Happy New Year everybody.

As we look forward to the coming year, I thought we would ask ourselves a fundamental question - are people getting more gullible and less able to distinguish fantasy from fact?

When I grew up in the 1970s there were plenty of tall tales that did the rounds. The Loch Ness Monster was much talked about and many people believed in such a creature without really considering how one apparently immortal animal could have lived in one lake for 2000 years without being seen more often.

The National Wales: The Loch Ness Monster has long been a popular yet harmless conspiracy theory. The 1934 Surgeon's Photograph which supposedly showed the monster was later proved to be a hoax.The Loch Ness Monster has long been a popular yet harmless conspiracy theory. The 1934 Surgeon's Photograph which supposedly showed the monster was later proved to be a hoax.

On TV we would watch programmes about the Bermuda Triangle which seems to have disappeared off the face of the earth, if you forgive my analogy.

People talked about aliens tunnelling from Pembrokeshire to the US, apparently in order to attack America's nuclear institutions. This was, after all, the decade of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Once, people wrote articles and published books about these theories, but they never really got off the ground because there was no way of amplifying them.

Fast forward 40 years, and social media is doing a fine job of promoting nonsense and conspiracy theories. It's become so bad that I’ve visited schools where the teachers have to tell the children that what they've read on Facebook, or worse, what their parents have read on Facebook, isn't necessarily true.

I used to tell young people that unless they saw a story on the mainstream TV news then they could never be sure of its veracity.

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Goebbels would have loved social media. It's a fantastic way of promoting propaganda without having to offer any proof at all of its truth. Narratives that would never have seen the light of day in the past because they were so ridiculous now have a platform which, if used effectively, can make anything look credible.

There's no greater example of this then what we've seen with Covid. Any amount of pseudo-science has been published on social media without any scientific evidence to back it up and people believe it. There are people who believe that Covid doesn't exist, there are others who believe that vaccines are harmful. Now, this is a free country and people are free to believe what they want, but let's examine the evidence for their beliefs.

In 1796, Doctor Edward Jenner produced the first vaccine against smallpox. Since then, many more have been developed. In order to believe that vaccines are a conspiracy you would have to believe that Jenner set out 200 years ago to enslave the human population and that every doctor since then has bought in to that conspiracy. In addition, you would have to believe that every doctor and nurse around the world is part of this conspiracy and they are not telling people the truth about vaccines.

Let's think about that for a minute.

Apparently every medically qualified person around the world has bought in to a conspiracy to harm the human population and has been doing so for 200 years. And there are people who actually believe that. This would never have got off the ground if people didn't read stuff on social media that is designed to undermine the fight against COVID.

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Social media has also created a situation where people by and large talk to people who hold the same views as themselves. This was brought home to us in the US on the 6th of January last year when what was bluntly a neofascist coup attempt was believed by those who went to the Capitol to be an attempt by them to save democracy.  The people who were there genuinely believed in what they were doing, and the reason for that is, I suspect, many of them only mixed on social media only with people with their own views. It's a small step from there to believe that everybody shares your views and therefore if your candidate doesn't win an election, it must have been rigged.

The real reason is that people just don't mix with those who have different views so they don’t accept that those views exist. That has serious consequences for tolerance and for the stability of the US in the future.

The question for us all is what do we do about it? The social media companies have a great deal of responsibility. The libel laws don't extend to them which they should. This means that newspapers are at a disadvantage while the social media platforms can say whatever they want. It means that TV news, which is regulated to make sure it’s balanced, is up against sensationalist gossip which people like because it reflects their view of the world rather than the world as it actually is.

Are we more gullible? Have we lost the ability to distinguish fact from falsehood? In many countries during the 1930s that’s precisely what happened. That led us the world to all-out conflict. Let’s hope history isn’t repeating itself.

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