Modern Credulity Sucks

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Nope, not tornadoesPeople believe a lot of crazy things. I’m talking about really seriously bat-shit crazy  stuff that somehow people you thought were normal believe and now you look at them like they have grown extra heads. It’s like discovering a whole family of cousins you’ve been inviting for Xmas dinner all those years are actually Scientologists. Or Westboro Baptists. Islamic Jihadists. Harperites. That sort of crazy.

The sort of crazy that makes saner folks frightened enough to hide in the basement and hope for the apocalypse to end having to suffer such people any longer.

Sometimes what people believe is so damned stupid you have to shake your head and wonder how these folks can do anything as complex and demanding as tying their own shoe laces. In a country more prone to violence and gun worship, I would be seriously frightened by those who believe this stuff. Stupidity without guns is scary enough.

Take a look at that image on the top right. It’s still being spread around the internet (Facebook is, if not the source for much of this nonsense, its incubator…), described as a photograph of a group of tornadoes that appeared around Inola, Oklahoma. And the gullible eagerly share it with deep, penetrating comments like “OMG!” and “Glad I don’t live in Oklahoma!”

Of course, my more savvy readers recognized the image as a photoshopped Cthulhu (or maybe, if you’re a Pastafasrian, you saw it as the Flying Spaghetti Monster arisen…). You knew it was as real as Stephen Harper’s self-aggrandizing comments on the economy under his leadership. But it is being  shared widely as if it were a real photograph, despite numerous attempts to correct that. As it said about the image on ablestimage:

The reason that it looks fake is because it is fake. Those are tentacles, not tornadoes.. and the bumps at the top are wings. And yet, the forwarding of this, as if it were an amazing storm system continues to get circulated. Also, Inola Oklahoma is flatland, not mountainous.

The actual artist who created it – and called it Cthulhu rising – wrote:

It is a freehand painting over a photo, done in Photoshop. The original photo was taken from Google, the location is a highway near Sofia, Bulgaria.

Cthulhu
Cthulhu action figure

Now I realize not every person is culturally attuned to the whole H.P. Lovecraft-Cthulhu thing, and may not recognize what has become a pop-culture icon and its symbolism. But I would expect anyone of even average intelligence to look at the image and wonder if it were real. I would expect that person to do some digging to be sure, before sharing it. And not commenting as if it were somehow real before doing that.

It’s not like Chthulu is exactly a secret image. It’s used in bobbleheads, plush toys, comic characters and action figures. You can find it in the toy aisles of big box stores and on Amazon. But, okay, I will accept that not everyone connects the dots. Yet who isn’t bright enough to take the 30 or 40 seconds to verify a questionable image before posting it? Their own reputation as a gullible idiot – not easily shed once acquired – could be on the line!

Well, sure, anyone raised on TV instead of books, who followed the Kardashians instead of the news, watches reality TV instead of documentaries, chooses MTV over science channels, pays more attention to sports than politics, and pretty much the whole selfie-generation. Surely that’s not the whole world. I hope… if it is, we’re doomed. How can people who can’t see through something as simple as this hoax understand today’s world; especially its complex politics? The Morlocks are winning, in that case.

Steven SpielbergBut don’t shrug this away as just a one-off. People really can be stupid en masse. Look at the image, right, of director Steven Spielberg sitting beside one of his model dinosaurs from the movie Jurassic Park. You realized it was a movie, right? That it was all fiction? Not everyone did, apparently.

That photo passed around on social media last year with a caption jokingly suggesting he had shot it. But some – many – people reacted to it as he had killed a real animal. There were angry posts denouncing Spielberg as an animal killer.

The comments then generated stories on the general stupidity and gullibility of people on sites like Buzzfeed, Snopes, USA Today, LA Times and others. What sort of person, they asked, isn’t smart enough to understand that dinosaurs died out 65.6 MILLION YEARS AGO? Even creationists – loony as they are – don’t believe dinosaurs are around today (okay, they believe they were wiped out in some mythical flood, which is equally nuts….).

Fake UFOThis week, an image of a lampshade reflected in a window was again passed around on social media (it seems to have made its first trip around the gullible scene last spring) pretending to be a photograph of a UFO taken in Australia, and asking to be shared because “Facebook are trying to remove it.” Despite the number of debunkings, it garnered more than 600,000 shares!

We all know faking alien craft is a popular pastime among hoaxsters. And most of us know that UFOs are not alien spaceships whose existence being covered up by some massive, worldwide conspiracy of governments. They are simply as-yet unidentified, but they’re not aliens.

