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A plague of fallacies has devoured the internet This is the Golden Age of online charlatanism

The internet is a melting pot of ideas and adverts. Credit: Getty

The internet is a melting pot of ideas and adverts. Credit: Getty


June 27, 2024   6 mins

We lived, without knowing it then, on the other side of the digital chasm. I know the first time I heard the word “internet”: on a trek through Ness Woods in Northern Ireland. My father, self-taught and insatiably curious, told us about an invention that will “spread like a web across the planet, changing everything”. One of the requirements of parenthood is to be not only a rock but also a punchbag as your child tests their boundaries and pushes their luck. My sister and I, two diminutive harpies, immediately began teasing him about his crystal-ball predictions, which he weathered with his usual stoical roll of the eyes. 

What fools we were. 

Though Generation X were the last of the analogue humans, we had grown up with computers. But the internet was vast, exponentially so, and would impact every aspect of life. It was, to my young mind, an ecumenopolis, a colossal world city, incandescent with possibility. My first visit to an internet café was mind-blowing, as jerry-built as it was in retrospect. Long-used to relatives heading off to Boston and beyond and vanishing, it was astonishing to communicate with complete strangers in real-time, with ease and at little expense, on the other side of Earth. 

It was an intoxicating force. But the rapturous delirium could not last.

The internet was to cause a rupture even deeper than the printing press, manned flight or mass electrification. And yet my feeling is that the real divide was not before and after the internet; but rather before and after its transformation from an ever-expanding cosmos of potential and its contraction into the global village where we’re now trapped. An expansionist universe collapsing into neo-feudalism. This is the story of how the market eats everything including our wildest dreams — and it does so because of a language trick that we cannot resist. 

“It was an intoxicating force. But the rapturous delirium could not last.”

In pre-modern times, charlatans preyed upon superstitions, reading portents in comets or flogging bones. With the emergence of modern science came alchemists promising elixirs of youth or the transmutation of lead into gold. The Industrial Revolution gave rise to all manner of swindlers boasting mechanical and medical cure-alls. Oscilloclasts would cure any malady through radiowaves. Daffy’s Elixir could ease everything from the Vapours to King’s Evil. Coca-Cola was enough to dispel morphine addiction. Some innovators believed in their products, even when the costs were severe — the quietening syrups that sent Victorian babies into permanent sleep or revitalising Radium cures that caused jaws to crumble. Medicine shows are seen as the high-water mark of this tendency: travelling fairs of confidence tricksters who would alleviate locals of their money and naivety. Then they disappeared, absorbed into the unholy pan-global entity of 21st-century advertising.   

It is difficult to accept, gazing down from the lofty heights of progress on the sinners and dupes of the past, that we reside in the Golden Age of charlatanism. We like to think we’ve developed a thick skin towards commerce — but objects are the least of our worries. It’s no longer a question of being sold dubious products. 

Today’s corporations now deal in intangibles: lifestyles, philosophies, diets, self-image and ambition have all become marketable assets. They are promising us shortcuts to status, vital in an age of precarious hustling, as well as quick fixes to our innumerable economic, political and spiritual deficits. They’re selling the grift — or rather the prospect of escape from it. They’re delivered to us not by the outdatedly gauche media of billboards and television, but directly injected into social media, attuned via algorithms to our tastes and inadequacies. 

I open Instagram stories and am instantly bombarded with snake-oil salespeople hawking life-changing tonics, none of which come in a bottle. I’m told my life is unfulfilled, and I believe it, as life inevitably is, and they’ve the solitary answer. And so, they arrive, following earlier errant clicks, the desire lines of my own self-betrayals. One pitch tells me I need to manifest my desires. Another to embrace moderation. A third that I need to protect my child from mobile phones. Another that I should confront my toxic masculinity. Magnesium will save me. Masturbation will steal my life-force. Today’s episode is brought to you by the letter “M”. Each is a rabbit hole of TED talks “Smart Thinking” replicants, Faustian apps and Kafkaesque subscriptions, which will relieve me of my time and debit card details. 

Every good liar knows the best lies are wrapped around a nugget of truth. If we combined and enacted all the advice of social media, then perhaps physical excellence, sound mental health, enlightenment, happiness, even, might well await. Yet professional liars know the greatest lure is the unattainable and immeasurable. It’s these seductive delusions, cascading on the infinite scroll of social media, that have collapsed the internet. How did this happen?

