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My afternoon with the Twitter conspiracists.

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It all started innocently enough. Somebody I follow on Twitter, re-tweeted a post from somebody I don’t. The post suggested there had been severe wrongdoing in the Thatcher government of the 1980s, including the deeds of Mrs. Thatcher herself, and moreover, that former Foreign Secretary William Hague, should answer for the crimes.

In the interests of fairness and common legal sense I won’t name the crime these tweeters believe to have been committed. But, as I’m sure you’ll glean, it is something morally and criminally abhorrent and of the most serious nature.

Having read the tweet, and being a hard-boiled pedant, I replied to point out that Hague was never part of the Thatcher government. Following up with a link to a report showing that Mrs. Thatcher actively blocked his appointment.
What was I expecting in return? I suppose I subconsciously guessed the tweeter would think me a pompous twit and ignore my correction. This isn’t what happened.

Within seconds, a reply popped into my timeline: ‘whethr he was or wasnt dont hide the fact he covered up (the crime) no matter which tory goverment’ (sic). And there, perhaps, I should have left it. However, although I am a lifelong and vehement opponent of the Tories, it struck me as enormously unfair that Mr. Hague (or anyone else) should find such accusations thrown around social media; unless there was substantial evidence against him.

'My opponent had been re-tweeting everything I wrote and I didn't know why.'

So, I asked the tweeter how he could be so sure of his assertions, where was his proof? Interestingly, he first thanked me for my link showing Hague wasn’t welcome in the Thatcher administration – then, he reverted to bolshiness, stating it is proven fact that Thatcher herself covered up these offences. As it isn’t, I flagged that up too.

As you can probably guess, this back and forth exchange continued for a while. I was politely insisting that such conspiracy-based speculation requires the strongest evidence, he was countering with animated insistence that either the proof is everywhere, or oddly, that the proof was being gathered and would soon be unleashed on the world.

I understand that what happened next is wholly typical of these encounters – but it was new to me. My ‘opponent’ had been re-tweeting everything I wrote. At first, I couldn’t understand why – but soon, I did. Several of the gentleman’s followers quickly piled in. I was a fool if I couldn’t see what they could, they bellowed. Or my requests for evidence indicated that I was part of the conspiracy, even a co-offender. Someone took me on in Dutch, posting links to news stories in a language I don’t speak. None of them was about William Hague.

Wilful misunderstanding rapidly became the overriding theme. A couple of interlopers were convinced I was scared of VIPs. Others that I was a ‘creep’ for disagreeing with their theory (I hadn’t disagreed at any stage, merely asking for their evidence throughout).
‘You dont care about people so im blocking u’ (sic) said a woman I don’t follow and of whom I have no knowledge. She then posted my Twitter name to ITV News and an MP.

I hardly need tell you all these comments appeared in primary school grammar and spelling. What’s more, they were still showing up in my timeline the next morning (particularly the Dutch correspondent, who’s still banging on as I write).

Through a mixture of dismay and boredom I ceased to engage with this group, which they saw as an indication they had thwarted me; I watched as they congratulated each other. I am most grateful to the solitary soul who chipped in to say he agreed, there cannot be credible accusation without evidence.

In truth, I didn’t find any of this unpleasant. I wasn’t insulted, upset or fearful. I wasn’t being trolled or threatened, but I had entered a world of extraordinary conviction and failing logic.

There is every reason to scrutinise those who govern us, and to hold them to account for their failings. It is entirely possible that criminal activity of the worst kind has been indulged and tolerated at the highest levels of government. What I found troubling was the fundamentalist nature of the belief in this supposed conspiracy. These people weren’t searching for truth, just each others’ vindication and approval. There was a very strong scent of ‘cult’ about the conversation. I could never know what they knew. There was no obligation to prove their claims, because they were ‘right’ and that was that. The hostility towards me, an outsider, was very telling. They reacted as though I was disrupting a private party. I was the unwelcome gatecrasher, turning on the lights and spoiling the fun.

I strongly suspect some of these conspiracists are quite damaged people, and I hope they find some peace. Nevertheless, I’m sure there is another subset of those appalled and angry at a spectrum of injustice and corruption. Unfortunately, their determination and energy is wildly misdirected and mismanaged. They will never expose anything, nor achieve the equity and redress they seek, because they cannot form an argument from evidence, or answer challenges calmly or coherently.
In a world that is certainly riven with self-serving machinations and outright cruelty, this woolly-minded double thought plays straight into the hands of those they seek to defeat.

Magnus Shaw is a blogger, copywriter and consultant.

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