23rd Mar 2023


The trap of spreading ideas while attacking them

  • People shared Trump's tweets by the millions - while ostensibly criticising them. In fact, they helped to spread Trump's message

The silence of former US president Donald Trump in the media and more importantly, on social media, is shocking.

It might be compared with a sudden disappearance of tinnitus, that permanent sound in one's ear.

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Once it is gone, you quickly forget it ever annoyed you. Now one month after the inauguration of Joe Biden, few people seem to miss the tinnitus tweeting of Trump.

One thing we often forget is that most of us participated in the spreading of his messages.

Media put his crazy tweets on front pages, as Trump pushed all other news to the inner pages. But it's not just the media, it's almost everyone, and I am not talking about Trump's supporters.

Millions of people spread the ideas of Trump by attacking it.

It's almost annoying to see this happening over and over again. I see on my timelines on Facebook and Twitter how masses of people share news that they disagree with.

With this they fall exactly into the trap that the messenger - whether it is Trump or someone else - has set for them.

Because as advertising gurus say: there is no such thing as bad publicity. Or as Oscar Wilde puts it, in The Picture of Dorian Gray: "there is one thing worse than being talked about - and that is not being talked about."

That is what the Trumps of this world have understood very well, and where we unwillingly help them.

Ideas that are attacked are in fact actually promoted. That has been the case for centuries. Take the 13th century, for example, a period that I have studied a little more thoroughly.

When the ideas of the Andalusian philosopher Ibn Rushd, known in Europe as Averroes (1126-1198) were translated from Arabic into Latin, they caused a scandal. Several of those ideas, such as the unity of the intellect or the mortality of the soul, went head-on against Christian dogmas.

Thomas Aquinas and other Christian thinkers wrote pamphlets against Averroes' ideas. In this way they helped spread his ideas and ensured that Averroes remained popular until the 16th century.

It can be even stranger. The Islamic theologian al-Ghazali, in the 11th century, made it a practice to first summarise the ideas of his opponents before attacking them. He did it so well that people understood those ideas better.

One of those summaries of another Muslim philosopher, Ibn Sina or Avicenna, was translated into Latin in the 13th century without the following attack. Because of this, it was thought for centuries that al-Ghazali was actually a disciple of Avicenna.

But we should not go that far back to see how we ourselves help spread extremist ideas. ISIS or the Islamic State was a perfect example.

Horror sells

The leaders of ISIS understood very well that horror sells. Every video in which they beheaded someone with a knife was eagerly shared on social media.

It didn't matter that people condemned what they shared. It was distributed.

When people got fed up with the beheadings, ISIS went a step further and burned people in a cage. Or were there attacks, in which the faces of the perpetrators, and therefore of ISIS, went around the world again.

In this way, terrorists became the 'heroes' they otherwise never would have been. In addition, we all helped ISIS achieve their goal of creating fear and terror around the world.

Attacking ideas also has another consequence. People who believe in conspiracy theories think they belong to some kind of enlightened minority.

They have discovered the truth and look down on those who – in their eyes - have not yet done so. Any major attack on their theories is only a confirmation to them that it is all correct.

For the hardcore Trump voter or supporter of Hungarian authoritarian prime minister Viktor Orban, an attack by so-called right-minded people strengthens group thinking or 'us against the rest'.

So, we should perhaps ask ourselves that if we don't believe the Earth is flat, maybe we should stop spreading their messages by ridiculing them.

If we hear another conspiracy theory of anti-vaxxers, maybe we should better ignore them.

And now that Trump has gone - at least temporarily - there will soon be another person replacing him with crazy statements. Maybe we should learn our lesson, and just shrug our shoulders.

Doing nothing at all might for once be the best favour to give to democracy and the rule of law.


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