The answer lies in the constants of the medieval village, which our global village now mimics. Festivities are periodic. Tyrants come and go. The function of the town square is to sell, regardless. Post-Reformation, the market is all. The new faith. There are many fallacies in terms of sales (cost bias, appeal to closure, sales puff, Dunning–Kruger effect etc). These might be seen as positive, at least for the hucksters, but the real profit and damage is to be made in the shadow-side. Consider what constitutes the medieval village and our own version of it.

We still have the feudal lords — CEOs, politicians etc — along with the town criers and priests of the chattering class, in thrall to the establishment while feigning to critique it. Crucially, ambitions and dreams are not the only exploited fare. All our natural fears, neurosis, envy and malice, exacerbated by living in a time when everything feels like it’s in (mis)managed decline, can be directed not to their source or solution but to the promise of temporary catharsis. This is exacted upon whoever happens to be languishing in the stocks of the global village square at any given moment, for anything from a semantic to a sexual infraction. Whatever justice, retribution or cleansing this does or does not bring, it changes nothing in the larger scheme of things. It is designed to change nothing, other than venting very real pressures through successive social media moral panics and individualised punishments.

How could we be so sophisticated and yet so susceptible? Leon Trotsky wrote of Germany mutating into the Third Reich: “Not only in peasant homes, but also in city skyscrapers, there lives alongside the 20th century the 13th.” I know this quote not directly but from its inclusion in one of the great overlooked prophetic texts of our time — Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World (1995).

The book is a jeremiad for science and against ignorance. According to Sagan, rigorous enquiry is the best way to begin to understand existence and gain a foothold in our own destiny. Science, he argues, is too important to be left to scientists and that a population which abandons it will be doomed. Though he’s most scathing towards monetised pseudoscience and organised religion (“We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every 12 hours”), he also warns that science is never absolutely certain or settled, and to suggest so is unscientific. It’s not a series of sacred precepts but rather a constantly developing and self-critical way of seeing the world. Even Isaac Newton, sacrosanct for centuries, was proved inaccurate by Albert Einstein. 

When scientists believe, dogmatically or egotistically, they become priests. But science is, or should be, a “built in error-correcting machine” requiring constant maintenance and good faith. The rust that devours and endangers the machine is the same plague that has made the internet feel, paradoxically, smaller than it was; it is the plague of fallacies.

The fallacies of the internet are legion. Sagan makes it through around a dozen, but all are rife now. Ad hominem. No True Scotsman. Arguments from authority. Sunken cost. Straw men. Whataboutery. Scapegoat. The law of the excluded middle. Motte-and-bailey. Like most evils, they’re exceptionally tempting, somewhere between a language game and a mind-hack to deceive and distract your opponent. Victory ensues but at the cost of an accruing deficit with reality. It’s the refuge of every debating scoundrel and it is an epidemic online. 

Today, the market encourages weaponised fallacies in their most pernicious and dangerous forms, aided by the architecture of social media: deliberate brevity that prevents nuance, complexity or contextualisation; biased, monetised algorithms; the deliberate stirring of controversy for the metrics; the reliance on dopamine surges and adrenaline rushes; the manufacture of hyper-partisan echo-chambers; the raising of discourse to a hysterical pitch. In a neoliberal age when substantive political change seems unachievable, the battlefields are almost entirely in the realm of linguistics and signifiers. The more ineffectual in actual life, the more heated, brutal, righteous and unforgiving online. 

The problem might be an inability to adapt to a mercantile age. Though Sagan alludes to the source of our animus, he has a blind spot regarding the influence of the market. He realises that “spurious accounts that snare the gullible are readily available”, while “scepticism does not sell well”. And he argues against the “dumbing down of America” through “the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media”. He laments the world of “30-second sound bites”. And yet he fails to see that the market is not only the primary beneficiary of “entrepreneurial” panaceas but also the pillories and gallows of the global village, as distraction, catharsis and deterrent. 

It was this that made the online world claustrophobic, this that betrayed the initial spirit of what the internet could have been. While we tear each apart in false dichotomies, purity spirals, cosplay, and the narcissism of small differences, a deeper tectonic division goes overlooked. The meaningful chasm is between those who use the internet (and are in turn used by it in data harvesting, social engineering, surveillance), and those who profit from and stir the “culture wars” for our engagement and their profit. The Forbes’ list of billionaires is one place to begin. 

How, then, to escape? The answer lies not in answers but the antithesis. For we’re drowning in answers, and almost all of them are merely adverts. Freedom begins instead in endless questioning, uncertainty, beginning again with the scepticism and wonder of children. We must remember that there’s an entire universe out there, even if the stars are hidden by the jaundiced skyglow of the village.


