Ian Sansom

Is there any defence against the tidal wave of online disinformation?

Grotesque conspiracy theories merge and snowball, with serious global consequences. James Ball proposes a Digital Health System to counter the ‘pathogens’

A demonstrator dressed as a QAnon shaman in front of Trump Tower in March this year. [Getty Images]

Whether you’re left, right or just somewhere vaguely in between, wherever you’re coming from you may well have a sense that things are somehow not quite right, that the country is headed in the wrong direction, that our various problems and crises seem to be multiplying. You may well have concluded that this is because our institutions have been taken over by an out-of-touch elite who run the government, the judiciary, the media and goodness knows what else, and that the only way to discover the real truth is to do your own research, which involves scrolling through the internet because you no longer trust the ‘mainstream media’.

Pizzagate, in 2016, suggested that Hillary Clinton led a human trafficking and child-sex ring

If so, without knowing it, according to James Ball, you have been infected by QAnon. In this brilliant, wide-ranging, if rather uneven, account, Ball argues that all sorts of conspiracy theories, originally bred in the depths of chat rooms, bulletin boards and what he calls ‘digital reservoirs’, have gradually found their way into everyday mainstream culture, and that – unless prevented from spreading – they will continue to cause massive damage to our democratic system. The Other Pandemic is essentially a history of some recent bad ideas brought to us by the internet.

Ball is a journalist who spent a lot of his teens on 4chan, a collection of online forums founded in 2003 by a 15-year-old American, Christopher Poole, known as ‘moot’. For those who might be unfamiliar, 4chan is essentially a message board like, say, Mumsnet, which guarantees anonymity to users and which Ball describes as ‘just a ridiculously fun place to hang out’. The anonymity has also meant that it’s a place which has enabled and encouraged the sort of loose talk, bullying and idiotic pranks that might once have been restricted to school playgrounds, pubs, public toilets and the privacy of one’s own home.

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