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By Tressie McMillan Cottom
Last week’s newsletter generated a lot of feedback via email and social media. I will respond to some of the interesting bits.
One reader responded with as good a summary of my argument as I could have written: “We all feel like we have to be experts in everything so we don’t get scammed,” writes Jenny. “We’re skeptical of all info because we don’t want to be duped. Paranoia has set in.” The word “paranoid” is a good word, though complicated by the fact that, as the saying goes, just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Still, the thing about being scammed once, no matter how minor, is that it conditions you to look for the scam where there might not be one.
There is a lot to be said about how profitable it is to manipulate people’s fears, especially when it comes to scams like claiming Donald Trump really won the election, or that the government is hiding a secret Covid cure from you. But so many of our institutional failures have made us so ready to believe that there is some hidden information that only we can find.
I had a run-in with this type of thinking just this week. I had been following a holistic health counselor on social media with whom I have worked in the past. She encourages food diaries and mindful eating, that kind of thing. Her classes are fairly innocuous. They introduce you to the joys of bulgur wheat and give you new recipes. I have liked that she does not focus on weight loss or diet culture. And her advice was aligned with things that medical doctors say. Eat real food, don’t eat too much of it and stop eating in the middle of the night. It is pretty apolitical expertise.
But last week, that apolitical counselor made a hard-right turn with a post about Covid cures. She linked to the dubious “Front Line Covid-19 Critical Care Alliance” (FLCCC) to encourage her customers to pursue their “Covid prevention protocols.” I had not heard of the FLCCC. I am a little proud of that. It suggests to me that I do not know people who dabble in nonsense. Anyway, one sentence in her social media post jumped out at me immediately: “This is the truth you won’t hear from partisan media.” The hint of information asymmetry — where some shadowy figure is hiding a critical piece of information — is almost always a red flag. In this case, the appeal is a marketing ploy to tap into the consumer-citizen’s responsibility to find the hidden truth. I unfollowed her.
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