It is alarming to read in major, vetted news publications about the influence of social media on extremism. One can feel vindicated that the monstrous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones is being forced to pay nearly $1 billion to atone for his sins. But he is only one individual among millions in the US and perhaps even billions plural in the world who have fallen prey to going to extremes. It is not just conservatives–liberals and leftists can also be equally as unreasonable (think the communist bombers in Italy in the 70s, cancel culture, holistic-types who are antivaxxers.) The underlying common denominator is a lack of being able to think critically. To question one’s logic, way of thinking, organizations one belongs to, and regulating one’s emotions are paramount during this era.
We see the prominence of the right wing globally, from the US to Hungary to Brazil to Korea and everywhere in between. We see an unwillingness for people to talk to each other, but instead comment–and troll others–online. It’s easier to retweet or repost than to come up with original content, because the former only requires clicking a button. More than ever, our minds are at stake and up for grabs by algorithms, bots, and data miners. We are a culture that makes decisions based on emotion rather than careful thinking. And yet, we are a very emotionally repressed culture where people deal with difficulties through various addictions, denial, and negative behaviors.
Education can play a big role in helping kids to think for themselves when it comes to receiving information. It is also very crucial to teach them empathy. Unfortunately, these skills often get lost upon entering adulthood where one must navigate business culture, organizations, personal slights, and those who are lacking in emotional intelligence as well as plain old intelligence. It is up to us, then, as adults to remind ourselves to work on self-awareness, call out extremism in any form, and not get swayed by false rhetoric. Many people have a deep mistrust of institutions, which is quite often unjustified and fueled by our American mentality of individualism above all. In this country, we see the two poles of being brainwashed by groupthink, and the anti-establishment, anti-everything, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do anarchy.
None of this is meant to be dystopian or “us against them,” which is precisely the mentality extremists use. Rather, this is to draw attention to these sociological processes that are having very negative consequences on our world now in politics, media, freedom of speech, hatred, violence, etc. I have lost a friend to this; she has become very irrational and has taken positions on things that are frankly frightening. Consider this quote: “the mind acts like an enemy for those who do not control it.” Chomsky? A 30something ex-Silicon Valley social media strategist? A 20th century psychologist? No–it is the millennia-old wisdom of the Buddha that is still applicable today.