We live in a strange time, where large numbers of people are putting their faith in conspiracy theories, believing false information, and fervently defending lies that have been proven to be such. It causes one to pause and wonder why this is. In this essay, included in Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, Umberto Eco explores the phenomenon.
Eco asks why it is that bogus information continues to reproduce itself, even after it has been refuted.
Because people are hungry for mysteries (and plots). All you need do is offer them another one. Even when you tell them that it was all cooked up by a couple of con men, they’ll swallow it right away.
. . .
When people stop believing in God, as Chesterton used to say, it’s not that they no longer believe in anything, it’s that they believe in everything. Even the mass media.(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 300 – 301)
If this were not enough, Eco goes on to demonstrate that proving something to be false often has a reverse effect, where belief in the fiction actually increases. As an example, he talks about The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
The story of the Corpus came to mind some time ago, when Will Eisner’s The Plot was published (New York: Norton). Eisner, one of the geniuses of the modern comic strip (who died while the book was still in the proof stage), uses words and images to tell the story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The interesting part of his tale is not so much the story of the creation of this anti-Semitic fake as what happened afterward, in 1921, when the London Times—followed by serious scholars everywhere—demonstrated that the Protocols were a fake. The circulation of the Protocols began to increase worldwide at exactly that moment, and they have been taken ever more seriously (just surf the Net a bit).(ibid: pp. 305 – 306)
Eco concludes by stating that “the difference between true and false holds no interest for those who start from prejudice” (ibid: p. 306). This really sums up the problem, in my view. Too many people approach a subject with preconceived notions of whether it is true or not, and then any subsequent research is only done to affirm what has already be decided. “Facts” are only believed when they validate and support what an individual already believes. And this is one of the reasons we find ourselves in the situation we are in now.
I hope you found this post interesting, and I hope that it inspires readers to keep an open mind and to ask questions, always seeking truth and not just affirmation.