Darran Anderson is the author of Imaginary Cities and Inventory.


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Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
26 days ago

I’ve long been of the opinion that the internet was introduced into the world by Satan to drive humanity mad.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
26 days ago

I know you mightn’t have meant it entirely seriously, but we were already mad; the internet is just a reflection of our madness.

T Bone
T Bone
26 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

Both can be true. I know you’re a Materialist and don’t allow yourself to entertain the notion of God but its extremely difficult to grasp Human Nature without examining the concept of Imagio Dei. I’m not proselytizing, I would just encourage you to examine the concept from an intellectual standpoint.

Just curious, out of the three main social contract theories, which do you buy the most? Hobbes- In the state of nature it’s a war of all vs all so the State is necessary for security. Locke- in the state of nature, man is calculating and acts in self-interest and the State is only necessary to secure those self-interests or Rousseau- man is cooperative and harmonious in the state of nature. The State is only necessary to promote cooperation and the general will of the collective and in doing so, the collective interest becomes synonymous with self-interest of the Individual?

Thomas K.
Thomas K.
26 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

From a theological perspective (I know, I know. I just disqualified everything I’m about to say to a significant portion of people reading this), both almost certainly are true. The internet preys upon everything vile in the human spirit and can corrupt what is good into that vileness, which would certainly be the work of Satan. But at the same time, what is evil within humanity is only there because of Satan in the first place, having been the one who tempted Adam and Eve into eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that placed within us the seeds of his own evil and the root of our corruption. The knowledge of Evil is what spurs us to such negative and destructive impulses, but the knowledge of Good would pull us towards something higher. This of course would be abhorrent to the Dark Prince, thus necessitating the construction of such and infernal mechanism as this to further debase and erode God’s creation, to ‘finish the job’ as it were.

I don’t know. Probably just me making fantastical assumptions about scripture that isn’t there. I’m very much a layman, and not even a practicing member of any religious denomination. But it’s certainly an interesting and striking metaphor for the nature of human consciousness, even for the irreligous or the non-Christian.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
25 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

“I know you’re a Materialist…”

No you don’t; you’re just incapable of envisaging a spiritual life beyond the received dogmatic expressions and therefore use a term such as “Materialist” for want of imagination.

T Bone
T Bone
25 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

I used the term Materialist because I thought it was more descriptive than Atheist. There was no hostility in my comment. You took way too much offense to an inoffensive post.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
25 days ago
Reply to  T Bone

I took your own words “I know you are…” at face value – would you rather i did otherwise? I find nothing offensive in the term “atheist” whereas “materialist” is both reductive and almost diametrically opposed to my own values. Take from that what you wish – but “know me” you do not. Your response just doesn’t wash.

T Bone
T Bone
25 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

I know your alter ego, Lancanshire Lad by what you write. I clearly don’t know you because I falsely assumed you had thicker skin.

If you’re going to regularly attack the sanity and/or intelligibility of “Dogmatic” Christianity than you should conceive the obvious relativism of Atheist “spirituality.” Unlike Materialism which is a coherent position, Spiritual Atheism has no foundation. It’s trying to square a circle.

Mark M Breza
Mark M Breza
25 days ago

You are an oxymoron !

Adam Bartlett
Adam Bartlett
26 days ago

An stimulating & fine bit of writing, though maybe a little pessimistic. It might be equally valid to see the internet as the new & improved Great Library of Alexander.

David Morley
David Morley
25 days ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

I think that was the hope, and of course it still is in part. But much of it is now the very mediocre and rather mindless library of Babylon. The big change was the rise of social media.

Norfolk Sceptic
Norfolk Sceptic
25 days ago
Reply to  David Morley

It depends on the company you keep.

Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs
25 days ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Somehow I doubt that the Great Library of Alexander contained quite so much incest p0rn.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
25 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jobs

Yes, a really really disturbing feature of our time.

Point of Information
Point of Information
25 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jobs

You are aware of the marriage practices of the Pharaohs? Not to mention the Book of Genesis?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
25 days ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

I used to think so too until I read about how publishers can change the text in ebooks so as to reflect the mores of our times. Even before ebooks I remember a favorite author of mine having to change her novel because it portrayed evil homosexual characters which at the time was seen as an obstacle to the pride movement.
I wonder if the same can be done with digitalized textbooks and novels of the past through background updates and such.

David Harris
David Harris
25 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

And Winston Smith doing his endless re-writing of old news…

William Knorpp
William Knorpp
25 days ago
Reply to  Adam Bartlett

Or Borges’s library of Babel.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
25 days ago

Matthew 18:3.

