I've been troubled by this recent Slate Star Codex piece since it came out. It's very strange to see normal, true statements delivered in the deeply strange format of low-effort conspiracy memes. Well, the examples contain true thesis statements. Not everything they say is true, really. They actually sort of suck, and I'm not sure if that's avoidable.
Of course, as pastiche it's probably as good as you could make it – Scott Alexander outdid himself. But is there a way to use the format that seems to trick so many people, but harness whatever persuasion-power it has for better ends?
Maybe, if you can keep your lunch down while you do it.
I think the part that did it for me was the conclusion of the first one, "anti-American liberals would be DEVASTATED to learn their precious Obama is no immigrant at all, but from America- the very country they are against!" Again, as pastiche, that's pretty good, although a bit over the top, I think. My concern is that, if you wanted to replace that sentence with one that didn't completely stink, the pastiche would fall apart.
This isn't just about facts, it's about tone and etiquette (putting no fault on Scott Alexander). If, like me, you don't mind people being wrong, but hope for super high quality conversations between people that disagree, this genre seems to demand a fraction of your soul. Even if it was persuasive (I'm pretty sure these memes are just a flimsy excuse for people to think whatever ideas they like, and the format doesn't enhance the experience), it ought to be a tool we forgo. No individual point is worth the tone.
I'm also not entirely sure "Obama was born in America" is more important to persuade people about than "liberals are anti-American". That trade-off isn't explicitly made – and while you could say the audience for these already believes that, and it isn't justified like the thesis is, it is present – but it's something to consider. Writing and reading everyone assume liberals are anti-American can, in some ways, be more irresponsible than defending it – it shows a higher social cost to contradicting it, even if the threshold for doing so is lower. We weren't even arguing about it, and now you're calling us out?
It's scholar-bait – if you care about statements and weighing evidence and generally trying to be more right than wrong, and don't care as much about the social costs of contradicting someone, of course you'll jump in. But I've had a few of these memes shared by people I know, and scholarship is not their passion. The audience for conspiracy memes (shocker, I know) is not the most deliberate in their consideration of an idea's flaws. So perhaps just assuming something is true is more persuasive than anything that gets argued to them.
I am a bit more optimistic about people believing in the truth than most people seem to be, though. The internet is a master class on media literacy, and nonsense seems to prey disproportionately on those with less experience with it (notably, the elderly). But if you grew up with this kind of nonsense, like me, your BS-detection can be substantially sharper – without that, you'd spin out to real deep weirdness pretty quick.