In the age of information ubiquity it could almost be seen as counterintuitive that ludicrous and unfounded conspiracy theories can gain the kind of traction they do, often becoming enshrined in the popular imagination as a result.
Such is the scale of the web’s userbase that one could be forgiven for assuming rationality to prevail within its serpentine highways and forums, a working exemplification of the wisdom of crowds. In this manner the internet should self police at every level, its majority of rational minded users weedling out the conspiratists and fantasists, confining them to the padded cells and loony bins of the webs social spaces, the fringes of online society. This is what Tim Bernes Lee envisages when he analogises the internet as a ‘human meta brain’, a self regulating collection of independent thoughts and notions that tend to coalesce around rationality and sanity, freedom and democracy; because for most of the connected world, these sensibilities prevail. But he also significantly admits to its potential as a conduit of extremism, filtering out moderate views and giving preeminence to more emotional ones.
Today NASA released some remarkable images which, one hopes, will put pay to one such ludicrous conspiracy theory; that the moon landings were faked. These images were taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter which has been orbiting our solitary moon since 2009. Having recently lowered its altitude from the lunar surface from 50km to 25km, it has been able to take some remarkably clear images of the surface, complete with parked Lunar Roving Vehicle, its tracks and even the footprints of the astronauts of the Apollo 12, 14 and 17 missions to the moon, as well as other equipment left on the surface.
These are certainly unprecedented images but if we were to leave our rational minds behind for just one moment and really try to get into the head of the committed conspiracy theorist, with their paranoid delusions, victimised worldview and blinkered belief system, then we can easily circumvent this evidence. These images are also faked they might cry. Just like the moon landings were.
It’s perhaps at this point where I feel it’s best to stop engaging with these people. But maybe that is exactly the reason why these conspiracy theories get such an easy time on the internet. The moderates like you and I simply cannot be bothered to debate with them because they have long ago abandoned any kind of rational discourse. It is an exercise in futility, just like trying to convince a Creationist of the overwhelming evidence for evolution. Their belief systems trump any evidence one might lay before them.
So should we try to take on the emotional headcases and fundamentalists with their wild conspiracy theories and beliefs that propagate the webs serpentine super highways and forums. There is no right and wrong answer to this question. There is perhaps a duty all of us should carry as users of these new social spaces. But this requires a degree of discretion, a keen eye to differentiate between the lunatic and the legitimate subjects. Our energies are best served tackling the real issues, debating the real controversies, not wasted trying to disprove the small minority of conspiracists that take up such a disproportionate amount of space on the internet with their views.
For most of us, the NASA images are a wonderful birds eye view of one of humanity’s greatest achievements. It is a testament to the unchanging surface of the moon that will preserve the 1960′s and 1970′s technology that brought men like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar surface and helped return them safely to the earth. For some though this will only harden their conspiratorial stances and reinforce their delusions. Attempts to convince these people, and those who share similarly immovable worldviews, is futile at best and soul destroying at worst. Don’t waste your time. I think Buzz says it best.