Social media, common sense and…‘keeping your head’ in crazy times

We live in a time when thoughts – and more particularly feelings – sweep around the planet at literally light speed, having all sorts of impacts, intended and not.

The means for this unprecedented capacity to share information, if indeed it is that, is the connectivity which has served us so well during lockdowns and distancing caused by the Covid crisis.

But this same connectivity – mainly social media – is causing all sorts of things, including ‘thought viruses’, to fly around in cyber-space.

We have all seen, received and maybe passed on cute and amazing animal videos, or snippets of people going out of their way to be extraordinary exemplars of our best selves, selflessly helping others in need, or exceptionally gifted folks doing their creative thing, to the inspiration of many.

But we have all also been exposed to the dark side.

Just because we are hyper-connected does not mean that all those ancient bad habits of rumour-mongering, talking others we barely know down as if we had close and exclusive insight into their beings, reiterating and even elaborating on the alleged ‘scandalous’ predilections of those in the public eye or down the street; none of these have simply ‘gone away’.

Rather, these unhappy tendencies have become exponentially worse.

This is because, in part, of the known psycho-emotional effects of anonymity and collective thinking.

In the individual, most people are what one might generally call ‘of good conscience’, meaning they would be loath to go against what they feel to be ‘right’ and would need a powerful incentive to do so, such as extreme reward (and many still would not, even then) or extreme threat (which works on all but a very few brave souls).

But in the collective, our individual sense of responsibility is rapidly diminished, in direct consequence of and in proportion to the magnitude of the sharing of that responsibility.

Our conscience is less bothered if several people – the more the better – decide to do something ‘dubious’ than if we alone are in that ‘grey area’.

If we feel ‘everyone’ – meaning ‘many’, or sometimes ‘most’, but hardly ever actually ‘everybody’, since exaggeration is also a common failing when people wish to have their point heard at all costs, or when self-rationalising something that at some level we would otherwise reject – is or are doing something questionable, then we are inclined to feel less ‘cognitive dissonance’.

In its most extreme form, group-think results in the rise of dictators and tyrants who key into popular disgust, anger and fear linked with past experience, offering false hope for the future – good examples would Hitler and Trump, but there are plenty of others who could be named, historically and in the world today.

Group-think, of an even more low-minded form, takes place when a crowd goes into wilding mode, wherein brutal killings, violence of all kinds, destruction of property, looting and arson reign.

Lowest common denominator thinking is the reason behind such descent of decent people into anarchistic, almost mindless violence, or, equally, the raising up of clearly tainted and failed persons in a cult of personality, merely because such leaders are feeding and playing into the lowest-minded aspects of those who come to ‘adore’ them.

The fodder of what amounts to incipient fascism is usually a heady mix of fear and vein-glorious appeals to both a non-existent ‘better past’ and an even more imaginary and never-to-be-had supposed glorious future.

Fear and hate are the jet-fuel for increasingly frenzied followers, all pulled off their own personal centres and now orbiting the ‘wonderfulness’ of their hero and saviour, like so many pieces of space detritus caught in a powerful gravitational orbit.

Mugabe, Gadhafi, Idi Amin, Baby and Papa Doc Duvalier, Stalin and Mao – the list is long, if one wants to look back, or just look at North Korea or Russia under Putin today for the same.

All this is well documented by historians, sociologists, psychologists and those who study politics, individual and group dynamics and how ‘good’ people come to find themselves doing ‘bad’ things.

There are famous studies of college students induced to inflict obvious pain, to the point of ‘near death’, because of a diminished sense of personal responsibility and agency, in the presence of what is taken to be a superior authority telling them that what they were doing was ‘ok’ and in the name of something ‘good’.

The loss of moral compass takes place in many contexts, as individuals who have not fully grounded themselves in their authentic selves – a significant piece of work impossible to achieve in a single weekend workshop but rather a lifelong enterprise with many challenges and difficulties therein embedded – come face-to-face with a choice between an expedient but inauthentic option versus an authentic but deeply inconvenient one.

Ethical people well know this dilemma.

Unethical people hardly notice it, but as a problem for ‘suckers’ and ‘fools’ who allow concern about the effects of their actions to prevent them from doing things that would hurt others, even though they themselves have something to gain.

What is shared in social media is often nothing to do with ‘truth’, but the expression of emotions, mainly outrage, fear and hatred, with perhaps some ‘love’ salted in.

But as with the recent brouhaha over an overtly racist ‘black hair’ product range, much of the outrage is second-hand, without those reacting having even been exposed to that to which they are reacting.

People love to be self-righteous – it gives vent to frustrations we all experience, plus makes us feel ‘righteous’, allowing a full indulgence in anger and projection onto supposed guilty parties without further consideration; we have unrestrained ‘right’ to ‘vent’ to our heart’s content.

