Why conspiratorial thinking is peaking in America

The internet has given us the opportunity to stay informed better than ever. It's also given us the ability to misinform ourselves — delude ourselves — beyond belief.

SARAH ROSE CAVANAGH: Research on social media and smartphones is in its really early days and so I hesitate to make strong conclusions, but all of the data that I looked at seems to be shaping up to the idea that if we use social media and smartphones in ways that enhance our relationships by either connecting us deeper with the people who surround us face-to-face or by supplanting face-to-face connections if we're lacking those, if we're living in a new city, if we've gone away to college. Finding people who share your interests, in role playing games or doing meet ups are ways that we can use these technologies to enhance our relationships. If we use social technology in ways that eclipse our relationships or other healthy activities like sleep or exercise then that's going to probably detract from our wellbeing.

Some of the most interesting research that I read on smartphones and social media indicate that the sort of people that you might worry the most about in terms of social media and smartphones stand to benefit the most. And so people who experience major depression, for instance, sometimes can really benefit from the use of social media because it's a lower cost of admission to social interaction. They may have a hard time getting up and out of the house but they can still be engaged with their social partners and they can receive social support from them. Similar story with people who have chronic illness, with the elderly, with anyone who might have a hard time getting out and doing that face-to-face interaction. These people seem to benefit from social media and so I think that is another way that these technologies can enhance our relationships as well as detract from wellbeing.

A lot of blame gets laid at the feet of smartphones, at the feet of technology for driving us apart that we're holding these screens between us and it's disconnecting us. I think there are unhealthy ways to use smartphones and social media and that we should focus on ways to use those technologies more helpfully. But I think that a lot of our current woes may not be sourced in this technology. It may be sourced in how our society is structured. The level of inequality that we currently have that is growing by the day. The level at which our communities are not connected. That we enshrine ambition over altruism and which we are expected, the whole phenomenon of burnout has gotten a lot of attention recently because we are expected to just achieve and achieve and achieve. I think that our basic happiness lies in each other and then lies in those connections and that we in some ways can use these technologies to shore up those connections rather than to isolate ourselves.

  • The internet has allowed fringe groups founded on paranoid thinking to merge in ways we've never seen before.
  • Part of modern political polarization in American is that we're becoming a people who believes in different realities, some of which are based on fears rather than facts. Many of these conspiracy theories are targeted on groups that we believe are plotting against us.
  • There is a romanticization that we're going to somehow solve all of life's unknowns, Da Vinci Code-style. However, this ironically may put us at a disadvantage in terms of breaking puzzles — we look for the familiar in vague stimuli, a pheonmenon known as pareidolia, which only further confounds us.

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