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George Mason University professor Jeremy Mayer says the internet, especially social media platforms, has fueled conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, and misinformation, leading to U.S. political polarization and increasingly extremist perspectives.
“The dream of the internet was it would create an information revolution,” said Mayer, an associate professor in Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government. “Instead there’s this murky underside of the internet that allows a crazy conspiracy theorist in a small town in Georgia to network with other crazy conspiracy theorists around the country.”
Mayer said that the internet tends to link like-minded people together, allowing them to validate each other’s perspectives and get further entrenched into their beliefs, whether they are based upon facts or not.
“Thanks to the internet, people are now in hardened silos, without a centralized source of verifiable truths,” Mayer said. “So people are just going deeper and deeper into their false information, and they get locked into a community that believes the same things. So they are receptive to other people, especially a president, who say things that confirm what they already believe to be fact.”
Thousands of individuals stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, many of them driven by conspiracy theories, including the false idea that the presidential election was stolen. Former President Trump helped spread election-related falsehoods in speeches and on the internet, especially through his use of Twitter. Meanwhile, individuals throughout the country had already been radicalized and primed to accept false information without questioning it, Mayer said.
In internet spaces where people do have a chance to meet individuals with different perspectives, many individuals appear to have lost or never gained the ability to engage in thoughtful political discussions. The First Amendment is based on the concept of civil debate in which people listen to each other, discuss and then come up with some sort of higher truth upon which society can generally agree. But, Mayer says, the marketplace of ideas isn’t working on the internet.
“We’re not arguing to learn, and we’re not even out to persuade anyone when we argue on social media,” said Mayer, author of “American Media Politics in Transition.” “We’re arguing to be outraged, which is why an argument often ends up in name-calling.”
Mayer said that there’s one sentence that’s almost impossible to find on the internet: “I never thought about it that way—you might be right.”
He added that the prevalence of anonymous posting and the use of pseudonyms means that people can express extreme views without the worry of accountability one normally would have when expressing fringe ideas in one’s own community.
“Extremism is not new in American history,” Mayer said. “We’ve always had it on the left and the right, but it could never spread the way it can now, almost unchecked. While it’s not a popular opinion, it seems to me that we need to hold social media platforms more accountable for false information.”
To reach Jeremy Mayer directly, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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About George Mason
George Mason University is Virginia’s largest public research university. Located near Washington, D.C., Mason enrolls more than 38,000 students from 130 countries and all 50 states. Mason has grown rapidly over the past half-century and is recognized for its innovation and entrepreneurship, remarkable diversity and commitment to accessibility.