Andrew R
Andrew R
25 days ago

It’s no better with open editorials, no trace of objectivity but full of sophistry, just one “begging the question” article after another.

Kathleen Burnett
Kathleen Burnett
25 days ago

An otherwise excellent essay, only spoiled by the author’s desire to over-enrich every sentence. Does writing for Unherd draw contributors into this unnecessary style?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
25 days ago

Yes, good point. Over-enriched sentences do indeed detract from an excellent theme; I must read Sagan’s book –

David Dansky
David Dansky
25 days ago

Over-enrichment and repetition does seem a house style.

While I enjoy, agree with, and am challenged by much on Unherd, I tend to skim read articles after I get the main point.

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
25 days ago

Oh I don’t know, I think it’s good that writers can stretch out a little in the online environment. I don’t think he overdid it.

Danny D
Danny D
23 days ago

I actually found the writing quite pleasing, but yeah the prose does make it a bit cumbersome to get to the substance of the point the author is trying to make.

Nathan Sapio
Nathan Sapio
23 days ago

Agreed, I began enthusiastically but had to return multiple times to finally finish the piece

Richard Calhoun
Richard Calhoun
25 days ago

The internet includes us all, no longer are people being excluded, hence the revolution in our politics and global politics.
The Charlatans are being exposed in a way they never could before .. its going to be a long lasting revolution.
What goes round comes round!

Angus Douglas
Angus Douglas
25 days ago

Great piece…thank you.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
25 days ago

To merge him with Baudrillard, in Derrida´s old terms the ecstacy of communication is a gift – both a marvellous artifact seemingly bestowed upon us from above and a poison (das Gift in German).
For this ecstacy is also a pathology and one capable of remoulding the human mind. It has already reshaped the business of politics and political power, and may well carve out a radically different mode of educating the young, who will likely abandon book learning in the years to come and focus on more interactive digital resources, arguably produced by AI.
Hence, the world city is a digital-virtual concept in regard to which democracy will be the first casualty- at least in its former iterations.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
25 days ago

“The meaningful chasm is between those who use the internet (and are in turn used by it in data harvesting, social engineering, surveillance), and those who profit from and stir the “culture wars” for our engagement and their profit. The Forbes’ list of billionaires is one place to begin.”
Does he think those billionaires do not use the internet themselves? Does he think we lowly users would not profit if we were able? Is this perhaps a standard Marxist critique, gussied up to address our current technological maladies?
There is no “chasm” between these two groups; indeed, there aren’t even two groups – just a constantly shifting line between people who produce and people who consume; we are all both from time to time, and often both simultaneously.
The problems inherent in these technological advancements demand much more subtle investigation and analysis.

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
25 days ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

But a chasm does exist in that the mechanism for participating in the very small world of hyper-wealth and power is not at all equally available. Even well-educated people outside the circular confines of venture capital, academic tech incubators (Stanford, MIT, Cal Tech, etc.), or with social connections to them are excluded. By the time those start ups go public the big money has already been made and, as often the case with SPACs, the suckers are the ones buying long after the smart guys know the score and cashed out. Sure a few little guys get lucky here and there but the gulf between the hyper-wealthy and everyone else is exponential. If it were only about money and standard of living it would be mostly mimetic desire that disquiets; however, an ever shrinking number of powerful people are determining the course of humanity by using their wealth to manipulate nominally democratic institutions. Do you really believe that because Mark Zuckerberg and I both use the internet or that my willingness to profit as he has “if I were able” implies all is well in this neo-feudal racket? This isn’t the 19th and 20th centuries with the twin poles of Capitalism vs Marxism anymore. You need to read about Accelerationism and its proponents like Sam Altman of AI fame.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
24 days ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

Huh? I hardly deny that Mark Zuckerberg’s wealth and position give him no more influence in the world than I have; obviously they do. The question is: who should have wealth and influence in the world and why? Mark Zuckerberg did (allegedly) create the world’s most widely used social network, which literally billions of people enthusiastically use to their own satisfaction and profit on a daily basis. I did not do that. While I think I am pretty awesome (and so does my mother), what have I done to deserve Zuckerberg-ian levels of influence or wealth?
There are already plenty of mechanism for ‘ordinary citizens’ to get involved in the political process – but they do require an extraordinary investment of time and energy… dare I say, an investment of time and energy not dissimilar to the one made by Zuckerberg in building Facebook. Are there people who think ‘political influence’ should be equally distributed? Do they think the bum on the street corner *should* have much influence in shaping public policy as we brilliant UnHerd posters?

