This is by an NBC News reporter, Ben Collins, who jokes that he works the “dystopia beat”:
What people say on Facebook and in comments sections is what they actually mean. The comments section may be our id, but social media networks exclusively target our id with a nonstop barrage of fear and hatred. . . .
I did this story over the summer about two women who became minor celebrities because of viral QAnon tirades. . . . Before the pandemic, they weren’t particularly political. By the summer, they were throwing masks on the ground at Target or calling their county commissioners pedophiles who needed to be executed.
. . . During the pandemic, some people lost their jobs. Others lost their ritualized social lives, real-life brunches or bowling leagues or church. . . So with the time they used to spend at work or church or with their family, they filled it with Instagram and Facebook. Extremist movements from QAnon to anti-vaxxers had been waiting for this precise moment for years and they pounced.
Algorithms catered to our worst fears, and “otherized” anyone who didn’t look and think exactly like you to the point of literal demonization. By demonization, I mean your newsfeed was telling you that Democrats are literal, child-eating Satanists.
In turn, social media created a world you could control: Bad guys were creating the pandemic, shutting down the economy, and you had secret knowledge that could stop it. It fed you autonomy and identity . . .
It was extremely alluring to so many people, and people in power winked at it for months. [Many of us] know someone who overtly believes this stuff. Many other entertained it, or believe pieces or variations of it. They brought it to the ballot box with them.
The QAnon Karen who destroyed [a display of masks at] Target realizes she was a victim of social media brainwashing, and she’s trying to stop it. But . . . she had a multi-million person intervention on Twitter. As our parents or friends or siblings get radicalized in less public ways, there’s no one there to step in.
I’m inundated with people asking for help, saying their family members need resources for someone in their life who has recently become divorced from reality and militant because of extraordinarily comforting lies on social media.
They want to know why people aren’t taking this more seriously and why we can’t quantify these things. Well, we can’t quantify these things because social media networks don’t want people to know how bad this problem is . . .
There are so many people out there earnestly struggling right now . . . They are being fed lies for power and profit. Its no wonder they believe them. . . . We need to take their emotions as seriously as the people manipulating them have been for the last ten years.
Of course, there are millions of people struggling who aren’t tempted by bizarre right-wing conspiracy theories, or conspiracy theories at all. What might distinguish the people who are?
John Hibbing, a professor of political science at the University of Nebraska, published a book this year called The Securitarian Personality: What Really Motivates Txxxx’s Base. This is from the publisher’s site:
The Authoritarian Personality, . . . published by Theordor Adorno and a set of colleagues in the 1950s, was the first broad-based empirical attempt to explain why certain individuals are attracted to the authoritarian, even fascist, leaders that dominated the political scene in the 1930s and 1940s. Today, the concept has been applied to leaders ranging from Txxxx to Viktor Orban to Rodrigo Duterte. But is it really accurate to label Txxxx supporters as authoritarians?
In The Securitarian Personality, John R. Hibbing argues that an intense desire for authority is not central to those constituting Txxxx’s base. Drawing from participant observation, focus groups, and especially an original, nationwide survey of the American public that included over 1,000 ardent Txxxx supporters, Hibbing demonstrates that what Txxxx’s base really craves is actually a specific form of security.
His supporters do not strive for security in the face of all threats, such as climate change, Covid-19, and economic inequality, but rather only from those threats they perceive to be emanating from human outsiders, defined broadly to include welfare cheats, unpatriotic athletes, norm violators, non-English speakers, religious and racial minorities, and certainly people from other countries. The central objective of these “securitarians” is to strive for protection for themselves, their families, and their dominant cultural group from these embodied outsider threats.
The publisher could have said they strive for protection from outsider threats, real or imaginary. The point is that they feel threatened by those they view as outsiders, those who have been “otherized” (using the NBC reporter’s term). And once you view your fellow citizens as outsiders, it’s easy to mistrust everything they say and do. The standard Democratic rhetoric about us all being in this together and providing opportunity for everybody sounds like an attack to them.
Thus, we hear from an older couple who live in Mason, Texas, 50 miles east of Austin. They’re deeply concerned about immigrants and protesters, as if their isolated town with a population of 2,000 is on the frontlines of the culture wars:
Ms. Smith, 67, and her husband, Dennis, 69, tied their unequivocal support for the president — even in defeat — to larger cultural concerns.
Like Mr. Biden and his supporters, the Smiths saw this election as a battle for the country’s soul. To unify with Mr. Biden would be an admission that the battle is lost, and that the multicultural tide powering his victory will continue its ascension.
“Everything I worked for, Biden wants to give to the immigrants to help them live, when they don’t do nothing but sit on their butts,” Mr. Smith said.
“And if those protesters come here, if they go tearing up stuff, I guarantee you they won’t be in this town very long,” he added. “We’ll string them up and send them out of here . . .