Closed Borders of the Mind
How Social Media and the Internet have Deepened the Social Divide
If you have been online recently, you have probably seen the photo of the protestors crowded outside the Ohio statehouse, resembling something from a zombie horror film, their huddled bodies leaning against one another while their screaming faces seem to be crying out for brains. Even more disturbing is just how accurate this comparison of the protestors is to mindless zombies. Here is a group of people protesting government action during a pandemic that is intended to save their lives. You can see by their attire that they are Trump supporters. One individual in another photo holds a poster that says COVID 19 IS A LIE.
All the facts that the media have presented on this pandemic about the importance of social distancing, flattening the curve, and rate of infection that leads to mortality, mean nothing to this group. Even if their actions were to lead directly to someone in their family contracting the virus and dying, they would find a way to demonize the media or their political opponents over any personal responsibility or acknowledge any truth of the situation at hand. If you are a rational human being, you see this and shake your head in baffled puzzlement. How have we as a society come to this?
I would like to hypothesize, and there are studies being conducted to support this hypothesis, that the adoption of social media as an integral part of daily life, coupled with an American decline in education, and a rampant availability of misinformation from propaganda channels and online sources, has created a perfect storm for large subsets of society to reject factual information in favor of information they choose to believe.
You don’t have to look very hard for examples today of people who choose to ignore the truth. In recent years we have seen a rise of conspiracy theorist groups led by the likes of Alex Jones who claim things like mass shootings are staged false flag operations, we have seen the rise of the Anti-Vaccine Movement where people believe vaccines poison their children and cause autism despite all evidence to the contrary, we have seen groups who flat out choose to deny global warming exists in favor of weird ideas about chem trails or that the entire scientific community is corrupt, and we even have seen a group of people on the fringe who still subscribe to the notion that the world is flat. On top of these extreme examples, we have the deepening social divide between political party factions, with people so entrenched in their devotion to their politics, they refuse to accept any offerings of information that challenges their ideals, much like devotion to a religious belief or a cult. These groups are all symptoms of a common disease, a prevalent exacerbation of cognitive dissonance perpetuated by social media bubbles and self-reinforcement.
In America, and other countries as well, this mentality has worsened in conjunction with a steady decline in the importance of education. From 1990 to 2016, America’s rank in quality of education in the world has gone from 6th place to 27th place. This is not a coincidence. An ill-informed populace is an easily manipulated populace. It is also not a coincidence that Fox News was founded in 1996, and plays a huge role in the dumbing down of America, being one of the top channels in viewership while also being known today to be a solely conservative propaganda mechanism. This has been made possible by the abolishing of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, which mandated journalism had to present information without serving private interest so that it benefited the public good in a fair and equal manner. Since the establishment of Fox, the biases of the media enterprises have been pushed further apart, and allowed editorialist focuses to present themselves to the public as factually based, rather than opinion based.
There has been a concerted effort on the part of the conservative elites to undermine education. When they have been in power, they have lowered education testing standards, they have defunded important education programs, they have limited higher education availability by limiting programs to the poor, and they have allowed the higher education for profit system to exploit the capitalist system for higher and higher costs to attend school, thus lowering the numbers of people capable of achieving a four year degree without being burdened by crippling debt. Just since 2016, while Trump has been in power, he has made moves to destroy our educational infrastructure. Betsy DeVos has worked with persistent dedication to this agenda. Since taking upon the mantle of Education Secretary, she has lowered the standards for schools that can achieve accreditation, removed protections for disabled students from discrimination, lowered oversight over education fraud, tried to defund the Special Olympics, and advocated for teachers reporting suspected migrant students to ICE, all while trying to place a priority of religion over education. For proof of how conservatives impact education, look no further than the rates of high school graduation in red states versus blue states. Trump is notoriously on record as stating, “I love the poorly educated.”
With the decline in education standards continuing to manifest, the internet and social media has only sped up the process. Along with people consuming televised media that supplies a steady diet of information specifically designed to feed their own biases, the availability of unlimited information online allows these individuals to seek out more sources that correlate their need for reinforcement. Virtually any crackpot idea a person wants to believe in, can be found online. Believe the government controls the weather? There’s a website for that. Believe there’s a secret society of lizard people controlling the government? There’s a website for that. Freedom of information allows people to support their own ignorance about the world, without educational interference. Racist ideas get exponentially worse. Fear of immigrants gets worse. Fear of government oversight gets worse. Paradoxically, as society is exposed to more availability of ideas, they only choose to reinforce what they already want to believe. As they have more access to outside cultures, they become more isolationist by nature. This goes beyond the human nature of tribalism and becomes something else, a regressive instinct fueled by cognitive dissonance.
On social media, for evidence of this societal trend you need go no further than the comment section of any news article. While on these articles, people will vehemently spew vitriol back and forth from opposing ends of the informational spectrum, generally resulting in ideological stalemates or ad hominem shouting matches. In their own circles of online connections, these cultural debates get narrower and narrower as people cull their friends or contacts down to those they personally can agree with. The liberal use of the BLOCK feature on social media, allows members to literally block out those with ideas they find offensive to their own viewpoint. This feature, coupled with social media algorithms designed to present their members with content that appeals to them most, results in a highly curated and self-reinforcing image of reality. It becomes a literal bubble. A literal echo chamber of the world that only feeds back to you the ideas that you choose to see.
All of these facets work together with the Trump agenda. It’s why he can say anything to a rally crowd, or at a press conference, and it will be readily believed. The dissemination of misinformation is a refined system that self-propagates, because once it is fed into the interlocking circles of self-affirmation on social media, it is immediately consumed and re-dispersed to a public who willingly consumes it like sugar coated poison. No example of this better exemplifies its power than the public discourse surrounding the Covid-19 Pandemic. We have gone from seeing it portrayed as a media fueled attack campaign against the presidency, to a foreign based attack on our economy, to needing to be willing to sacrifice a hundred thousand lives to re-open the states and ignore the history of the 1918 Spanish Flu which tells us the second wave of the virus will be worse than the first. But instead of taking it seriously, because Trump and his propaganda channels have promoted such misinformation, at even the hint of him suggesting we can’t keep the country locked down much longer, the people who hang on his every word are ready to come out of their houses and protest their governors. And meanwhile, those governors are having to work AGAINST the Federal Government to try and protect their citizens.
I do not know where this trajectory will lead us. But I do think it is very apparent, the current path we are on does not bode well for the future. When you have a populace willing to ignore facts in order to prop up their own ignorant ideology, it is only a matter of time before society’s infrastructure collapses and brings another age of darkness.