Amanda Hess hosts the “Internetting” video blog for the New York Times. She and Shane O’Neil put together this fun piece examining the impact of the Internet on paranoia and extremism. As she points out, the Internet is a great platform for people claiming conspiracy. You have instant access to other paranoid people, which can provide your fan base. You can edit photos, videos and even database information to your liking. You can easily turn a small kernel of truth into something completely fictional with just a bit of creativity.
But how far can that activity go? Some researchers argue that the Internet is not a good place for creating wide-spread conspiracy theories, because of the compartmentalized nature of social media networks. This is often called the “echo effect.” You are preaching to the choir- your friends already agree with you and other groups may reject your ideas. Cambridge University Professors John Naughton, Sir Richard Evans and David Runciman have examined conspiracy over decades and conclude that to a certain extent the Internet can help to debunk conspiracies, because often the truth and proof is just a few clicks away. We’ll get back to that in a moment.
Why do people believe conspiracy theories? Professor Viven Swami with Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K. said belief is tied to feeling disaffected and alienated. If you don’t believe in your government or institutions, you may be more likely to believe outsider information.
There are two basic definitions of paranoia. The first is specific to a psychological condition and focuses on delusions of persecution and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. But there is a wider definition which is closer to how we often use the word: suspicion or mistrust of people and their actions. If you use the wider definition, paranoia can be seen in more than just individuals; groups can be paranoid as well.
Paranoia would be a big issue in the wake of First Contact with an extraterrestrial civilization. People would be concerned about alien influence on human governments and potential alien domination of society through open actions or subterfuge. Religious groups could consider aliens to be a threat to their beliefs. There will be legitimate concerns in any First Contact situation and that will make it all the more confusing. Confusion will make it easier for conspiracy promoters to attract attention.
However, paranoia wouldn’t be limited to some crazy people whacking away diatribes on a computer in the basement. Governments will be actively paranoid, as will the military and intelligence wings of those governments. First Contact would provide potential threats in many different areas. And it won’t just be concerns about aliens, but also about the actions of other governments. And group paranoia will likely go well beyond public institutions; big businesses could be paranoid. What if a competitor gets access to alien technology? Luckily, governmental institutions and corporations are quite used to being paranoid, so it is integrated into a framework that manages fear through process (the classic SWOT analysis). I know this as part of my day job as a public relations professional. It’s our job to be paranoid about the potential impact of negative news or public discourse about the organization we represent. We weed through a steady stream of potential problems, picking out the ones that could cause harm to the organization. The best way to manage institutional paranoia is to provide information. When an institution evaluates threat, all relevant information is considered. That information is found to be relevant if the source is trustworthy. Thus there are built in professional protections operating with institutional paranoia. That is not the case, sadly, in personal or extremist paranoia.
So, if institutions are paranoid in order to be effective in evaluating threats, why do individuals and small groups use paranoia? Hess points to self-esteem issues for the individuals. It’s nice to have people pay attention to you. Conspiracies are usually quite salacious and controversial in nature- so they tend to attract interest. That means people listen to you. But for small groups it can go beyond that feel good motive. Often groups use paranoia to advance ideas and ultimately get things done. The underlying motive is power. It could be a pro-life or pro-choice group trying to influence politics. Or perhaps a church attempting to gain followers. One would expect plenty of paranoia and conspiracy theories coming from individuals and small extremist groups after First Contact. And the veracity of their claims will be confusing- since the entire situation itself will be quite unusual.
There’s another version of paranoia and conspiracy theory on the Internet that has come to light in recent years. That is the use of individuals and small extremist groups to further a cause promoted by a large institution. The Russian government is suspected of using individuals and small groups to spread political conspiracy theories on the Internet during the 2016 presidential campaign. The motive was to influence the U.S. election. They are also accused of using the same techniques to impact the UK Brexit vote. And it’s not just Russia, countries all over the planet are accused of using similar tactics. These actions are proving to be quite troublesome in international relations. It seems likely they would be used After First Contact. An institution promoting misinformation through individuals and extremist groups is actively working to undermine a part of human society. That’s a frightening prospect now and would be even more so in a high stress environment created by First Contact.
Transparency is the best defense against paranoia, and misinformation feeding on paranoid concerns. The more information you put out there- the more you empower people on the Internet who will refute paranoid claims. That’s ultimately where the battleground occurs- in your personal Facebook group. You have probably witnessed one of your friends posting a surprising bit of information, only to have other friends debunk it as untrue. That’s the critical time- an immediate debunking before the surprising information can be believed and retransmitted. To do that, you must empower reasonable people with information. Transparency is providing as much correct information as you have. Even with transparency, and millions of people debunking conspiracy theories, some paranoid ideas will grow and require more forceful denunciation by the people in control of First Contact. It might help to have a daily repudiation list of sorts to respond to the concerns trending on social media. However it is done conspiracy management will need to be an organized process After First Contact and one that involves established groups of professionals. Whether it be the United Nations or the International Associate of Astronautics, the group in charge of the First Contact process had better monitor the Internet closely and have a process to respond quickly. Think of it as SNOPES for the post-alien world.