Using Questions to Sow Confusion and Spread Lies

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The Web can be a great place to get answers to questions about complex social and political issues. If you dig in or ask the right questions, you can learn quite a lot. Of course, questions on the Web can be used to sow confusion and sell bad ideas. I was reminded of this fact of life during the week while reading questions on the popular question and answer site Quora. This fake question phenomenon on social media might be causing more problems than people realize. I’ll come back to that question later.

If you’ve never been there, you’ll be surprised by all of the trivia, science, history, and celebrity gossip you can get some false information and some deliberate misinformation masquerading as legitimate attempts to learn. Dishonest questions lead people to misunderstand why certain social problems exist, to discount efforts to solve the problems, to misunderstand the political opposition, and more.

Questions Aren’t Always Legitimate

Asking a question can be a good way to stir up trouble. Asking questions can be a way to spread misinformation, distortions of the truth, and regular old lies. Fake questions come in a variety of forms, but they’ll often start off in one of several ways.

Some questions require mindreading or other supernatural powers:

Does Donald Trump know he is going to prison in 2021?

No comment is needed here.

Why do liberals think the Second Amendment is going away?

That second question references an insidious conservative lie, the lie that liberals are going to repeal the Second Amendment and disarm the country. Answering this question also requires an astounding amount of mindreading. These “mindreading” questions seem to be quite popular.

Some questions use loaded language:

“How long will it take for socialism to destroy this country?”

Depending on your politics, there could be two loaded terms in this question. One of the terms is obvious, the other is ‘socialism.’ Socialism is an economic system characterized by government ownership of property and resources. It doesn’t matter if North Korea has one now. What matters is whether socialism would necessarily wreck the economy or quality of life. No one knows. They can only guess and are those guesses ever based on rational analysis.

Misleading or made-up statistics spread ignorance that looks like understanding sometimes, as in this example:

“Black people kill eight times as many black people as white people do. Why doesn’t Black Lives Matter focus on this?”

This question has two dishonest components. Firstly, you could easily Google Black Lives Matter and learn what their goals are. Secondly, where did that number ‘eight’ come from? To be honest, I made it up to illustrate a point. You could look up homicide statistics and you’d probably find the number is exaggerated.

Not Just a Quora Thing

You will find similar phenomena playing out on Facebook and YouTube. I’ve never used Yahoo answers, but a quick look suggests it has as much troll material as Quora does. Here are a few questions that appear on the Home page of Yahoo Answers on June 12, 2020, and my commentary:

“Why do liberals hate my guns?”

Obvious Troll is obvious. Again, we don’t know what liberals think or that they ALL hate these inanimate objects. This “question” is just an effort to get people wound up.

“Why do Antifa, CNN, BLM, and virtue-signaling anti-racists act like Nazis of the 1930s?”

Briefly, this question might be a troll question or it might be a legitimate effort to confuse people about what progressives or Leftists actually want. It would take me 30 minutes or more to unpack all of the vague, emotionally loaded, and historically nonsensical thinking reflected here.

“Why do people think they don’t have to go back to work and can live off unemployment forever because of Coronavirus (sic)?”

This question reads like the work of a teenager or an incompetent troll. The question assumes a fact that hasn’t been verified — Are there hundreds of thousands of people using the pandemic to “leach” off of unemployment instead of taking whatever work they can get?

If you study discussions of social problems on Facebook or YouTube, you’ll find similar dishonest questions about immigration, gun control, climate change

This Stuff Really Matters

You might think some stupid troll questions online don’t mean much. Maybe so, but consider a couple of facts about the Web. You don’t even need numbers to know that almost everyone in the United States uses Yahoo Answers, Facebook, YouTube, or Quora — and for information on current events, not just for fun or for education.

The second issue is a bit more nebulous and potentially WAY more important. The thinking behind fake questions undermines our ability to think about social problems. If racists convince us that black people cause their own problems, then we don’t need a national conversation about systemic racism? You could ask the same question about sexism, poverty, or climate change.

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Chester Davis

Chester Davis


Sociologist, blogger, and sci-fi writer who cares about sociological thinking, science fiction, sustainability, social change, and nonprofits