I’m not an absolutist. I’ve long understood that if you asked ten people to recall the same event they all witnessed, you will get ten different versions. Some of those versions will directly contradict each other. We understand this happens because everyone processes what they see through the lens of their own experience.
The concept of the phenomenological mind teaches us that each person’s own experience will impact the way their conscious mind experiences things, an important lesson in empathy. For example, a young man who has experienced violence as a child will see something very different when a father smacks his son in a supermarket compared to a young man who had not experienced that violence. The former may see abuse while the latter may see the father protecting his child from harming himself.
Putting aside the idea that truth is relative, subjective and fluid for a moment, society has over hundreds and thousands of years managed to create a plethora of disciplines which enable us to determine ‘good enough’ approximations of ‘truth’, methods for continuously evaluating that ‘truth’ and living with the consequences of this ‘truth’. The use of a court system with defenders, prosecutors, judges, juries and appeals helps us get to the truth in most criminal cases. Good journalism includes methodologies to verify reporting. The disciplines within historical research teach us to evaluate different types of sources and their contexts.
Despite all this, we are now living in an age where a large minority of people don’t trust what used to be ‘trusted sources’ such as serious news outlets, scientific methodology and, now more than ever, anyone who doesn’t agree with them.
There are well-identified reasons for us having got here. Social media platforms and the ease of creating ‘alternative news websites’ give people no experience or training the ability to present crazy theories, well dressed up, backed by a minority of experts to a public looking for digestible and addressable answers to complex questions.
The past decade has seen politicians increasingly use false information generated by social media and alternative news sources to manipulate the voting public into fear. Four years ago, Trump rose to power on the back of this method and could be re-elected due to the power of fear-mongering using what he likes to call ‘fake news’ and conspiracy theories.
History has shown that the proliferation of fake news and conspiracy theories is very bad for the Jews (and other minorities). It’s therefore not surprising that antisemitism is rising at alarming rates in Trump’s America (a process which started well before Covid-19).
The protocols of the Elders of Zion (which have recently resurfaced) directly led to pogroms. The internet and social media can magnify and multiply conspiracy theories at speeds the original publisher of the protocols, the far-right Russian Pavel_Krushevan, could never have dreamed of.
Contemporary conspiracy theories even if not obviously antisemitic, often lead back to antisemitic theories or propagators. We’ve recently heard a lot about the QAnon conspiracy theory which imagines a global child trafficking ring run by celebrities and politicians around the world and somewhat mirrors the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and certainly inspires them – https://www.thedailybeast.com/rnc-speaker-boosts-qanon-conspiracy-theory-about-jewish-plot-to-enslave-the-world-1.
The QAnon social media accounts tweet antisemitic ideas (https://forward.com/news/national/451647/just-how-anti-semitic-is-qanon/) and QAnon supporters are often far-right antisemites. Trump recently praised supporters of QAnon for supporting him. They can’t be bad people if they support him, right? The Wayfair conspiracy theory is one step further away from antisemitism but is still an offshoot of QAnon sharing many of its features.
The Jewish community more than any other, therefore, must fight conspiracy thinking, theories and publication for our self-protection. We need to be at the forefront of ideas and approaches that challenge and break down the chain of conspiracy spreading. Simply banning and blocking is not enough and whilst correct can also lead to confirmation of these theories in the minds of those who will spread them.
Perhaps teaching critical thinking in our schools would be a good starting point?
How do we tackle this increasing phenomenon? Submissions on this subject to JewThink are encouraged.