Recently, Kevin Geary posted a horrifyingly muddled, cynically manipulative article on the rhetoric of “both sides” of the so-called “vaccine debate.” (Like the “debate” over evolution, this isn’t a debate: it’s an extended performance of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, wherein people who cannot think logically sit around patting themselves on the back for being more logical than the people who actually can think logically.)
Since I wish to deprive Geary of hits benefit — for reasons I’ll mention in more detail below — here’s a donotlink-shielded link to the article, in all its horrendously ignorantist glory: Bringing Much-Needed Sanity to the Vaccine Debate:
I normally would shrug and dismiss it as internet junk, which it obviously is… except that where I saw it posted, I also saw people commenting positively on it. So I went and read some of it, then looked at the comments again. They were all positive. That kind of shocked me, because while people were daying it was a great article, it really isn’t great. Not at all. It’s actually kind of terrible.
And by reflex, I posted some comments, but decided that I wouldn’t waste too much time on them, hoping on the off-chance he’d publish them, since he has complete control of which comments go public and which go unseen.
But I did read the whole piece, marveling at how bad it is. It’s muddled, wilfully misleading, and deceitful in its claim to neutrality. (In the comments, Geary essentially betrays at least a partial ideological approval of the anti-vaccine movement.) It’s so misleading, so self-contradictory and so illogical — using such skewed evidence — that I thought Geary was actually just Trojan-horsing. (And the weakness of his criticisms of anti-vaxxers suggests he actually may be, despite all his claims to neutrality.)
Yet that got me thinking: why is it so thoroughly illogical? Why does he muddle pretty much everything he can? Is he just unable (ie. too stupid) to see where he self-contradicts? That’s not how it feels to me: rather, it feels like this piece is almost designed to confuse its readers, to leave them feeling as there are more questions than answers, as if there is no scientific consensus when it comes to vaccines (despite the fact there is), or that nothing has been eradicated by vaccines (er, polio). It’s almost as if Geary were trying to muddle the discussion as a whole, to leave all his readers on both sides with a sense of uncertainty, and muddy the water… but why would he want to do that, while claiming to be someone advocating for “sanity” from a neutral position? Why not present answers to the questions he raises? Why not, you know, help people toward resolving the so-called “debate”?
Aha, bingo. Ask the right questions, you get the right answers. Resolving the debate is the opposite of what he wants.
Which is why I’m posting this: mainly because it’s of interest to those thinking about social media and how it is warping our civilization — a discussion that seems to be developing in general these days, as in this recent piece by Jon Henley, and which has, for some of us canaries in the coalmine, been brewing for a while.
That major point is this: by Geary’s own standards — that anyone with an ulterior motive cannot be trusted, a suggestion he makes when pointing out the financial interconnections of Big Pharma, government, and science — he himself cannot be trusted. Which actually explains why he muddies the waters and confuses the argument so badly, while posing as “neutral” and as a “balanced” critic of both sides… After all: he himself has an ulterior motive, and one that actually gives him an incentive to increase the confusion and muddiness in many minds on the vaccination issue.
After all, Geary’s a health blogger. I don’t know what his profit scheme is, but whatever is it, he stands to gain more readers if he can pull off presenting himself as a neutral, “fair” commentator; if he can present himself as a “sane” voice in the middle of the debate. The benefit, of course, comes not necessarily in the form of direct financial benefits, but rather in the form of a boost in SEO/ad revenue if this piece goes viral and gets shared in a way that registers many hits. Secondarily, by increasing public confusion when it comes to vaccination and health issues, he would be expanding the potential size of his audience… increasing the value of his clickbait, in other words.
Which explains the great energy he puts into confusing and muddling the issues in his very post. By his own crazy standards, he himself can’t be trusted as a commentator. But it also sort of helps elucidate a point about how the internet’s native commerce being “hits” creates an incentive to stifle, muddle, and confuse discussions; to misinform, and twist logic, and to mislead people not toward one or another side of the argument, but rather toward sustained, constant, unending debate that can be harnessed to generate hits and SEO rank and so on.
The commerce of the internet is actually structured in such a way that it’s pushing us towards less-clear, less-intelligent, less-resolvable conflict, towards the cultural and intellectual equivalent of “We are at war with Eastasia; we have always been at war with Eastasia.”
Except instead of compliance with the jackbooted regime of Orwell’s Big Brother, we’re actually the soldiers dispatched willingly to the digital front, battling endlessly in a war of shadows and simulacra… and every shot or blast or explosion is another hit on someone’s viral video or blog post, or someone’s SEO rank being gamed a smidge higher.
Or, if you prefer more recent SF metaphors, we’re basically a bunch of clueless Ender Wiggins, unleashed on our own culture:
Which by the way, is also the same economics that drives internet witch-hunting. As Jon Ronson points out in a piece on Justine Sacco’s life-destroying experience after making a dumb joke on Twitter 1, most of virality of a lot of social media behaviour has less to do with the message, and more to do with the stoking of the messenger’s ego:
Recently, I wrote to Sacco to tell her I was putting her story in The Times, and I asked her to meet me one final time to update me on her life. Her response was speedy. “No way.” She explained that she had a new job in communications, though she wouldn’t say where. She said, “Anything that puts the spotlight on me is a negative.”
It was a profound reversal for Sacco. When I first met her, she was desperate to tell the tens of thousands of people who tore her apart how they had wronged her and to repair what remained of her public persona. But perhaps she had now come to understand that her shaming wasn’t really about her at all. Social media is so perfectly designed to manipulate our desire for approval, and that is what led to her undoing. Her tormentors were instantly congratulated as they took Sacco down, bit by bit, and so they continued to do so. Their motivation was much the same as Sacco’s own — a bid for the attention of strangers — as she milled about Heathrow, hoping to amuse people she couldn’t see.
Which is to say, what Facebook has actually stoked isn’t our egos, but instead a belief in that pronouncement of Andy Warhol’s from 1968:
The medium definitely is that message, as much as it is any other, and there’s no knowing what you’re going to get your fifteen minutes for, though it says something about us that an ill-considered quip is what usually seems to provoke us the bestow it upon someone. The small print on that medium and that message is murderously vague… just like the muddled, rage-filled, endlessly tangential, and irresolvable “debate” which social media itself seems purposively designed to facilitate.
That’s the economics of clickbait, and ragebait. That’s what it’s doing to us collectively. And the question is: what do we do about it?
Sacco claims the tweet was intended as mocking the clueless racism of middle-class white people. The Internet didn’t realize she wasn’t being a clueless racist white person. I seem to remember Samuel Delany commenting that we needed a punctuation mark to connote sarcasm (and there’s mention of him and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro discussing that here)… though given that 83% of the internet’s total content is sarcastic, maybe we need a marking to connote a lack of sarcasm, now?↩