing it this way: Do more or fewer people believe in the Flat Earth Theory today vs five or 10 years ago? (Here’s a hint at the answer: This survey has some issues, but it claims that 9% of 18-24 year olds indicate they used to believe the Earth was round, and now they aren’t so sure.)
If indeed Round Earth “theory” is losing support, than one can make a good case that the Internet is indeed bad for knowledge. It’s better for untruths than truths. It favors exaggeration. It favors charlatans peddling snake oil. Yes, the counter-argument goes, the Net also makes it easier to find the knowledge that dispels conspiracies. Well, how is that working out?
So this week, NBC News told the story of an app named Q-Drops. I won’t explain what it is, or what Q represents, you can figure that out if you must. But suffice to say people are paying money for an app that gives them access to conspiracy theories and rumors. Lots of them. Until NBC contacted Apple about Q Drops, it was one of the more popular apps on iTunes. Yes, that means Apple was making money off conspiracy theories.
Remember, this is at a time when people are increasingly reluctant to pay for their local newspaper.
As I say in the video, please tell all your friends: Conspiracy peddling is good business. Whenever you consume a piece of information, and certainly when you spread it, think about who is profiting off it. (Including this story, of course.) Then choose wisely.
We live in a time when news and entertainment have become entirely indistinguishable. It’s as if we all live in a historical novel that’s “based on true events,” but the best parts of the story are fiction.
This can be entertaining. It can also lead to someone showing up at a pizza shop with a gun. Don’t be party to any of that.
If you’ve read this far, perhaps you’d like to support what I do. That’s easy. Buy something from my NEW LIBRARY AND E-COMMERCE PAGE, click on an advertisement, or just share the story.