The role of social media as a superspreader of lies.
First published in June 2021.
On January 6, 2021, a large mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, armed with plastic shields, wooden stakes, and body armour; the motley crew included some militia groups replete with ex-U.S. military men, such as the “Oathkeepers”, some CEOs and business people, and many individuals that are hard to categorize such as the iconic horn-bearing so-called Shaman, Jake Angeli. While hundreds of hours have been spent in the media reviewing the crowd, including the now iconic images of rushing the Senate floor, putting feet up on Speaker Pelosi’s desk, and spreading feces on the walls, the coverage has been more carnival than analysis.
With more than 70 million people supporting the conspiracy-based candidacy of Donald Trump, we cannot afford to look at such events as those of an isolated fringe. Instead, we need to take a deeper look into what causes millions of ordinary citizens to believe in fantastical, outright lies. What we see is that social media has enabled the spread of cult-like beliefs from fringe to mass groups for the first time. Such a diagnosis will not only be helpful in understanding what ails the body politic, but also in preventing future harm from mass lies, including everything from climate change denial to the dangers of vaccination.
How do people come to believe in obvious lies? What the history of cults tells us
The scientific approach of most academics doesn’t lend itself easily to understanding the underlying irrationality of human nature. Asking someone in a lab why they gamble doesn’t really capture the roots of primordial urges, such as those to win or to gain power and respect. We might not have good explanations for why such urges exist, however, we can still document them and trace how they play out in social interactions, and particularly in social media, which take on a very different character than what occurs in a lab, where behaviour that would be unacceptable in face-to-face interactions in “normal” life is permitted.
It is similarly difficult to place one’s finger on mass hysteria, such as that pertaining to fear of a communist infiltration in the U.S. of the 1950s, or of the ordinary citizens supporting Hitler’s lies in the 1930s; clearly individuals in a mob act very differently.
In fact, having strong beliefs is intrinsic to human behaviour. Throughout history, strong beliefs have been the source of religion and culture, not the rational maximizing character that economists and political scientists now posit. We need belief to strive for improvement, to engage in morality, and to care for future generations, all of which defy the self-interest maxim of capitalism and consumerism. While humans are competitive and seek out self-interest, belief in a common good is what binds us together. In some cases, groups can move toward incredible feats of heroism by suspending beliefs in “the facts,” such as the underground railroads helping Jewish people to escape Nazi Germany and slaves from the American South. However, that same binding is what creates group conflict including wars. What we see in cults is a rather more destructive version of belief, one in which the group sacrifice lacks a noble cause and pursues aims that defy basic facts.
Academic books on cults, such as that of James R. Lewis and Lorne L. Dawson summarize what we know from observation. The authors point to the fact that individuals who join cults are often vulnerable due to some personal failing or previous trauma, one for which society has no easy remedy. These experiences of personal failing or previous trauma do not necessarily translate into psychopathology; another academic book focused on cults includes research findings that two-thirds of ex-cult member participants reported coming from a normal and healthy middle-class home. Even though these individuals may not be impacted by a severe mental health issue, experiences of loneliness and perceptions of a lack of belonging, voice, or power may make them susceptible to the intense social cohesiveness associated with cult affiliation. People who are struggling to deal with uncertainty and seeking a greater sense of meaning or purpose may also be more vulnerable to cult conversion tactics, which include repeated rituals and remaking of the individual belief system, a reconstruction that the individual may be more than willing to undertake in exchange for the seeming unconditional acceptance that comes with group membership. This conversion is often done by a charismatic individual who through adding new followers is able to reinforce the strength of the belief system to the point where individuals have been known to voluntarily give up their worldly possessions and links to family and friends. The leader is someone who is perceived as having attained a level of perfection and who now charitably wants to show others the way to find it. The events of the leader’s life thus attain mythical proportions, often to the point where the facts around their failings, past and present, are covered up. Only by following the leader and making the necessary sacrifices can the “secrets” of his enlightenment (cults are almost always patriarchal) and road to a transcendent life be revealed.