Not that venting really helps one’s heart, literally or figuratively, though it could be argued that to get pent-up frustrations out is something at least.

But at what cost?

These days everyone has a megaphone and platform, being called social media, to spout off about whatsoever is p-ing them off – real or not.

Given that – plus the usefulness of being able to hide behind a string of letters and numbers – and anything goes.

Then add the ubiquitous algorithms and one has a ‘perfect storm’ of malign influences and forces that have served up to us an entire zone of ‘alt factoids’ pretending to be about ‘exposing corruption of the worst kind at the highest level’ (there are those false but high-sounding promises of ‘truth’ again) but in fact doing the exact opposite – covering up high crimes and gross incompetence in the process of propagating made-up stories without foundation, based on unsubstantiated speculations.

It’s like a magician’s trick – perhaps entertaining, especially if you can’t spot the exact ‘how’ of someone making you disbelieve your own eyes, but ultimately, it’s always a trick intended to deceive.

In reality, the algorithms that drive what people see on various social media sites and which actively promote some content over others, are not only about ‘likes’, but mainly about what causes response, engagement and, best of all, sharing – in other words, more eyeballs on screen, regardless of the information quality.

The algorithms are heavily weighted for whatever causes outrage, anger, upheaval and contestation, all of which can action, if only sharing posts, but sometimes also violence.

The algorithms that put stuff on your Facebook page are not your friends.

In some sense, they are your dread enemy – they are playing up the worst (also sometimes the best, hence all the more confusing) in your fellow humans and presenting that to you in a constant stream.

At first, that stream of potential poison may not seem like much, but make a choice to watch a video or two and the flow of similar and ever-more extreme material will quickly become a torrent – sufficient to effectively ‘drown’ otherwise sensible persons in a quagmire of speculative and frequently simply invented nonsense designed to distract from actual reality while engaging your sense of self-righteous outrage about non-existent events.

It is a classic propaganda technique of tyrants and demagogues; the QAnon zone has become the very epitome of such.

It is not that any one conspiracy theory (like who actually killed JFK and why) may be irrelevant, or simply so speculatively floating far above grounded and known facts as to be absurd (as in, JFK Jnr did not die when the twin-engine aircraft he was flying dived into the ocean some years back but is miraculously alive and in hiding somewhere to come out into the world, blah blah blah), but that they loosely coalesce to form a literal, alternate,non-fact-based pseudo-reality.

What is the basis for that last comment?

Well, there is this for a starter: Some little while back there was huge fuss when Nando’s was reported in social media to have flighted an ad wherein Jesus, ostensibly during the last supper, offered his disciples Nando’s instead of bread.

You can imagine the storm of outcry, with thousands of tweets from twits.

Over 2 000 complaints were laid with advertising watchdogs.

But there was never any such ad.

Someone, feigning outrage, had posted about this non-existent ad – then an outpouring of emotion followed from people who not only did not see it, but never could have since it did not exist.

What connects us and allows love to flow across continents, in times when staying away from those we love, an expression of our love, can also be that which divides.

Knowing that social media works not on facts but on high-octane emotions, Russian and other disinformation agents successfully attacked the US election system in 2016, likely facilitating into office the person most likely to go down as the worst American leader of all time.

Some disagree with that point – but then those folks tend to watch Fox ‘news’ exclusively.

What is aired on Fox is not news but propaganda, with some few items being exceptions, because it is almost entirely opinion shaping reportage and not the other way around.

These folks also listen to hate-spewing characters like Alex Jones (Info Wars) or Rush Limbaugh and they generally buy into the full gamut of ‘alt everything’ conspiracy theories.

And thus two competing and contradictory ‘realities’ have grown up.

As a practising media professional, I hold with no argument that so-called ‘mainstream media’ has somehow a full grip on ‘reality’ – it does not.

At best, we journalists capture the ‘first draft of history’, subject to refinement and correction.

But we are not part of a ‘hidden agenda’ in service of some alleged ‘satanic plot’.

That’s not merely absurd, but insulting.

And stupidly self-defeating for those who disappear down that rabbit hole, finding themselves defending, or trying to, the indefensible – like shooting up on disinfectant as a way to fight Covid-19, or arguing that Covid is ‘caused by 5G’, or that Covid ‘will go away in the spring’, while vaguely wafting hands through the air, as if they were powerful beings able to make reality bend to their will at the flick of a finger.

And yes, it is ultimately as silly as it is being presented here.

Such ‘magical thinking’ is also profoundly dangerous – it is all, in the end, based in personal delusion rather than self-knowledge.

One either has some degree of actual self-knowledge, or not.

