I bet I could get you to believe that the world was flat.
At least I’m pretty sure that I could get you to shove aside everything that you’ve ever learned or read about the round earth–I could get you to deny your own experience and the expertise of every expert on this round planet–and fully embrace a flat earth.
All I’d need to do is get into your social media apps, search up “flat earth real” and click on 3 or 4 posts that support this preposterous assertion.
By clicking on these few posts, the algorithm that decides what you see (and what you don’t see) on social media would be changed, and all but your most closely held opinions and beliefs would change in a few short months. You’d gradually see more posts about the flat earth, and if you read them, you’d find “proofs” that you will, at first, doubt, but eventually you would wonder, “Could this be true?” These carefully curated posts would mock the ridiculous round Earthers and debunk their so-called “science.” In about 6 months, you’d be a fundamentalist flat earther.
A year ago, I never would have made such a bet. I didn’t believe it was possible. But from what I’ve seen in the last few months, I have lost all faith in humanities ability to maintain a grip on reality in the Tik Tok/Facebook/Twitter/Instagram saturated world.
I should have known. I’ve read Othello. (Why would I ever think that Shakespeare was just writing some fun fiction when he wrote Othello?) Othello is a great soldier who’s has the best, most faithful wife a guy could ever have. Her name is Desi. Iago, one of Othello’s attendants, gets into Othello’s social media, changes the algorithm, and Othello ends up strangling Desi on their bed because he thinks, no he knows, that she’s been unfaithful. He knows until she’s dead. Then he finds out the truth. Too late. Tragedy.
When I was a kid there was a lot of concern about cults. Our parents were worried that when went off to college, there was a 50/50 chance of us becoming bourgeois or joining a cult. They hoped for the first, and feared the latter. I remember being a little freaked out by the Moonies myself. I knew they got you, somehow, by making you lose all grip on reality. This worried me because somehow they got you without you even knowing they were doing it. The fear really kicked in with Jim Jones, who coerced his followers to commit mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. How do rational people end up in that mess? A few years after that, I was at a party and there were these young people all wearing red: red pants, red shirts, red socks, the whole deal. I asked them, “What’s with all the red?” and they told me that they were followers of a spiritual teacher named Rajneesh. Look him up on Wikipedia, interesting stuff–these dudes were in a cult, and some of them would end up badly. As young people, we were often warned about the brainwashing that was a part of this fervent, irrational loyalty toward cult leaders.
I did some research about brainwashing when I started wondering about the “Two-Minute Hate” in 1984 by George Orwell. It turns out there are a few common factors in the recruitment practices of cults to attract the kind of followers that would deny their past, reject their family, and abandon all reason.
Here’s how they brainwash you:
- They create stress so that the target becomes emotionally vulnerable. It doesn’t matter what kind of stress, physical, emotional, spiritual–there just needed to be stress.
- They make the target feel loved, special or unique.
- They isolate the target–they can’t have access to family or newspapers–those things offer perspective because perspective can wreck everything.
- They keep the disciple caught between fear and belonging. The fear creates enemies of the world, enemies of the family. Fear drives you back into the loving arms of the cult for the reassurance of belonging.
After the early 80s, I hadn’t thought too much about cults. But somewhere around 2015, we started to see people begin to believe all sorts of ridiculous things. Now in the Covid-19 pandemic, the lunacy has gone off the charts. I think I know why. The pandemic coupled with social media has created the same conditions necessary for brainwashing.
- The pandemic and associated lockdowns created stress. We don’t need a cult leader anymore–social media provides everything that a cult leader would.
- It provided the consistent message that “You are special and unique.”
- A cult would confiscate your phone to cut all contact from the outside world, but what if the phone becomes the very thing that isolates your from those who could actually bring you back to reality? Because of the isolation of the lockdowns and social distancing, our main contact with the world was mediated by social media and the algorithms decided what we wanted, what we needed. We were isolated from reality, we lost all sense of perspective and everything and everyone in the outside world became the enemy.
- This created the necessary fear. Fear creates enemies of those who would see us thrive. Social media news, politicians and talk show hosts wanting to increase supporters and viewers by exploiting the fear, they offer the solace of belonging.
I have seen people who I know to be devout Christians, abandoning the central tenants of our faith and defending ideas that are blatantly contrary to the teachings of Jesus. All in the name of Jesus. They are denying past experience, previously held religious beliefs, family, and reason. Like cult followers, we don’t think how everyone else thinks. We reject all other voices that might counter the lies and half-truths we’ve been consuming–close friends and family members can’t even talk any sense to us. We think they are the deluded ones. Any doubts we have, send us back to our leader, social media, for reassurance.
Social media has that much power.
That’s why I am so confident that I can get you to believe in absolutely anything if I can get your social media to tell it to you.
So what can we do?
- Be curious. Don’t accept what pops up on your feed even if you completely agree with it. Be curious.
- Then take your curiosity to the right place. Look to the peer-reviewed medical journals. Look at the websites that are reliant on the data and don’t have a political agenda.
- Don’t get your news from social media. Social media is for sharing pics of your dinner plate or selfies or your holiday shots, not news.
- Where to get your news? Consider this chart:
There is a reason that as you move to the center, the adherence to the facts increases as well.
If you want to know what is actually going on, what is actually true, go to the places close to the middle of this chart. If you think that the places in the middle are far more left, or far more right than this chart suggests, it might be an indication of how far you’ve drifted from reality because of social-media-algorithmic-brainwashing.
Still, if you take immediate action, you can reverse this process.