Ever had the frustrating experience trying to correct someone’s obviously un-factual post or meme on Facebook? And found yourself in a swamp of comments all telling you you’re wrong, an idiot, it’s just your opinion, it worked for my friend so it’s true, or you don’t know anything, followed by insults and accusations? Welcome to the backlash from Brandolini’s Law.
According to Wikipedia, Brandolini’s law states that it’s easier to spread bullshit than to debunk it:
Brandolini’s law, also known as the bullshit asymmetry principle, is an internet adage which emphasizes the difficulty of debunking bullshit: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it.”
We’ve all seen this in action on Facebook or other social media: someone posts some long-debunked conspiracy meme or some pseudoscience claptrap on their timeline and before you can collect the links from Snopes or other de-bunking sites to counter it, a dozen people have already commented on how right it is or how they agree with it and then sharing it on their own timelines. And by the time you have posted a few links to show it’s claptrap, many more have joined the chorus about how wonderful or truthful it is. Your little finger of truth in the dyke of bullshit cannot hold back the tsunami of acceptance for and agreement with something that you know is intrinsically wrong.
In Plato’s terminology, those who attempt to correct the bullshit, are fighting doxa — opinion, common beliefs without the “underpinning of evidence” — with episteme — true knowledge or understanding. And it’s usually a losing battle because while the former appeals to the heart and head , the latter is “wholly cerebral.” And we all know how effectively social media promotes anti-intellectualism and groupthink. *
Of course, it’s not a real law, really just an assertion or even an assumption (I doubt it has been properly researched for veracity) , as theifod.com points out:
…this is not a “law” like Newton’s laws of motion are laws, but more like how “Murphy’s Law” is a law – meaning that it is a colloquial general truth.
theifod also qualifies bullshit, in a way I don’t agree with:
…bullshit is a statement made without regard to the truth and connotes overstatement, exaggeration or falsehood. Spewing bullshit, however, is not the same as lying; rather the bullshitter has no real knowledge or care as to whether what they are saying is truthful or not.
In my experience, most bullshitters know very well and clearly they are lying. Donald Trump, for example. You cannot lie more than 20,000 times (as of July, 2020) and have every one of them fact-checked and exposed as bullshit, and still pretend you didn’t know you were lying. Nor can his followers pretend he’s being truthful. They know he knows he’s lying, but they don’t care. Truth has no role in their ideology.
This is true, too, I think, of the majority of political bullshit: deliberate lies spread to insult, embarrass, or demoralize the opposing party or parties. And it’s not just the right that does this, although it certainly seems like they do it considerably more than anyone on the left.**
Yes, I agree that the person who posts on Facebook, say an inspirational quotation meme allegedly from some recognized individual, may not always be wise or experienced enough to actually check the source of the quotation to confirm that it was indeed said or written by the alleged author (it usually isn’t, thus contributing to the general dumbing down of social media users). Not all bullshit is deliberate, but I still suggest a lot is.
I also submit that every Talibangelist preacher knows full well the bullshit they spread is a deliberate lie (in part because the whole focus of their pseudo-christianity is to deceive and manipulate people). I also suggest that most creationists, naturopaths, chiropractors, homeopaths and other pseudo-medical quacks, anti-abortionists, pro-disease/anti-maskers and pro-disease/anti-vaxxers are intelligent enough to know that they’re deliberately spreading ideological codswallop that has no factual, scientific, legal, religious, or medical basis.
Medium.com has an article about Brandolini’s law and notes:
It is unfortunate that in the age of information, tremendous effort must be made to put bullshits through the sieve of rational discourse. Tom Nichols recently wrote a book entitled The Death of Expertise. He argues that while many considers the internet as the root cause of rampant misinformation, it appears that the internet aggravated, rather than fueled an existing psychological phenomenon that those who know little speak much while those who know much speak little.
I don’t know about the last bit. I, and many others I connect with, always try to debunk the claptrap, correct the bullshit, and spend far too many hours posting links to factual content in response to the bullshit. Most of which, I admit, goes unheeded. No matter how many links you post to scientific research into debunking the claims about, say, salt lamps, there are always people who believe they clean their air and make them happier despite the evidence to the contrary. Belief is always stronger than facts, especially in an age of anti-intellectualism and anti-science, where facts and research — actual science — are treated as opinions that can be discarded or accepted according to the audience’s whims.
And don’t get me started on the utter impossibility of having informed or even civil debate on social media, where people actually weigh arguments and use reason and logic to arrive at a conclusion.
Columbia University has another consideration to add to this, the concept of “ethical asymmetry:”
The kinds of people who bullshit are more likely to be the kinds of people who misrepresent evidence, avoid correcting their errors, and intimidate dissenters, so at some point the people who could shoot down the bullshit might decide it’s not worth the trouble: Why bother fight bullshit if the bullshitters are going to turn around and personally attack you? From this standpoint, once bullshit becomes “too big to fail,” it can stay around forever.
Does this deter people from attempting to correct the falsehoods, misinformation, lies, and deflections on social media? Perhaps. I know from personal experience it can be exhausting and demoralizing to present the facts that counter bullshit, and have them dismissed by comments like “there are two sides to every issue” (there aren’t) or “that’s just your opinion” (facts aren’t opinions) or “you’re just being negative” (facts are neither positive or negative). It hasn’t deterred me yet, but there are days I suspect the whole purpose of social media is simply to make people stupid and I feel like King Canute fighting the tide.
* Plato’s definitions borrowed rom Mark Thompson’s book, Enough Said: What’s Wrong with the Language of Politics? (2nd edn, St. Martin’s Griffin, 2017)
** Probably because the right’s core ideology is exclusivity instead of inclusivity: they want to polarize, balkanize, and vilify anyone outside their ideological circle in any way possible, regardless of the truth of their assertions or accusations.