Adopting an outside ‘reality’ as if it were your own, born of your own personal first-hand experience, is faux in every sense of the word.

It invites delusion and later disappointment and embarrassment, but maybe much worse too.

You cannot successfully deal with the world if what you think you are dealing with is a fabrication.

So what then to do when next some weird thing that disturbs, upsets and makes one feel the need to ‘do something’ lands in one’s feed?

The best advice I can offer is, breathe. Literally that.

Let the ‘outrage’, ‘upset’, ‘anger’, seep through you and watch it.

These are waves on the ‘oceanness’ of your awareness.

You can focus on the waves, with some psycho-emotional ‘sea-sickness’ inevitably resulting, if you want – each must be free to exercise their discernment, or not.

Or you can focus on the ‘oceanness’ of you, the waves being temporary disturbances scudding across the surface of your consciousness, soon gone.

The breath is awesomely powerful, beyond merely providing you with oxygen.

As demonstrated in numerous scientific studies, breath-based meditation induces alpha wave forms in one’s mind almost immediately.

The result is calm reflectivity, peace.

Held for any length of time as a focus of your attention, active deep, slow breathing or simply keeping one’s attention on the natural flow of the breath in and out, are sufficiently powerful practides to allow you to dive deep into the inner recess of your true self, therein to be truly refreshed, resources affirmed and readied for the next round of outward focus into the materiality of our being.

If something sounds unlikely per common sense, then be reserved with that piece of ‘information’ until solid evidence supports it or not, usually the latter since extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof and there is frequently no proof at all.

Also ask yourself: How does this serve me?

If something does not have immediate value in your life, it is at the least an indulgence of time that could have been used more wisely, or possibly it is entirely deceptive and worse than being merely useless.

Some argue that the entire media realm is ‘corrupt’.

But their ‘evidence’ is as fake as the reports that sent some unfortunate but heavily-armed fellow, who believed such, rushing to ‘save trafficked and sexually abused children’, ostensibly from Hillary Clinton and other senior ‘Democrats’, in a non-existent basement of an ordinary pizza restaurant, all the result of a notorious fake news QAnon-style conspiracy theory called ‘Pizzagate’.

That fellow is now doing a long stretch in federal prison.

But there are millions more who have bought into a much-elaborated version of that same make-believe nonsense because they have either had insufficient authentic ‘sense of true self’ to begin with, or have lost what they have had of the truth of themselves.

They have given themselves over to a set of ‘thought viruses’ which have accompanied the physical pandemic.

Deliberately, or otherwise, the effect is to pull folks off their centre, sending them into a parallel universe where ‘up’ becomes ‘down’, common sense is overthrown and a failed and compromised leader becomes not merely ‘the best ever’, but for some ‘an angel sent by God to save us’, or the agent of some higher consciousness beings, the elder brothers of humanity.

Don’t try to convince those who believe such things otherwise – you will certainly be attacked in your person since those who hold such points of view cannot defend the facts, there being an entire absence of such.

Routinely, the ‘man’ not the ball will be played.

There is no debate to be had with those not interested in other views, holding fast to their ideas, as adopted, like lifebuoys in a wild and dangerous ocean.

That process, with some players feeding in toxic memes deliberately, is generating rage, outrage, dissent, division, hatred and contempt for others.

It is a process driven by ‘othering’, not inclusivity in the human family.

The impulses behind the claiming of one’s self back from the clutches of poor or corrupt governance and social systems, such as that which that drove the Arab Spring and which has facilitated numerous social movements for good – such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter – can and have been easily harnessed to drive other, much darker agendas.

So the problem subsists in how we each choose to relate to ‘news’, mainstream or alt, what we give credence to and why, all based on the degree to which we can maintain a centredness of being amidst a ‘world gone crazy’, with hectic climate change tossed in for good measure.

Any of the above is sufficient to send one off centre, without adequate application of discernment, including the discipline of knowing what one can do to help and where help is truly needed.

Perhaps the most important thing we can do for ourselves – and also for all others as an extension of ourselves, as per Ubuntu – is to hold our centre above all things.

Others’ opinions, then, almost cease to count.

From this perspective, things fall into place; much falls way; what to do becomes clearer and balance in our being and in the presence of troubling developments becomes easier to maintain.

For our own sakes, we need to hold onto our own selves and sense of self.

This cannot be found anywhere outside ourselves, only within – as every great wisdom tradition has taught: ‘First know thyself’.

Chris Erasmus

Chris Erasmus has post-graduate qualifications in psychology and is a foreign correspondent reporting for major news outlets in East Africa, the USA and elsewhere. He is also a past publisher and executive editor of Odyssey Magazine. He and his wife Silke, who is the immediate past editor of Odyssey, have been practising and teaching meditation techniques for over 40 years.

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