The new identity is tied to a combination of reinforcement and isolation, with the group acquiring the veneer of the “good” and those outside “ignorant” or “evil.” Members’ isolation is reinforced by a fear of the wicked outside that has been described as a necessary form of “boundary control” to protect the social system of the cult from the threat of external sources of support or information. Moral greyness fades away in favour of black and white perspectives. The removal of doubts allows for focused feelings of anger and blame toward specific individuals or groups. The generation of these feelings in turn can provide members with a simple way to understand what would otherwise be complicated social events as well as giving individuals a renewed sense of control. Continual repetition of belief systems progresses from helpful suggestions to confront real deficiencies, such as addiction or being overweight, to physical and mental conditioning to remake the person. This is usually done through physical and sensory strain which ease the acceptance of outright lies that reinforce group solidarity amidst cutting off the outside world, the purported source of the individual’s problems and the principal obstacle to their solution. In such cases, counter-facts from the outside world or family members are filtered as lies to reinforce a sense of an existential threat to the group, one that will extinguish the happiness that came from the disaffected individual’s sense of belonging upon joining the group. “Behavioural compliance” is wrought through punishment, less often physical and more often in the form of shaming and scapegoating in front of the group, thus preventing any sub-group from forming in question to the leader. This includes preventing sub-group bonds, such as marriage, and parenthood.
Any subsequent and unavoidable failures to achieve the paradise offered are explained as an undercutting by enemies from within and without. The continual evocation of the “fight-or-flight” instinct tends to prevent individuals from thinking through their own increasing hardships as the personal attention once rained down upon them spreads to other and newer members. In order to regain that attention, they are willing to go to increasing lengths to prove their “loyalty” to the leader and the group. Purity becomes the ultimate value, the group fights against society for attainment or restoration of a more moral way of life. However, purity is impossible to achieve over the long run, thus each cult creates the seeds of its own demise as it can no longer sustain the lies upon which it is based.
Manipulation of beliefs is a very tricky thing to trace in empirical terms. The leader seems to have a “feel” for individuals who are vulnerable, but some individual “traitors” won’t stick. Some people seem to have a natural talent to lead and fool the vulnerable; they can make followers feel like God is smiling on them with their attention to the followers’ needs. The basis of the case against Charles Manson in the horrific 1969 murders in Southern California was manipulation of his followers. They would move out to the desert and become the inheritors of the post-war America. Manson used LSD to reinforce his followers’ mindsets, and one suspects that the murders were a realization that his vision of an inevitable race war was increasingly tenuous, thus the murders were supposed to act as a catalyst for it. Charles Sobhraj, the Serpent, was able to get accomplices to lure in, murder, and rob young travelers on the “hippie trail” in the 1970s. Similarly, Jim Jones had promised a paradise to his followers in creating a new colony out of the jungle in Guyana, and when his failures were exposed, instead chose collective suicide in 1978.
Countless other examples harken throughout history, including scores of cults predicting the end of the world, inspired by religious texts such as the Book of Revelations. These links between cults and religion continue today, as shown in the transition by many researchers from “cult” to “new religious movements” (NRMs) as their preferred terminology. This shift in language reflects the religious underpinnings of many cults, including QAnon, which has been described as using spiritual language to draw in Christian potential members.
As Lewis points out, the faith of belief in a cult is not far removed from more general beliefs that can stick in society. Such include stereotypes such as the persistent idea that Black people are more naturally prone to crime; that Jewish people cheat for financial gain and control; and that homosexuals are deviants. Among an older generation of the South, there is a strong dissociation of the Confederacy with slavery. While such lies seem transparent enough to most Americans, and are easily punctured with a modicum of effort, the pervasive persistence of such ideas proves that truth does not always shine through. Indoctrination, or repetition of lies through rituals, makes the belief stronger than the facts. This should sound familiar, because through looking at cults, we have now exposed QAnon and Trump’s playbook.
How the believers in QAnon and Trump match the classic signs of a cult
In the early days of social media, we were blinded by the idea that it could transcend boundaries, creating global groups that could push for reform. This was highlighted by the euphoria of the Arab Spring, in which social media helped large crowds to organise protests that helped to topple dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya. More recently, we have seen social media used in negative ways, to fuel violence around lies. This negative side comes out fully in the Qanon conspiracy theories and its role in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riots.
QAnon does not fit the classic definition of a cult in terms of offering one transcendent belief with a promise towards enlightenment. Rather, it’s an umbrella term of a number of internet-based conspiracy theories. One of the core theories is that President Trump was recruited by top generals to break up a Democrat-run cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibal-pedophiles, a task to be completed upon his re-election in 2020. The military was to step in to secure his second term, and so this has naturally led to crisis within the community of believers. The strength of belief persisted despite the “Pizzagate conspiracy” whereby a convinced believer entered a D.C. pizza parlour, shooting up imaginary sex traffickers linked to former President candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016. Like the classic conspiracy theorists who believe in anagrams revealing hidden truths, or those who thought Nostradamus predicted the future, the ambiguous statements of Q, originally one unknown author but since multiplied to others, are dissected for hidden conspiracies of the deep state. In this sense, Q creates a collective and dynamic canon, able to explain any failures of prediction as just another action by enemies who are part of the conspiracies. Thus, QAnon has come to be a collecting place for all manner of conspiracy theories include current anti-vaccination campaigns. Like cult members, its followers spend countless hours trying to reveal hidden secrets.
