Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Idiot Hunting

There's a simple trick I see all over the Internet, talk radio, newspapers and television that people use to unfairly portray groups they don't like. Anyone can do it, and it's easy to pull off with a simple search engine.

I've dubbed the process "idiot hunting" and the formula is easy to follow:

1) Pick a group to smear.

2) Search for something stupid said by a member of that group. They do not have to be a typical or important member.

3) Prop up the idiot as a fair representative of that group.

4) Conclude that the entire group is idiotic.

For example, yesterday a friend on Facebook linked this article from the Huffington Post about a Republican Congresswoman sponsoring a bill to declare pi as valued at exactly three. She must not have read much of the article, because it was sprinkled with lines like:

New York City Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) responded to Roby's legislation with a massive brain aneurysm. Democrats are hopeful to retain his New York City seat in an April special election.

The article was a joke, and not even an original one. The setup has been around for more than a decade.

But hoodwinked Facebook liberals posted the article over and over again, introducing it with snaps about the stupidity of republicans and conservatives. Because they thought one Republican had a stupid view, it confirmed their belief that all of them are.

There's a search engine for public Facebook status updates called OpenBook that got a lot of popularity last year over the "Ground Zero Mosque" episode. Someone discovered if you search recent status updates for "mosk", you will mostly return angry right-wing Christians who abuse caps lock.

Of course, this was idiot hunting at its finest. Searching for a poor spelling of "mosque" filtered the search on intellectual lines. The joke doesn't actually work anymore, the results I got this afternoon were mostly calm young Arabs.

But using OpenBook to find "conservative pi" today I was able to find a steady stream of angry liberals fooled by the satirical pi-equals-three article who would soon be eating their words when they discovered they'd been fooled. I could easily compile a large collection of liberals to mock.

But look closely at the comments from the middle gentleman in the screenshot I just linked in the above paragraph. He was clearly in on the joke. But if I wanted to go idiot hunting, that wouldn't stop me. I could have just skipped him and cherry pick the people who had been fooled. I might not even be aware I'm doing it, confirmation bias being a powerful force.

Any large group is vulnerable to idiot hunting because large groups are very likely to contain at least one idiot. Heck, they don't even have to have a single idiot, they just need one member to say a foolish thing once and the opposition can claim it's part of a pattern.

Remember when the right wing blogosphere lit up after President Obama was photographed eating black power ice cream? I don't, but I certainly read enough times that it did. Allegedly, all kinds of right wing blogs were convinced the president was sending some subtle signal to nefarious interlopers.

But look closely. None of the blogs cited as getting upset over this non-issue were important or influential. Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh weren't saying it. It was just some idiots I had never heard of, but critics kept insisting they were major players.

Here's a handy hint: If a blog updates a post to beam that someone out there cited it, even if its The Bar Harbor Times, then it's not a major blog. Essentially, there were major news stories out there to prove once and for all that some people write stupid things online.

More recently, I didn't hear anything stupid spoken about the tragedy in Japan on the radio, read it online or see it on television. But still, people wanted to prove the point that America has a lot of evil, stupid people so they used OpenBook to find fools who thought the earthquake and subsequent tsunami were karmic payback for Pearl Harbor.

The Internet is a vast and accessible place where anyone can say anything they want. It's much easier to seek out living straw men like Sarah Palin to knock down instead of challenging fierce warriors like George Will. Hank Johnson's membership in the Democratic party doesn't have any bearing on the intelligence of the average liberal, but it's much easier to mock him than engage in any sort of reasonable debate.


  1. You don't get to cite Sarah Palin's lack of participation in saying some stupid things as evidence that the "major players" aren't repeating these memes of stupidity and then turn around and cite her as a strawman. She has a large following and fairly broad support among Republicans. There's a reason she keeps giving talks at Tea Party rallies and events.

    As for George Will, he certainly isn't much of an intellectual giant.

  2. Michael, my point here was not to rank public intellectuals, but I stand by my choice of examples. Being familiar with your blog, I would have thought George Will is a right winger you would have some considerable respect for. Here's what he wrote in 2005:

    "The problem with intelligent design theory is not that it is false but that it is not falsifiable: Not being susceptible to contradicting evidence, it is not a testable hypothesis. Hence it is not a scientific but a creedal tenet--a matter of faith, unsuited to a public school’s curriculum."

    Could he have hit it on the head any straighter? Again, I think what you're doing here is cherry picking a belief so you can write him off as a "mook." There is a scientific consensus on global warming, but there is still wiggle room for doubt and while I see a lot of hysteria and silliness, there are still reasonable places to disagree.

  3. Once there was a scientific "consensus" that genetics determined intelligence. The Michael Hawkins' of that day no doubt referred to doubters of Eugenics with cute little epithets of their own. And that "science" wasn't even primarily funded by governments hell-bent on finding excuses to take control of the economy!

  4. I'm happy to see I still have what it takes to encourage the trolls.

    There was never any compelling evidence for eugenics, but if there was - and there were no good reasons for doubting it - then, yes, doubters would be mooks. They would further be mooks if they completely butchered the evidence in order to make their case on a national platform.