Lewis Carroll brought us the phrase “down the rabbit hole,” introducing the term in 1865 in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. In the story, the phrase was literal – she actually, physically fell down a rabbit hole, landing in Wonderland. In this context, falling down the rabbit hole was about stumbling upon a surreal, strange and absurd place. Many believe that this was meant to be a representation of a psychedelic experience.
The phrase went largely unused until the era of widespread internet, at which point its meaning evolved somewhat. Your friend sends you a cute kitten video to watch, YouTube suggests a video of a chimp mothering a kitten next, after that are the animals of the Sahara with hilarious voices dubbed in. Click, click, click. Next thing you know, hours have passed – you fell down the rabbit hole. As noted in an article published in the New Yorker – “In the original story, Alice falls for quite a while—long enough to scout out the environment, grab some food off a passing shelf, speculate about other parts of the world, drift into a reverie about cats, and nearly fall asleep.” It fits perfectly into the context of our online lives. And rather than calling it a “waste of time,” the rabbit hole suggests a guilty pleasure. After all, Alice was bored before she fell into that strange portal, and then, poof – she wasn’t.
When The Matrix came out in 1999, it brought with it the idea that the world we know could be a sham, that we might not be able to trust what we’re told or what our senses observe. The best-known quote of the film is this: “You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.” And just like that, a third interpretation was born. The concept that going down the rabbit hole means searching for and finding a truth hidden from us, and as such, it has been heavily used by online conspiracy theorists for quite some time.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new.
It only takes a cursory search on google to find theories going back decades or even centuries. “Antisemitic canards” date back to the middle ages, with some even going back to the birth of Christianity, such as allegations that the Jews were, as a collective group, responsible for the death of Jesus. In Medieval Europe, a widespread belief that Jews caused epidemics like the Black Death by poisoning wells, or accusations that Jews ritually consumed the blood of Christians became the basis of persecution and expulsion of Jewish people from European countries.
During the 19th and 20th centuries, beliefs emerged that the Jews planned to covertly wrest control of the world through promoting capitalism, heavily engaging in banking and finance, the proliferation of Communism and domination of the news media.
These conspiracy theories became a fundamental part of Hitler’s political agenda, many of these notions carry on to the present day. Following WW2, the “holocaust hoax” appeared. Deniers of the holocaust insisted that the entire holocaust was a fabrication, designed to advance the Jewish peoples’ interests and to necessitate the creation of the State of Israel.
It would seem that those longstanding conspiracy theories die hard.
Sometimes these beliefs are harmless and quirky, sometimes they’re plain frustrating, and sometimes they’re dangerous, as the antisemitic canards listed above illustrate.
In the 20th century, there were many conspiracy theories to do with government secrecy. UFOs and aliens, the “fake moon landing,” the Loch Ness Monster or Bigfoot – some believed that there were beings that the government expertly hid from the public. The majority of these sorts of believers were fringe members of society, kooky, a little off, easily dismissed. The belief that there’s more out there than what we see is something that I think most people experience in one form or another, and these things are generally harmless.
The ever-advancing media of the 20th century brought the rise of celebrity. Singers and actors who could be recorded, seen and heard in perpetuity, became household names and the general public became attached to these people, en masse, in a way that had never before happened. Many conspiracies of the 20th century also had to do with celebrities – often to do with their manner of death. Some were believed to have been murdered even though the scene suggested suicide, such as the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and Kurt Cobain. Some were believed to have not died at all and to have simply “made themselves disappear,” to have a simpler life, one example of this is Elvis Presley who remains “spotted” at supermarkets, convenience stores, or airports. Some have had accidents that were believed to be intentional, as in the case of “The People’s Princess,” Princess Diana. Again, largely harmless.
In the 20th century, many people believed, or believed in the possibility, of one or two harmless conspiracy theories. The ones who big believed in big conspiracy theories were still largely ignored and seen as crackpots at best, hoaxers at worst.
In the 21st century, it became acceptable among many to be conspiracy theorists. Anti-vaxxers, GMO fearmongers, 5G fright. Flat Earth, lizard people, Wayfair selling children and now, Covid-19 and masks.
Since the turn of the century, several conspiracy theories have gained traction. The internet has given a platform to, well, anyone – and as people switched from local news and chats with local friends to swimming in a sea of online information and misinformation, it became difficult for many to know how to weed the truth from the lies. The advent of social media brought the ability to spread (mis)information widely, using little more than popularity.
An article published in Psychology Today states, “In the “old days,” people sought information from books, print newspapers, major network TV news, and experts. That has shifted dramatically since the internet, where most of us now seek out information online where there are many, many more sources of information than ever before. One result has been that expertise is now devalued and knowledge has been democratized.
Just how much the internet is increasing belief in conspiracy theories isn’t clear, but we do know that for many people these days, “going down the rabbit hole” is primarily an online experience. With something like the belief that vaccines cause autism, it’s harder to distinguish between reliable information and misinformation when you’re trying to find answers from social media.”
The article also notes, “There’s been a lot of recent work in psychology attempting to figure out why some people are particularly drawn to conspiracy theories. For example, research has found that people who believe in conspiracy theories tend to have a greater need for cognitive closure (the desire to find an explanation when explanations are lacking) and to be unique. They’re more likely to have a cognitive bias called hypersensitive agency detection or teleologic thinking (whereby events are overattributed to hidden forces, purposes, and motives). Some research has also found that conspiracy beliefs are associated with lower levels of education and analytic thinking.”
