Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The experiment - Botswana Guardian

I’ve been a bad boy.

I recently conducted an experiment. Not a conventional, scientific experiment, but a rather eccentric one. One that investigated, in a very amateur way, the gullibility of the public.

So if you read this article and find that you were one of my experimental subjects, or should I say victims, and you feel like I’ve abused or insulted you then I apologise. I’m sorry. I really am. Well, perhaps just a little.

I wanted to see how gullible people could be. Not uneducated and ignorant people but literate, intelligent, 21st century people. In fact exactly the sort of people who read the Botswana Guardian!

Those of you with internet access may have come across the eDumela website (www.edumela.com). This is a really great community site where people can chat, post messages, have online debates, post their pictures and maybe even find love.

A few weeks ago using an assumed name I posted a message to one of their Message Boards that suggested something ludicrous, something that can only be described as a ridiculous conspiracy theory. A story with absolutely no truth at all. None at all. A story that was plainly, clearly and obviously nonsense. One that I made up.

I suggested that the US government is relocating their base at Guantanamo Bay to the Kalahari and that there is a secret CIA base inside Kgale Hill overlooking Gaborone.

I’m not going to waste good Botswana Guardian newsprint on explaining why these rumours are nonsense, they just are OK? Oh and if anyone thinks that I’m somehow defending US foreign policy, well you clearly don’t know me.

After posting the original message I made no follow-up postings, didn’t respond to anything anyone else posted and in no way reinforced the original rumour. I wanted to see how many people would respond and what sort of reactions they would have.

Twenty-eight people posted responses to this ridiculous story and some of their responses were rather curious. A few of the responses suggest that people simply believe the rumour (“I’m sure this is all true”, “You’re not alone”).

However the really weird thing was how many other conspiracy rumours appeared as a result of the posting. One poster suggested that “US citizens in Botswana are immune to our laws” which is just nonsense. Others suggested that “Botswana is a CIA listening post”, “the US set up RB1 as part of their intelligence communication system”, “Batswana are being used as bio warfare lab rats” and that “the CIA have penetrated the high office in our land”. My favourite though is one really wild response. Apparently American Peace Corps volunteers are all CIA spies and part of a wider US conspiracy to involve groups like the Jehovahs Witnesses in intelligence gathering.

Where does all this come from? Maybe it’s something to do with the Internet? Perhaps the enormous amounts of information available and the ease with which it can be published contributes towards it? Do a search on the Internet for the words “conspiracy” and another of your choice and you can find a huge range of nonsense about how the CIA are behind everything, how the freemasons or the Jews really run the world and that the British Royal Family are really lizards.

So does it matter? Isn’t it all just harmless? Actually I think it can be dangerous. Think how much time has been wasted in South Africa in the battle against HIV and AIDS. Ludicrous conspiracy theories about how HIV has either nothing to do with AIDS or how it was invented by the CIA and aliens have had a devastating effect on people’s behaviour and the provision of ARVs.

Conspiracy theories cost lives.