I am fascinated by networks, connectivity, and information transfer. I know that this has become a science in and of itself, with complex mathematical models and theories, almost all of which are beyond the scope of my understanding; but the whole concept still draws me. I first ran into it years ago, when the "Six Degrees of Separation" idea first became common knowledge. Besides the generally appealing idea that I could actually be connected with everyone on Earth within six degrees, I found especially interesting the idea that certain people could be "nodes" -- people who are multiply connected because of their belonging to several different disjoint social groups, and therefore who would act to reduce significantly the average number of links between myself and a farmer in Nepal.
Now, of course, with electronic media, people are connected far more, and across far greater distances, than ever before. I'd suspect that most people are linked in fewer than six degrees of separation these days. And while this has some positive features, it also (as with most things) has a downside.
Being multiply, and rapidly, connectible means that information flows faster, easier, and further than in the past, it also means that there is a much quicker conduit for bullshit than previously. I had two interesting demonstrations of this just in the past couple of days.
Most of you by now have probably heard Rebecca Black's "song" "Friday," which catapulted to fame by virtue of being the worst song ever recorded, worse even (if you can believe this) than either "I Write the Songs" or "Copacabana." Maybe even worse than all of Barry Manilow's repertoire put together. Most people, after listening to about twenty seconds of this song, respond by sticking any available objects into their ears, even if the objects are steak knives. The spread of this song, which resembles in so many ways the spread of an infectious disease, is itself an interesting example of connectivity; but even more fascinating is the spread of a meme that claims that "Friday" is about the JFK assassination. Here is a version of this claim, copied verbatim:
"The driver of the car that JFK was assassinated in, had the name Samuel Kickin (kickin in the front seat, sitting in the back seat...). The assassination occurred on a Friday and when was shot the Secret Service yelled at Jackie Kennedy to "get down" (got to get down on Friday). Part about the cold war and spread of communism are also referenced [everybody rushin' (russian)] and to top it all off, in the hotel that morning JFK declined a breakfast of sausage, eggs and toast for a bowl of Bran Flakes instead (got to have my bown, got to have my cereal). Also, the following Monday JFK was supposed to sign a bill into law requiring all public schools to provide bus transportation for their students. (got to catch my bus...). Now obviously, "fast lanes, switching lanes" refers to the arms race between the US and the USSR. Fast productions of nuclear weapons, switching up whoever had more control, etc."
About two minutes of quick online research was enough to prove that this was virtually entirely made up. The driver of JFK's car was William Greer, not "Samuel Kickin." There is apparently no truth to the whole "bran flakes" claim, nor to the "bus transportation bill" claim. But so far, so what? This is just another of those weird things, initially probably intended to be humorous, that someone wrote. However, the whole thing has gone viral; I've been asked at least five times in the last three days if I have "heard that 'Friday' was about the JFK assassination."
Then, two days ago, I ran across a reference to a claim that I first saw in the 1970s -- that the Dogon tribe of Africa had prior knowledge, through contact with "ancient astronauts" from another planet, that the star Sirius had a companion star that was too small to see with the naked eye. According to this story, they even got the orbital period of this star correct. Aficionados of UFOs and aliens and so on just love this story, because if true, it would seem to be evidence that a relatively primitive tribe had information that they could only have gotten from an advanced society.
Of course, that last statement is literally true; the advanced society they got it from is France. The anthropologist who first made the claim of the Dogon's knowledge, Marcel Griaule, is thought to be the one who "contaminated" the Dogon with outside information in the first place. The discovery of Sirius' companion star ("Sirius B") was all over the news in the 1920s, when Griaule was working with the Dogon, and the Dogon themselves are peculiarly fascinated with the stars. It doesn't take much of a reach to guess that Griaule was the source of the information, especially given that subsequent researchers into the Dogon culture found that the only ones who had actually heard of "po tolo," as they called Sirius B, were the people in the village Griaule had visited.
Nonetheless, this story is still circulating. A search for the keywords "Sirius" and "Dogon" garnered 109,000 hits, and a quick perusal of the first three pages was enough to demonstrate that almost all of them buy Griaule's idea wholesale. And this points to another, and more depressing conclusion; skeptical thought seems to travel slower than bullshit does. Ridiculous ideas, like Griaule's claim that ancient astronauts had visited the Dogon, have more of a panache than do prosaic statements such as "Griaule told 'em himself, and then claimed he'd discovered something amazing." Who would be motivated to tell a friend something like the latter? While the former... well, you can see how that story might have a little more tendency to get passed along.
The eye-opener, for me, is how easy it is now for ideas to spread. Prior to the internet, ideas moved as fast as people did, or as fast as books could be passed along. Now, in the blink of an eye, an idea -- good or bad -- can travel halfway around the world. And given the tendency of most people not to question sources that give an appearance of authority, it's hardly to be wondered at that "I read it on a website," or (even better) the "my friend sent me a link," has become the mode for meme spread.
It should also always be a red flag for skeptics. Websites like Snopes, which vets current stories for veracity, help to some extent; but there's no substitute for critical thinking and a little bit of good research, and also for responsible people refusing to pass along links to websites that claim that listening to Rebecca Black's song "Friday" is what drove Lee Harvey Oswald to assassinate JFK, and afterwards she escaped to Mali where she lived with the Dogon, until she caught a ride on an alien spacecraft and escaped to Sirius B, where she now lives as Barry Manilow's love slave.
Although, you have to admit, that does make for a pretty plausible story.