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The mass illusion

Navigating many of the issues that have been discussed is not too hard when you have the right tools to see the information out there for what it is. Whether it be prejudiced beliefs and actions, conspiracy theories, indoctrinated or radicalized groups, or even the rhetoric many of those in authoritative positions utilize to sway populations.

At the end of the day, it is important to remember that we are all of the same species and are more similar than different. Berlet and Lyons (2018), 

Rather than dismiss right-wing populists as paranoid or fanatical extremists—or romanticize them as “the people” resisting tyranny—we need to recognize these movements as both complex and dangerous: complex, because they speak to a combination of legitimate and selfish grievances; dangerous, because they channel people’s hopes and fears into misguided rebellions that only serve to heighten inequality and oppression (p.345).

The purpose is to bring in a diversion that hijacks social cognition, Berlet (1998), by blaming a small group of individuals for vast or horrific crimes, conspiracism serves to divert attention from the institutional locus of power that drives systemic oppression, injustice, and exploitation (p.6).  Again, the movement is nothing more than a pawn, its rage, and hatred utilized by institutional forces. 

When it comes to taking on the spread of conspiracy, false information, or prejudice, there are some methods that may help in alleviating these symptoms. 

When looking at the issue of conspiracy theory, there does not seem to be a complete understanding of it. There is very little research in the area as mentioned by Douglas, Sutton, & Cichocka (2017) where aside from issues such as deficiencies in information, cognitive ability, and motivation to think critically, the authors argue that it might spring from epistemic, existential, or social factors. The idea is that it is motivated for internal consistency, or to feel safe or in control of the environment, or even to fit a group ideal or their own self-image. Belief in conspiracy might ultimately be a self-defeating form of motivated social cognition.

When dealing with prejudice, contact between groups is often recommended, although it only can work under some conditions. Allport (1955), 

Prejudice (unless deeply rooted in the character structure of the individual) may be reduced by equal status contact between majority and minority groups in the pursuit of common goals. The effect is greatly enhanced if this contact is sanctioned by institutional supports (i.e., by law, custom or local atmosphere), and provided it is of a sort that leads to the perception of common interests and common humanity between members of the two groups (p. 281). 

In their evaluation of tackling the issue of racism, Pedersen, Walker, Rapley, & Wise  (2003) found perception and understanding of other groups are necessary to reduce prejudice. They list reducing false beliefs, open and blunt conversation, invoking empathy, an emphasis on similarities between groups, and teaching that “personal experiences” are not solid ground to make judgments on an entire group. Despite this, research effect sizes are small and there is little data that has been gathered over a long period of time, so it is hard to say if the contact has lasting effects. But the authors write that flexibility is required, as prejudice requires different strategies based on what has brought it about, noting that racism is fluid and changes over time, where prejudice in the ’60s looks different from what sprung up after 9/11, or more currently, with unrest and division towards the Black Lives Matter movement. Time and context need to be considered. 

Though some of the same principles seem like they would apply, such as in the case of the current protests against the police, where an immediate backlash is the norm and little in the way of trying to understand the message trying to be broadcast. The message being black people are treated unfairly by the criminal justice system, mainly due to systemic racism. Most often you will hear “they had a criminal record” or “they should have obeyed orders” or “they were on drugs”. All of which, ignore the fact that none of those actions were deserving of the swift retribution brought on by police. The lack of empathy, understanding, or even critical thinking is apparent. 

Navigating the minefield of propaganda infesting social media and the internet, in general, does not require much. The internet can greatly aid in seeing through a lot of the trash that gets spread, it is all a matter of those seeing the propaganda and then going out of their way to verify if it is the truth or not. Questions such as, who is this message aimed at? Is this really true? What do reputable sources say about it? What kind of emotion is it trying to elicit? Is the information short or long? Should be standard when looking at an item of information.

A red flag should be anything that immediately elicits a strong emotional response, as it means it is not necessarily coming from a source that is trying to convey information, but rather to put you in a certain mindset or emotional state. It is trying to bypass more rational or analytical cognition, making you feel a sense of injustice or justice, especially if it has a more sadistic narrative. If it conveys immediacy or implies the issue presented is being ignored, even though there may be millions of posts around the net with these so-called “truths” or “news items”, then it is likely biased or outright fake news.

