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The fundamental importance of letting people be wrong on the internet

The fundamental importance of letting people be wrong on the internet

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Georgia rapper Bobby Ray Simmons, better known by the pseudonym B.o.B, stirred up a small controversy yesterday with a Twitter barrage suggesting the Earth was flat. The internet's favorite killer of planets and debunker of bogus theories Neil deGrasse Tyson promptly took B.o.B to task, correcting his misguided beliefs. What's more, Tyson offered up the beautifully conciliatory olive branch of suggesting that "being five centuries regressed in your reasoning doesn’t mean we all can’t still like your music." I find the whole episode marvelous, including the subsequent diss track authored by B.o.B as a means to vent his frustrations at being ridiculed for his contentions.

B.o.B is obviously and amusingly wrong in the things he's saying, but he's free and able to say them. That's worth celebrating. There are still many places around the world where opposing the prevailing wisdom comes at great personal cost and risk. So when I see a darling old conspiracy theory being dredged up and so gently euthanized, it makes me smile. It also makes me appreciate the advancement of the so-called developed world: one of the enduring differences between Western democracies and Russia and China is the greater liberty to speak your mind.

That liberty endures, but it's also being eroded by a phenomenon that has its own name: the internet outrage cycle. We've all grown too quick and willing to overreact with disapproval, typically to such trifling things as tweets or assertions like B.o.B has made. Regular people get dogpiled, harassed, and are even subjected to death threats. Heed the wounded lyrics in B.o.B's new song today: "Do I have a voice," he queries, before concluding that "if they weren’t coming for me then, they definitely coming for me now." B.o.B's theories about government conspiracies may be inaccurate, but he's not wrong in asserting his persecution at the hands of the outraged, amorphous internet mob.

Neil Tyson's example is the one we should follow. It does little harm if a rapper somewhere entertains silly ideas about the Earth's shape, and Tyson underlines that in his response to B.o.B. Engaging intelligently and openly with conspiracy theorists of this kind actually provides good exercise for the rest of us who agree with Tyson. I don't have any immediate evidence to cite when dealing with someone who believes the Earth is flat. Why should it offend me if that person questions the established scientific fact? I'm more upset at my own complacency in not recalling the basics I was taught in geography classes.

I don't wish to hold up B.o.B as some paragon of free speech. His ramblings border on the delusional, and his encouragement for people to read up on Holocaust denier David Irving is repugnant. But it's because I disagree with his flat Earth beliefs that I want them out in public view. This gives me the opportunity to contest them — civilly — and offers at least the possibility of spreading enlightenment. B.o.B might still feel overwhelmed by the number of people challenging him, but if we all do it in a polite and respectful manner, it might lead to fewer diss tracks and greater solidarity.