Ex Nihilo
Ex Nihilo
23 days ago
Reply to  Kirk Susong

You are making the very retrograde case for oligarchy. There was a time when, for the very reasons you profess to believe, the voting franchise in the U.S. for example, was not open to the elements of society deemed unworthy of casting a ballot. Voting itself was restricted by the very notion you express in disparaging “the bum on the street corner”. Back then land ownership was the epitome of wealth and power, and a surrogate for enlightened meritocratic “votership”. Hence, only property owners were allowed to vote. Women and slaves, who also did not possess power or wealth were likewise excluded. Your saying that wealthy and powerful people should wield disproportionate influence is a throwback to regressive ideals. Wealth and power will, by their very nature, axiomatically confer disproportionate influence upon those who possess them; which is precisely why, in matters of government, the franchise should be broad and mechanisms of governance crafted to prevent democratic ideals to be swallowed up by oligarchs like Zuckerberg. Perhaps you believe that such moguls arrived at their station purely by virtue of their merit and worth and therefore have much insight to contribute. But what happens when the scions of these wealthy titans, children who merely inherit power and wealth come of age without earning the privilege of power now available to them? Voila, feudalism; a permanent class of power and wealth that is no longer based upon merit but continues to exert disproportionate influence.

Kirk Susong
Kirk Susong
18 days ago
Reply to  Ex Nihilo

It doesn’t appear you answered my question… Who should have wealth and influence and ‘soft power’ in a society? The ‘Good’ I suppose? And how do we identify them?

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
25 days ago

The biggest charlatans are not on the net. The biggest charlatans are the tyrants trying to control the web.

R Jackson
R Jackson
25 days ago

Like fire (and alcohol), the internet is a great servant but a terrible master.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
25 days ago

For all of its potential value, technology – perhaps the pace of it – has outstripped our ability to use it wisely. Look around at the people trapped, by choice, in digital worlds, transfixed by a small screen to the exclusion of the reality around them.
It’s in restaurants where couples ignore each other but not their digital friends. It’s in gyms where people go through the motions as quickly as possible so that they can return to what is obviously more interesting on their smartphones. It’s in the endless events unfolding before people’s very eyes, but they’re too busy wanting to record the scenes rather than enjoy them.
Also, the ease with which information can be found inversely correlates to the ability to retain that information. In the old days, when one had to go to a library, go through the catalog system to for the appropriate books, then find those books and read them, what was learned was not easily lost. It took too much effort to learn. Now, answers are instant and forgotten almost as quickly as they are found.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
25 days ago

Let’s face it, folks. The internet is proof of that most distasteful theory; there is no free will.

Kelly Madden
Kelly Madden
25 days ago

Sagan? Really.

“We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every 12 hours.”

Carl, your list of fallacies doesn’t include the False Dichotomy, I see. How truly representative of our benighted time, to frame the problem thus.

The prophet we need is not Sagan, but Galadriel (Tolkien):
”And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth. And for two and a half thousand years, the ring passed out of all knowledge.”

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
25 days ago

I wonder how the seven deadly sins were formulated prior to the formulation of the internet. Perhaps the author is simply repeating an ancient plaint, attaching it to the latest new thing as generations before have cited whatever was their new thing.

Mike SampleName
Mike SampleName
25 days ago

As a Gen X, I first encountered the internet as an adult. I was… Sceptical from the off, and this was long before social media. One of the most important lessons I passed to my son – which applies both on and offline – is that when someone tells you something, question why they are telling you as much as what.

S B
S B
25 days ago

 “We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every 12 hours”
Which is a ‘Black or White’ fallacy.

Citizen Diversity
Citizen Diversity
24 days ago

There is nothing new under the sun.
This is the constant refrain of the preacher, Ecclesiastes, in the Old Testament. He is expressing the belief held by ancient societies that all knowledge had already been discovered by the wise men of the past.
All that was necessary for the enquirer to do was to refer to these wise men, as one might use an instruction manual. The scientific outlook that always expects to find new things was absent from this.
This is how nomadic peoples, such as the Aboriginal Australians, lived. In such societies, the sum total of knowledge needed for everyday life was small.

Dr Illbit
Dr Illbit
24 days ago

For those interested in a couple of back issues on the topic:

https://staltz.com/the-web-began-dying-in-2014-heres-how.html

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
24 days ago

I wonder if our addiction to technology is about our feelings of control. It’s much easier to control what happens on a small screen than events taking place in the world around us.