As mentioned above and throughout this series, the origins of some propaganda and conspiracy have the intention of being misleading, it becomes very problematic when they are picked up by others who are motivated to help but do not have the proper tools to navigate the information being presented to them. Instead, anecdotal evidence, memes, or screen captures of tweets or posts from social media seem to suffice as reliable information. But as can be seen, that objectivity begins to blur and people’s field of vision appears to them more legitimate than it actually is. All this without mentioning the effect the main socialization agents can have on these attitudes and beliefs, such as family, peer groups, and the media. 

Those main socialization agents seem to have a lot of influence on cognition. It becomes very noticeable when it essentially pushed so as not to cause a crisis in democracy, or as put rather bluntly by Chomsky (1981), in general, the prerogatives of the nobility must be restored and the peasants reduced to the apathy that becomes them (para. 18). People have been blinded by the ideas implanted in them through these agents and typically do not see the forest through the trees, as it were. 

Understanding this can help immensely in navigating the current landscape in which news and ideas roam. 

Overall, America seems to be heading in a direction that is more of the same, regardless of who wins the upcoming election. Trump or Biden, no matter the winner, they will be no better than Obama or Bush. Pretty much all heads of the state fall in line with the more influential forces that surround them and not the majority of the population. Obscene amounts of profit and death are all but guaranteed.

The continuous slide to the right brings ideas of a much more authoritarian or fascist system that puts less and less effort into presenting an illusion that its citizens actually have the power to bring on any meaningful change. Short of revolution or collapse, I imagine that America will slowly warp into a militaristic state as I mentioned with Chalmers’s work last time

From covertly overthrowing democratic governments to occupying the Middle East. This approach is even starting to creep into the state itself, due to the 1033 program as police have access to surplus federal military equipment as well. It has them looking like they would sooner kill the population than protect it. Research has found it makes the force more lethal as well. Mix in the prison industrial complex and the ICE detention camps and a picture begins to emerge. The writing seems to be on the wall as to which way they might be heading. 

Of course, this is still speculation, with COVID it is hard to tell what is going to happen next. Though one thing is for sure, the rich keep getting richer, and the gap between them and us is widening. Oligarchy is certainly not out of the question and is certainly argued by the research done by Gilens & Page (2014), Bowman (2020), Gilens (2015),  and Gilens (2016). The main conclusion that can be drawn from the findings of the main article by Gilens & Page (2014), 

These results suggest that reality is best captured by mixed theories in which both individual economic elites and organized interest groups (including corporations, largely owned and controlled by wealthy elites) play a substantial part in affecting public policy, but the general public has little or no independent influence (p.572). 

Given the current context, between the coming election and the polarization between right and left, it all appears to be nothing more than arguing or defending something that exists in name only, democracy. 

References:

Allport, G. W. (1955). The nature of prejudice. Cambridge, Mass: Addison-Wesley Pub. Co.

Berlet, C. (1998). Dances with devils: How apocalyptic and millennialist themes influence right wing scapegoating and conspiracism. The Public Eye, 12(2), 3.

Berlet, C., & Lyons, M. N. (2018). Right-wing populism in America: Too close for comfort. Guilford Publications.

Bowman, J. (2020). Do the Affluent Override Average Americans? Measuring Policy Disagreement and Unequal Influence. Social Science Quarterly, 101(3), 1018-1037

Chomsky, N. (1981). The Carter Administration: Myth and Reality. Retrieved October 10, 2020, from https://chomsky.info/priorities01/

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current directions in psychological science, 26(6), 538-542.

Gilens, M. (2015). The Insufficiency of” Democracy by Coincidence”: A Response to Peter K. Enns. Perspectives on Politics, 13(4), 1065

Gilens, M. (2016). Simulating representation: The devil’s in the detail. Research and Politics, 3 (2),

Gilens, M., & Page, B. I. (2014). Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12(03), 564–581.

Pedersen, A., Walker, I., Rapley, M., & Wise, M. (2003). Anti-racism–What works? An evaluation of the effectiveness of anti-racism strategies. Prepared by the Centre for Social Change & Social Equity for the Office of Multicultural Interests, Perth

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