As I said previously, we are not entitled to believe whatever we want. We have the legal right to do so, but it is a right we ought not to exercise. When we believe a statement without evidence that justifies the belief, just because we want to believe it, we are training the mind to do that again. Then the mind is ready to believe another untrue claim. We learn the habit of credulity and perhaps encourage others to do the same.
This can lead to dangerous situations. In modern society this has become a pandemic that is perhaps even more dangerous than the Covid-19 pandemic.
A good example of this was the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. Remember that one? By now everyone has heard of Qanon. I have called it the mother of all conspiracy theories. It led to Pizzagate. This is what decades–no centuries of American unreason have led to. It is the product of credulity.
This conspiracy theory arose out of the 2016 American presidential election. It referred to a harmless family pizza restaurant in Washington D.C. called Comet Ping Pong that was also frequented by a number of Democrat political leaders. Many parents showed up with their children to eat pizza. Nothing strange about that.
However there was some strange fake news about it. There was a wildly irrational conspiracy theory about what was happening at that restaurant. According to the conspiracy theorists things were not that innocent. “Pizza” was actually a code word, they said, for young girls and boys who were trafficked for sex. Some were killed for their organs. It was said the liberals abused the children in the basement of the restaurant. Supposedly there was a cabal of Hollywood celebrities including Tom Hanks and political leaders like Hillary Clinton and other members of the liberal elite that molested young children at this restaurant. But there were no missing children. And no basement. and no evidence. None of this was needed to spread on the internet.
Some rabid right wing pundits like Alex Jones, whose status was enhanced by Donald Trump’s lavish praise after his election, amplified the wild theory. It all arose out of the hacked emails at the Democratic Party headquarters. People looked at emails from Hillary’s advisor John Podesta that kept referring to “cheese pizza” which obviously meant child pornography. After all they could not have been talking about pizza.
After frequent urgings, one of Jones’ Internet followers, a young married man with young children took him up on the challenge and showed up at Comet Ping Pong Pizza armed with a knife and an AR-15 style assault rifle prepared to die in the cause of rescuing those poor children he believed, entirely without any evidence, were in the grip of pedophiles in the basement of the restaurant. Imagine his surprise when he showed up and found there was no basement, just a ping pong room filled with kids and their parents playing ping pong and eating pizza! But it really was not that funny because on the way there he phoned his home and told his wife that he might be dying in the cause for he was fully prepared to sacrifice his life to defend these children he did not even know. He actually fired his gun in the restaurant but thankfully he was a woeful shot and no one was hurt. But someone might have died. Firing an assault rifle in a restaurant filled with happy patrons is a dangerous thing to do.
That is the point. It is one thing to believe whacky theories without evidence, but such beliefs can lead to serious consequences. People could get hurt. Believing crazy stuff without evidence is a dangerous thing. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor believed the pizza-gate theory. He re-tweeted stories about the pedophile ring. Remember he was, for a short time, the man who was advising the president of the United States on matters of national security! And he believed stuff like this entirely without evidence, just because he heard about it on the Internet. That is what the world has come to as a result of credulity. Credulity is not innocent; it is dangerous.
Often fake news originates from people who benefit from such stories. Like Trump, or more likely his faithful supporters. Amy Davidson, a New Yorker writer described the situation this way:
“Which is more alarming: the idea that Pizzagate is being promoted by politically motivated cynics who don’t actually believe it, or that people with influence and proximity to power, including people with access to the president , are really susceptible to this sort of nonsense? Both can be the case; fabricators and wide-eyed believers can be side by side, in Twitter feeds or Trump Tower, or, soon, in the White House. Many things are likely to go wrong for Trump and to disappoint his supporters. The fear is that he and they will try to explain his failings by pushing conspiracy theories of all kinds. The spirit of Pizzagate could become as commonplace, in this country, as the smell of pizza. And how does one even measure power and influence in the context of social media, or, for that matter, in a country with few effective gun-control laws and a President-elect who got crowds cheering with talk of armed citizens taking down terrorists in crowded cafés? How much power belongs to a man in his twenties walking into a pizza place with an assault rifle, looking for secret chambers and hidden messages?”
Fake news and conspiracy theories without evidence are never benign. They can easily bring dangerous consequences with them. They are not amusing. They are toxic. Pizzagate led to a man walking into a restaurant prepared to die to protect non-existent victims of sexual abuse and all of this was the direct consequence of fake news. In other words news believed without evidence.
The Spanish painter Francesco Goya was right: “the sleep of reason produces monsters.”