Can the Internet Be More Than a Soapbox?
I’ve seen a few dubious claims in my time, but the foolish idea that a mixture of an acid and sodium chlorite is a cure for autism has to be among the most terrifying and worrying claim I’ve ever heard. If you are a little rusty with your chemistry, mixing an acid and sodium chlorite together produces chlorine dioxide (ClO2). Chlorine dioxide is an intensive oxidising (burning or combusting) agent.
Essentially, chlorine dioxide is bleach. It’s use in industry is to bleach paper pulp. At home, bleach is something that you might consider using in a diluted and sparing fashion to disinfect non porous surfaces. But remember that it burns; both fabrics and flesh. It doesn’t sound like something one would want to consume. Yet people are consuming it, as well as feeding it to loved ones under the guise of a substance known as ‘MMS’ or ‘Miracle Mineral Solution,' a claimed “cure” for autism. I would have thought the news that people are intentionally consuming bleach to be a hoax if it weren’t for the official notices in 2010 from the United States Food and Drug Authority warning people to avoid consuming it in any quantity.
“The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers not to take Miracle Mineral Solution, an oral liquid also known as “Miracle Mineral Supplement” or “MMS.” The product, when used as directed, produces an industrial bleach that can cause serious harm to health.” (FDA Newsroom 2010)
This is serious. It got me thinking about how the design of our technology makes this type of insidious persuasion possible. I think it all starts with the free exchange of ideas, one of the oldest traditions in the Western world, extending all the way back from the Ancient Greeks. Though tolerant of ideas and seemingly democratic, Ancient Greek society clearly had its limits. The philosopher Socrates was sentenced to death for forcibly giving his opinion one too many times.
We’ve seen support for a free exchange of ideas rise and fall many times across the two thousand or so years that separate us from the ancient world. Various empires, monarchies or religions have been more or less tolerant of people giving their opinion. Those providing opinions often did so without much to back it up except for an appeal to a historical text or long-held superstition. Things changed when a scientific worldview became more formalised and wide spread in society. The desire to try to find rational evidence for belief filtered through nearly every aspect of our modern world.
This shifted arguments about beliefs away from the more physical soapbox in the market square, into the networked mirror world of modern media and the internet. Here, micro-communities form and reform around beliefs, often changing and reforming far faster than their physical world counterparts. Like a million little soapboxes, each belief has the power to shout across the entire world. What might have once been considered a marginal belief in the corner of society is seamlessly mixed in amongst the mainstream, amplified and reinforced.
These virtual spaces feel different from arguments in a physical and/or public forum. Online, people consume ideas privately via their computers and devices, often without social cues from anyone around them as to the quality of what they are consuming. Consuming over a network means they are funnelled down into more extreme beliefs by algorithms that automatically chain the content into a sequence. It doesn’t matter if the ideas are good, or well founded, or full of any merit, only that they relate and trend well.
When people consume these ideas in a virtual sphere, they only vicariously participate in the conversation. When they do comment, it’s often anonymous, which means it devolves not into debate, but a series of personal back and forth attacks. No minds are changed. There is no dialogue. By the very design of the endless comment stream, each comment is given equal weight. No one attests to their credentials so that we can evaluate our confidence in their arguments for or against the proposition. Granted, there are a few physical places that allow random ideas to conflict, but they are rare. Mostly limited to a few protected ‘speakers corners,’ where any idea can be debated in public. These sort of public debate spaces are more curiosities now, rather than productive meeting places.
In the case of the use of bleach to treat autism, it has very real consequences; such as physical harm, internal burns, lesions and even death. I understand the desperation. I’m sure in their position, I would rest hope on any slim chance to improve a loved one’s health. However, I would hope my decisions would be based on some sense of verifiable balance of evidence visible across a wide variety of communities.
Is the foolish belief that bleach can help autism different from the 19th Century craze to supplement everyday material, including toothpaste, with the highly dangerous and cancer-inducing radium? Yes, I think it’s quite different. The radium craze turned out to be a market-led madness. Improvements in science and lawsuits against radium manufacturers, like that on behalf of the ‘Radium Girls,’ brought the issue into public awareness. In effect, if we assume the belief for the benefit of radium was being shouted from the top of a soapbox, the rest of the crowd, including voices from science and media, publicly deconstructed the idea. Beliefs changed and radium products disappeared from the market.
In the case of the so called Miracle Mineral Solution, the science is already in. Bleach is toxic and dangerous to consume. Yet, the technologies we’ve constructed make it harder for the idea to be expunged. We’ve given all beliefs the largest soapbox in the world. Instead of being brought out into the light of the day, challenged and deconstructed, beliefs are driven down deeper into the fabric of the internet.
People are connected to the ideas and in the privacy of their own homes and belief is slowly changed by false, incomplete or misleading information. Harmful beliefs are essentially protected by technology-induced filter bubbles. Apparently, many of the videos involving the Miracle Mineral Solution aggregate millions of views and are still present today. The network’s automated feedback loops promote and protect these sort of messages.
So the question is, what can we do to change it? For a start, we can try to change minds. One mind at a time if we have to. Try to promote the value of evidence and a scientific worldview that seeks proof rather than just claims. Secondly, and perhaps more difficult, we need to rethink how we are shaping the network. We’ve built the soapbox, but we’ve forgotten to build the crowd that can challenge the huckster and restore order to the market square. All of this has to be done in a way that doesn’t suppress freedom to express or challenge ideas.
I’ve seen a lot of commentary lately suggesting that Google, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and other search engines and social networks are working harder to pull down the information. However, it re-appears as fast as it can be pulled down. I think it’s a hint that we need to rethink the actual fabric of the networks. How information is presented and shared. Where people gather online and how it extends into real world behaviour. Most crucially, how the algorithms are designed and what incentivises them. This is a harder conversation because it challenges the intertwined dominance and profit of some of the internet’s most fundamental operating models.
Crate photo by Linnaea Mallette on www.publicdomainphotos.net