Social media: Tools for spreading fantastical theories have never been more powerful than they are today

Social media: Tools for spreading fantastical theories have never been more powerful than they are today


That frictionless glide on social media from one post to the next, video after video, tweet upon tweet, plays tricks on the mind. Spend enough time in that realm and even the most absurd theories and narratives start to acquire the patina of logic, the ring of reason.

How else to explain the sheer number of QAnon adherents – one in five Americans, according to an analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute – who believe that a secret cabal of paedophile elites, including Tom Hanks and Oprah, run the world or that the Earth is indeed flat, or that the moon landing more than half a century ago was faked, no matter what news broadcaster Walter Cronkite might have said at the time?

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that conspiracy theories weren’t a fixture of American life before the Internet came along. Quite the opposite: for as long as we humans have existed, we’ve dreamt up elaborate theories and fables to explain the inexplicable or, increasingly in our time, the otherwise all too explicable that we refuse to believe. Some of the founders of this country were unashamed conspiracy-mongers.

What those delirious late nights at the computer led me to believe, however, is that tools for spreading such fantastical theories have never been more powerful than they are today and they’ve entered our politics in an unnerving fashion (as anyone paying attention to the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol knows).

Put simply, we don’t stand a chance against the social media companies. Fuelled by highly sophisticated algorithms that maximise “engagement” at all costs by feeding users ever more inflammatory content, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the rest of them don’t simply entertain, inform, or “connect” us.

As New York Times reporter Max Fisher writes in his book The Chaos Machine, “This technology exerts such a powerful pull on our psychology and our identity, and is so pervasive in our lives, that it changes how we think, behave and relate to one another. The effect, multiplied across billions of users, has been to change society itself.”

Spending so much time burrowing into such websites, I came away with a deep sense of just how addictive they are. More than that, they rewire your mind in real-time. I felt it myself. I fear that there’s no path out of our strange, increasingly conspiratorial moment, filled with viral lies and rampant disinformation, without rewriting the algorithms that increasingly govern our lives.

Still, I’m under no illusion that Tweets and memes can adequately explain the schisms in American life and this country’s descent into a more embittered, polarised, us-versus-them cultural moment. Nor can Donald Trump, who is as much a product of the strange Internet world of conspiracies as a cause of it. They are, in fact, the ever-more-virulent symptoms of a country in which it’s not enough to disagree with your opponents. You also have to demonise them as subhuman, criminal, and alien, while, in the process, doing genuine harm to yourself.

In what still passes for the real world, how else to explain the prominence of conspiracy theories like QAnon or the current far-right trend of accusing someone, especially anyone who disagrees with you, of being a “groomer”?

Or how do you account for the existence of a seemingly inextinguishable belief now lurking in our world that one of the country’s prominent political families, the Clintons, are also prolific serial killers who have slaughtered dozens, if not hundreds of people? Or the explosion of those baseless claims I spent all that time exploring about the murdered Seth Rich, claims that would haunt his family for years, denying them even the space to grieve for their own son?

No amount of late-night online sleuthing was going to provide an answer to the larger social ills afflicting this country. Indeed, the more time I spent online, the greater the chasm appeared – so vast, in fact, that I began to wonder whether it could ever be bridged. Nor is this a malady that can be dealt with by politicians or governments, important as they are. It runs even deeper than that.

When I think about the root causes of such societal drift, I return to a phrase I read in a 2021 study that described a “national friendship decline.” According to that survey, “Americans report having fewer close friendships than they once did, talking to their friends less often, and relying less on their friends for personal support.”

The data wasn’t all grim. More than four in 10 respondents said that they had made a new friend during the pandemic. Still, the lockdowns and self-isolation of these Covid years had exacerbated what the survey’s authors called a “loneliness epidemic.”

When I think about those endless Twitter rants and Reddit screeds I encountered, I envision lonely people hunched over their computers in empty apartments, posting and scrolling madly (sometimes in the most literal sense) deep into the night. Loneliness and social isolation, of course, can’t explain away all the mad conspiratorial rants you find on the Internet, nor are they the sole cause of the brittle, increasingly dangerous state of American politics.

But it’s so much easier to resent and rage against a perceived enemy if you’ve never met them or anyone like them, so much easier to cast the other side as the out-group or the villain if you’ve never shared a meal or a coffee or a phone call with them.

I mention that “loneliness epidemic” only to underscore my belief that healing the schism in our culture and politics will require something more difficult and yet simpler than major policy reforms or electing a new generation of officials. Don’t get me wrong: both of those are needed, on both sides of the proverbial aisle.

Today’s politics too often resemble a race to the bottom, as politicians rush to outflank their rivals and whip up their constituencies (often using social media to do it). All the while, powerful interest groups, their lobbyists and a growing billionaire class shape (or sink) the kinds of wholesale changes needed to reboot our political system.

Yet our problems run deeper than that – and the solutions can’t be found in Washington, DC.

One answer is finding ways to knit back together an unbearably frayed nation. Neighbourhood groups, book clubs, sports leagues, civic associations, labour unions, religious groups, whatever it is, the surest way out of this stubborn conflict must come through the simplest of gestures – human connection. The lost art of saying hello.

Tech executives love to talk about the value of “connection” and their goals of “connecting” the world. Almost two decades into the social media era, we should know better than to believe those empty paeans used as cover for the relentless pursuit of profits. Now more than ever, it’s time to step away from those weapons of mass disinformation.

I don’t care much for New Year’s resolutions, but if I did, I would say: let’s make 2023 the year of logging off. Get to know your neighbours and colleagues. For my part, I’ll work on not thinking of those everyday strangers, or even those tiny avatars on the Internet, as them. Instead of fearing them, I’ll think I say hello.

  • A TomDispatch report / Andy Kroll
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