What’s ironic is that many alien-UFO-conspiracy believers are among the libertarian crowd who don’t think governments are efficient or effective and should be banned… yet they believe their government is efficient and effective enough to cover up something as widespread as frequent and regular alien visits to our planet… (not to mention the whole wingnut chemtrail conspiracy which is so wacky it makes UFO conspiracists look meekly sane by comparison).

But haven’t you ever wondered why no two alien spacecraft captured on film look alike? At least with Cthulhu we have common elements that are recognizable across all images.

And do people really believe there’s a department in Facebook dedicated to making sure pictures that might compromise the security of a secret government coverup get removed?  There are dozens of fan pages on Facebook already about UFOs, purporting to show ‘real aliens’ and ‘real spaceships’ – each with dozens if not hundreds of similarly photoshopped hoax images alleged to be real. How come they don’t get removed?

Hoaxes are not new, and they are often part of the fun – at least when used as satire. There are Facebook pages and many sites dedicated to hoaxes and their debunking.

Political parties or supporters – particularly the virulent American right wing – regularly use hoaxes to try and discredit their government, their president or the opposition, which is often a sort of  self-shaming that reflects more on them than on their targets. The kerfuffle over the Jade Helm 15 military exercise is one example where the more they protest, the stupider the wingnuts look (however, they can now claim a leader as batshit crazy and vitriolic as they are in Donald Trump).

And of course there are deliberate hoaxes that are scams used to rake in the cash. These are the real work of the Morlocks. If you’re not smart enough to spot the obvious fakes above – or at least explore a bit before sharing them to be sure they are real – you are ripe for the picking of these scams.

The problem is that people believe this stuff. People seriously believe even simple hoaxes and faked images. Hoaxes get shared as if real (this is how such vapid claptrap as homeopathy still retains a following). The Eloi are very gullible, it seems.

Howard Rheingold writes about how the responsibility for fact checking and for analysis is now longer in the hands of experts in a field, but now falls on the individual. This, of course, creates problems because few people actually use critical thinking, but instead simply react:

The responsibility for distinguishing between accurate, credible, true information and misinformation or disinformation, however, is no longer vested in trained and vetted experts — editors, publishers, critics, librarians, professors, subject-matter specialists.
Now, the enormity, ubiquity and dubious credibility of the information available to most of the world’s population is requiring each of us to become something of an expert on figuring out when we’re being misled or lied to. Perhaps, unfortunately, for the future of life online, few teachers or parents impart to young people the always useful but now essential skills of how to question, investigate, analyze and judge that link they just got in email or the factual claim they just found through a search engine.

Doyin Richards writes about the problem of the so-called online democracy that lets everyone comment, regardless of their expertise, experience, bias or interest:

Do you know what’s great about the Internet? Everybody gets a voice.
Do you know what’s not so great about the Internet? Everybody gets a voice.
Oftentimes those voices create noise that distracts people from the true issues at hand. In the online version of kangaroo court, otherwise known as social media, seemingly every viral phenomenon or human interest story is quickly and harshly judged by the masses. Simultaneously, strangers will attack other strangers with drive-by insults and not-so-clever memes to argue their points. And after the vitriol is spilled and the social media shares/retweets dissipate, the angry mob forgets all about it and moves on to the next shiny object trending in the newsfeed. No lessons are learned, very little thoughtful dialogue occurs, and the cycle continues…
…Why is this happening? Because it’s easy.
It’s easy to park in front of our laptops or hunch over our smartphones to engage with strangers in real-time. Social media has created a “now” environment. An environment ruled by hashtags, anonymous bullies, and a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality.

Photoshopped, of courseWell, anyone involved in politics, at any level, knows this firsthand. Even locally we suffered from the vitriol, the drive-by insults and the spurious and unfounded allegations. And were surprised that anyone would believe such utter, and easily disproved, rubbish.

Gullibility, however, is not not a uniquely western problem. Photoshopped images allegedly show monks or Tibetan children levitating (image on right) have been on social media. They’re all hoaxes, of course. Humans can’t levitate. The notion that Tibetans can dates back to that old, long exposed trickster, Lobsang Rampa, maybe even to Madame Blavatsky, and has long been debunked, but that doesn’t stop people believing in them because they confirm their existing beliefs in magic and the supernatural.

In late 2014, a photograph of a Buddhist monk allegedly flying created a huge stir in Thailand among Buddhists who believed it was real. It was a fake, of course. Humans, not even Buddhist monks, can fly.

In the middle of the picture was the late revered monk Luang Pu Waen, who sits in meditation, not at his altar but up in the air. It was shocking, but not because it was magical; anyone who ever played around with Photoshop could tell the photo claimed to be taken by a commercial pilot was edited. What shocking was the number of people willing to take the clearly bogus image at face value, shown by hundred thousands of likes and many hundred comments saluting the faux phenomenon.

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