“The Toxoplasma of Rage” is regularly cited as one of Scott Alexander’s best essays, and I think it’s fundamentally mistaken, at least about the high-profile incidents it showcases.
He calls it “toxoplasma” because – like toxoplasmosis in rats and cats – there are supposedly two stages to how a story goes viral:
- Activists promote dubious stories because that demonstrates their zeal to their fellow activists.
- Counteractivists promote the same dubious story to demonstrate how dumb the original activists are.
I have a different theory:
- False stories can be more perfectly viral than true stories, because they aren’t constrained by fact. A true rape accusation can never be a “perfect” story, because it works with the facts as they actually happened; a false one can be designed to hit all kinds of hot buttons – Southern universities, fraternities, gang rape, et cetera.
The specific stories:
- I don’t think there was ever really much “controversy” per se about “A Rape on Campus.” For a short time, pretty much everyone believed it. Then the story fell apart in a matter of days and no one believed it; it was all over but the lawsuits. The only person I can think of who still said they believed the story – presumably as a demonstration of zeal – was Jessica Valenti, and that sticks out because it was unlike what anyone else was doing. In between there were, maybe, two days when liberal publications ran articles they regret (A Voice For Men link, which I would not normally do, but if there’s a victory they deserve it this one.)
- I think it’s possible that a decade ago, “ultra-viral” rape accusations were more likely to be false than “normal” rape accusations, but that’s probably because the media was only interested in covering sensational rape accusations back then. If anything, the most controversial accusations nowadays are the banal ones – two college students kinda sorta dating, he said she consented, she said she didn’t.
- On the other hand, the shooting of Michael Brown was definitely controversial, and I can’t say that I know for certain why that’s the one that brought Black Lives Matter to national attention. But it stands out in at least two ways: First, the Ferguson police department was unusually abusive, so the local community was primed to explode. Second, and in keeping with my general theme, Dorian Johnson got on video immediately after the shooting and told a story that was far more interesting than the truth.
- Several years later, it doesn’t seem to me that Michael Brown got *that* much extra coverage compared to more clearly sympathetic victims like Eric Garner or Tamir Rice, so there’s not all that much disproportion to explain. Likewise, the Steubenville rape case got as much or more national attention as the Jackie case, even though it was real and not especially controversial.
- Ironically, circumstances made Michael Brown’s death an excellent discussion topic for police violence, in that it was a genuinely difficult case. Having read the eyewitness accounts and autopsy reports, I understand why the shooting was legally justifiable, but I don’t think Michael Brown had to die.
- I think Scott has correctly analyzed PETA’s media strategy, but it’s not clear that PETA’s media strategy is very successful. They do get more than literally zero coverage, but not a whole lot more.
- I think Scott has correctly analyzed why Tumblr is full of people arguing over whether henna is cultural appropriation, but I’m not aware of any Tumblr disputes that have blown up into major news stories.
In light of recent events, I think my argument is best summarized thusly: “Fake news is more viral than real news.”