You may have heard that Sean Hannity is a Russian agent, that the Sandy Hook shootings were a hoax, that James M. Buchanan was head of a right-wing cabal set on destroying American democracy, that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, or that Hillary Clinton and John Podesta, savages, ran an international child sex ring from the basement of a D.C. pizzeria with no basement. You may have heard that. You may even have believed it. We humans have a unique capacity for gullibility, particularly when our tribal instincts are triggered.
The Bogucharovo peasants put this gullibility on full display in today’s chapter. We’re first introduced to their susceptibility to fake news with the story of the “warm rivers.” Here, some twenty-years before the events of War and Peace, rumors spread of a better life to be had in the southeast of Russia along the banks of some mysterious “warm rivers.” So the peasants either bought their freedom or ran away in order to find these warm rivers. The warm rivers, it turned out, didn’t exist. Many of the peasants died on the road to the warm rivers and many more were punished for their desertion.
Today these strange currents of gullibility are back. The Bogucharovo peasants now have it in their heads that the French are their friends and the Cossacks are devastating their lands. So, rather than flee to the relative safety of Moscow or elsewhere they have decided to remain at home.
Why do we continuously fall for such outlandish fabrications?
One reason may be found in the Illusory Truth Effect. The basic idea is that if a lie is repeated often enough it become misremembered as fact rather than fiction. That’s why viral fake news is so dangerous today. If left unchecked a lie can be built up into a fortress of fact.
Be wary, then, of rumors of warm waters. Really think about all you read and hear or else, like these poor Bogucharovo peasants, you’ll suffer whatever consequences there are for belief in such falsity.
In order to protect ourselves we must live like doctors and be continually treating ourselves with reason.
Musonius Rufus, Plutarch’s Moralia (On the Control of Anger)