What is different about QAnon is that it is not limited to a small group who are personally bound to a leader. Rather, it extends to thousands of adherents who support each other’s fantasies virtually. The strength of such a widespread belief group is unique and has led to uniquely problematic results, such as the election of adherents, including Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene from Georgia. Since conspiracy theories, like religious doctrine, can rarely be disproven in a manner convincing to the believers, the constant reinforcement through virtual networks serves to offer a sense of belonging and to perpetuate the illusion found in cults. In the same way, anyone caught questioning the core beliefs, as happened after Biden was sworn in as President in January 2021, is shamed and shunned from the group. Thus, the virtual network creates the equivalent of the physical compound of the cult, and the reward is similar to that of cults: shared interpersonal bonds among “enlightened” believers. It is not a coincidence that Trump has repeatedly refused to disavow QAnon, as it provides an ideational support system to him.
What explains the rise of conspiracy theories in such a grand manner in the last 5 years? Beyond the virtual means of creating such groups, there is also the fragmentation of the media landscape. Whereas the big 3 networks in the U.S. produced commanding truthtellers such as Walter Cronkite that shared news, the rise of cable TV preceded the breakdown of shared and authoritative news sources. More damaging than the significant loss of fact checkers for sharing information through channels such as Facebook or Twitter, where research shows that misinformation spreads faster and farther than true information, is the rise of Fox News. The regular trafficking of conspiracy theories and outright lies on Fox News, such as insinuations around electoral fraud during the 2020 election reinforces the tribalism and sense of grievance among conservatives, breaking down the possibility for fact-based conversations and belief in institutions and providing authority for conspiracies around a celebration of victimhood. This media-facilitated construction of victimhood plays into sensations of fear, alienation, and loss of control that predict belief in conspiracy theories, thus belief in even a single conspiracy narrative may lead to a chain effect where the person falls prey to more and more of these lies.
All of these factors converged with the candidacy of Donald Trump in 2016. Trump’s constant Twitter feed contained insinuations and lies against opponents through retweeting claims such as the allegation that Ted Cruz’s father was involved with the John F. Kennedy assassination. The production of this content, hand-in-hand with Fox News, and driven by media attention and ratings across-the-board legitimized the mainstreaming of falsehoods, or “alternative facts” as aide Kelly Anne Conway once stated. Trump’s impressive skill worked on a mass scale, unlike a cult leader, however, he employs similar tools. Trump repeatedly promised to be the “voice of the unheard,” the “forgotten” men and women, harkening to the lost souls that cult leaders cultivate, and sharing with them a core faith in their own victimhood. As a candidate, Trump in a similar way promised paradise-like solutions along the lines of a cult leader, everything from cheap and accessible health care to bringing back thousands of coal and manufacturing jobs. His son’s 2020 speech promised a perfect life: “one with a great job, a beautiful home, and a perfect family”, if only he could be re-elected. Like a cult leader, Trump’s evident charisma came with his ability to wittily slice through opponents and reveal a grand conspiracy of elites that was responsible for his followers’ problems. Like cults, Trump’s tribe has certain rituals that reinforce a sense of belonging and help to freeze cognitive processing, such as his mantras of “lock her up,” and “drain the swamp.” In fact, QAnon’s rise in 2017 feeds off Trump (and v.v.), and led to similar results, with families losing members to a cult-like alternative reality.
It is equally important to note the predictable trajectory is similar to a cult’s demise. As Trump’s inability to deliver paradise in easy policies led to increasing contradictions, his claims for conspiracies and stream of disinformation had to ramp up. Where he was once a debater on a stage of candidates, he now commanded the stage and could sue the presidential platform to attack anyone, including media, opponents, or members of his own party, as enemies and liars. Thus, fraudulent voting systems must explain his loss; China alone was responsible for the virus; he still had a health care solution (though he could not articulate it); COVID-19 would just disappear, etc. In the virtual sense of creating his own media-supported world, Trump creates the separation from reality that cult leaders seek. To question anything he does is akin to questioning a cult leader, and thus the world is divided into true believers and enemies. What is truly remarkable about all of this is the mass scale on which it has occurred, to the point where well-established mainstream politicians such as Senators Jeff Flake and Mitt Romney have been shunned by their own party that they once dominated. The consequences are real, not only for such politicians and more generally the policies and institutions that have lost credibility, but particularly for those millions of followers who still believe, and those who wish to capture them through sycophancy to the leader.