I feel, personally, overwhelmed by the sheer scope of it all lately. I see it all over the place on social media, in articles, blogs – et cetera, et cetera. And it’s not just the fact that it’s there, it’s how grossly viral it has become. The issue is that these conspiracy theories can be dangerous. They’re not harmless. As more children become unvaccinated, diseases that have been largely eradicated are making a comeback. “Crunchy natural mamas” are allowing their children to be crippled or die because they refuse actual medicine. Groups, and groups with colossal followings, block members who suggest doctors, hospitals or medicine – no matter what the issue is.
An unvaccinated 6-year-old in Oregon spent 57 days in the hospital, at a cost of $800,000, when he became the state’s first pediatric tetanus case in over 30 years. Caused by a small forehead cut at his family’s farm, he was stitched up at home and the family sought no medical treatment. 6 days later, he had episodes of crying, jaw clenching, and involuntary upper extremity muscle spasms, followed by arching of the neck and back, not until he later had difficulty breathing did his parents seek medical attention. After suffering painful muscle spasms, trouble breathing, and dangerously high fevers during his hospital stay, his parents still refused a follow-up DTaP vaccine and all other recommended vaccinations.
An unvaccinated 2-year-old in Alberta died of meningitis after his parents treated him for 2½ weeks with remedies that included hot peppers, garlic, onions and horseradish and a product from a naturopathic doctor aimed at boosting his immune system. They claimed they believed he had croup or the flu. They did not call for an ambulance until he stopped breathing, and he later died of lack of oxygen to the brain. The family blamed the ambulance as it was not properly stocked with breathing equipment for a child, however, I’ll be frank – it’s my opinion that they waited far too long to seek emergency medical treatment. It’s my understanding that their other children remain unvaccinated.
Recently, I followed a story as it happened, on Facebook. Again, an unvaccinated 2-year-old who caught the flu, and instead of using the antivirals prescribed, his mother took to a Facebook group to ask for suggestions. This particular group was one that did not allow suggestions of doctors, hospitals or real medicine. Suggestions ranged from using essential oils, to putting potatoes in his socks. He later died in hospital, he stopped breathing several times before his mother took him in. It was tragic, and I was honestly pretty angry.
Forget anti-vaxxers, now we have anti-maskers. Misinformation abounds. Propaganda that ties masks into other emotionally charged issues abounds. The most recent I’ve seen is a meme comparing Covid-19 deaths in children to child trafficking numbers, stating that a child is 66,667 x more likely to be sold by traffickers than to die of Covid-19, and claiming that children wearing masks will make them easier to take and harder to identify. If anyone dares question the numbers, or how those two things actually, factually go together, they are accused of not caring about human trafficking. And that’s how these viral images get viral – by forcing emotions to override logic, by eliciting an emotional response because who doesn’t care about our children? So click, click, click. Shares all around, and people don’t fact check because it got them right in the feels and on the surface, it seems to make sense.
Many, many posts operate under false equivalencies, incorrect information, strawman arguments and red herrings. There’s a lot of distraction and, as noted above, photos and text designed to elicit an emotional response, and they are going viral.
This article entitled, “Mom Influencers on Instagram Are Spreading Anti-Mask Propaganda” goes further into this issue, pointing out the level of influence some people have and how they are using it not only to lead people to believe that masks are ineffective, but also, increasingly, that they are actually dangerous. None of this is true, and believing it to be true is harmful to the greater community at large.
Critical thinking is a skill that needs to be taught in school so that individuals can properly navigate the information overload we all find ourselves in, and the world in general, as it is. I chose to do my best to encourage my children to enjoy learning, to ask questions, and to learn how to learn, more than what to learn.
We live in a society that increasingly idolizes the individual, considers opinions and facts as equal, and erroneously believes that anyone with an internet connection can be smarter than a professional. People who believe that they are special, unique, “woke,” and that those who disagree are blind sheep. The more shunned a person is by his or her colleagues, mainstream society, or otherwise discredited becomes the most credible, because the first rule of conspiracy club is that the more discredited a person is, the more right they are – because they are being oppressed, that’s the conspiracy. Andrew Wakefield was stripped of his license and his study retracted from the Lancet when peer reviews were unable to find the same results. His methods were criticized, he had a vested financial interest, and he falsified data. Yet, he is living the high life in Texas now, viewed as a martyr by the anti-vax movement, unjustly persecuted. His false data is regarded as gospel by many and has reduced vaccination rates far too much.
Ignorance is bliss, but it’s not, well, smart.
It’s not smarter than experts. It’s not smarter than the general public. It’s just not smart.
GMOs are safe and necessary to feed an ever-growing global population. Organic doesn’t always mean better. Everything is chemicals. Everything has EMFs. You don’t have to be able to pronounce it for it to be good for you. Vaccination is necessary, and for 99.99% of people, completely harmless. Wearing a mask helps reduce your transmission of the virus you might not know you have, to the people around you. Community is important. Freedom comes with responsibility.
Check your cognitive biases. Dig deeper. Ask if it truly makes sense beneath the surface. Ask whether there’s actual data to confirm what you are touting as fact. Be a decent neighbour and protect your community.
Don’t fall down the rabbit hole, the definition of the original term is still correct.
You’re falling into something surreal and absurd, not into the truth.