Donald Trump. | Flickr/Gage Skidmore
The January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol has all the hallmarks of a cult anticlimactic incident. Where the trail of lies ends up being tied in such knots, the leader resorts to a last bold action to reveal the conspiracy behind his failures. In this case, thousands of unwitting participants believed in the lie about the stolen election, and marched upon the Capitol. Is it so far-fetched to think of Manson’s or Jones’ followers willing to spill blood, including their own, to demonstrate their unbounded loyalty to their leader? An emerging University of Chicago study based on unreleased data, claims that fear of “white replacement” was a common factor linking the January 6 rioters. Most were not linked to militias or white nationalist groups. Most were white males 35 and over and active social media users (over 7 hours/day), particularly following QAnon. All of the defendants in court cases so far have cited Trump as their principal inspiration. Trump seems to have understood that this true test of faith could not be diplomatically broken off. Thus, he waited several hours before asking his followers to disperse and telling them he loved them without conceding the lies that led them there or taking any responsibility for the deaths and injuries that ensued. His command over the motley group in this sense is quite rare in politics, and only explicable by understanding the dynamics of group belief.
Nor will Trump’s re-election be the last of the conspiracy theories that assume cult-like characteristics. The rapid spread of lies is tempting to subversive forces such as the Russian hackers who spread disinformation leading up to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. In fact, the global spread of the replacement theory shows that virtual cults are not limited to U.S. boundaries. The New Zealand Christchurch shooter of a mosque in 2019 was an adherent of this theory, with deadly consequences. Similarly, Norwegian shooter Anders Breivik subscribed to a form of white replacement theory that is spreading across the West.
There are ways to respond to social media’s destructive offshoots. Despite the appearance of a “stickiness” of QAnon even after its predictions failed, those who are able to exit a cult can experience positive impacts and growth related to the experience. A qualitative study with ex-cult members found that participants felt that they were better able to process emotions, think critically, and resist social influence. Mike Rothschild, author of the upcoming QAnon-focused book, “The Storm is Upon Us”, has discussed the need for QAnon believers to identify inconsistencies that lead them to investigate further. Once someone is brought to see the contradictions in QAnon narratives and/or tries to verify even one of the conspiracy theories, they may find that the entire belief system crumbles. Each conspiracy theory or idea tends to serve as evidence for another theory; thus when the evidence for one QAnon belief is found to be missing, all the beliefs linked to that narrative fall apart. This domino effect shows that to help current members exit the cult of QAnon, it is necessary to create an environment where individuals feel safe exploring and reflecting on these kinds of beliefs. One of the primary challenges for ex-cult members is the isolation and loss of identity or direction that can occur in the initial period after exiting the group, since these individuals may not have the same level of social support they had before they joined. Those looking to intervene with a loved one about QAnon will want to engage with them in a non-judgmental and supportive way that allows them to reflect on their involvement and focus on building the previously mentioned skills that can emerge from these experiences. Although this kind of approach may be a long and frustrating process for the non-conspiracy believer, one-on-one interventions may be the best way to ensure that when people are finally ready to leave the QAnon cult, they will have the support they need to do so.
On a societal level, researchers have pointed to improved regulation of information as a necessary policy step to help prevent the further spread of QAnon narratives and other misinformation. Efforts have been made to debunk misinformation after it has already been published or presented to the public. While debunking can lead people to shift their stance on a specific belief, this approach often does nothing to alter the person’s feelings toward the charismatic leader behind this belief, especially in the case of political leaders like Donald Trump. Some researchers suggest that “pre-bunking” and inoculation may be more effective strategies. For example, the level of belief in anti-vaccine conspiracy theories and intentions to undergo vaccination significantly improved among participants in a study who were presented with anti-conspiracy theory arguments before conspiracy theory arguments; presenting anti-conspiracy theory content after exposure to conspiracy beliefs led to no significant improvements. Social media platforms have made some progress on this front, with Twitter providing warning labels on potentially misleading content related to COVID-19 or concerns about voting by mail during the last election. Inoculation messages that are specific to the conspiracy theory or source of misinformation being targeted may have more short-term, though still important effects, while training on misinformation techniques and active inoculation simulation games may provide deeper and longer impact.
As we saw in January 6 and throughout the Trump Presidency, reporting lies over and over again helps to spread and cement them among believers. The mainstream media needs to take journalistic ethics seriously and present sober reflections based on fact checking habits rather than sensationalism. Similarly, we as a society need to catch up to technology and begin to discuss how to regulate social media.
More generally, we need a robust mental health system that provides better support to those vulnerable, rather than marginalizing and ignoring them.
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[This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 14 June 2021. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]
(Cover: Mix of photographs by Gage Skidmore and Mike MacKenzie/vpnsrus.com. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)