how social media is radicalizing wellness gurus and your parents
Ask millennials about the most unexpected things they saw over the last four years and they’ll tell you about the epidemic of middle aged apolitical white suburbanites suddenly turning into furious far right activists obsessed with conspiracy theories like QAnon and COVID denialism, specifically opposition to wearing masks, social distancing, and vaccines. While it seemed to have come out of nowhere, experts are laying the blame at the feet of social media and toxic hyper-partisan politics. It’s not that fringe opinions are new, because they’re certainly not. No, the problem is best explained by Derek Beres, a co-host of a skeptical podcast exploring the sudden rightward turn of pop wellness movements…
“This is a community that generally was checked out of politics and always has been,” Beres said. “If you live a middle class or above life as a white person in America, you don’t really need to engage in politics.” Nor are they particularly well-equipped, as a community, to seek out good sources of information, he said, relying largely on their social media circles, which are all gripped by the same growing paranoia about oppression, tyranny, and social control.
In other words, people who lived an otherwise docile and sort of boring existence now have something to be excited about and radicalized because the social media they used to stay in touch with their kids and friends is awash in outrage-generating links and scams that create engagement by which platforms like Facebook and Twitter live and die. Sandwiched between pictures of their grandkids, cute pets, and news outlet ads is apocalyptic fear porn designed to sell them supplements, survival equipment, guns, fitness courses, and more fear porn in the form of books and paywalled videos. This is the danger of using social media as your primary source of information without understanding how its algorithms work.
Now, you may be wondering why wellness gurus often associated with literal granola-munching hippies are suddenly going full MAGA. The easy answer would be to say that this is what sells right now, and it wouldn’t be entirely incorrect. However, that’s only part of the equation. There’s a very strong anti-mainstream authority and libertarian streak in the wellness community, and many of its top influencers spend an inordinate amount of time peddling conspiracy theories no matter how unrelated to health and wellness their subject matter might be. They’re professional contrarians who, for a fee, will tell you what Big Science and Big Pharma are supposedly hiding, so adding the government to their enemies list was only a matter of time.
from blueberries and granola to camo and red scares
One of the biggest appeals of alt health gurus is the illusion of self-determination they offer. Why rely on mainstream doctors and scientists they say, when you can take matters into your own hands and with enough exercise, yogurt, veggies, and snake oil from their online stores you can cure whatever ails you and prevent the next bout of illness? Since much of this appealed to the financially better off, health-conscious crowd with disposable income, and its audience skewed towards women who tended to lean more liberal with their votes, there was a strong correlation between lefty politics and wellness influencers. There was also a strong overlap with left wing anti-corporate sentiment and “noble savage” mythology.
But basing your appeal on what is effectively conspiratorial contrarianism means you can very quickly veer to the right. Remember that Alex Jones, the right wing conspiracy theorist, makes his money by selling the same supplements as Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, just with thunderous manly man names and camo stickers. His message is pretty much the same as that of other wellness and alt med gurus, that any mainstream expert is the enemy because they refuse to validate his and his followers’ desires and say things they don’t like. One of the biggest selling points of being a conspiracy theorist is the belief that you’re smarter than the sheeple around you, so even hinting that may not be the case makes one a target of scorn.
Following this logic, anyone whose existence seems to be in opposition to the normal order for any reason whatsoever will automatically become a hero to the alt community, especially if the notions they back fit with their worldview. This is especially true during a pandemic, since much of the world’s medical experts are recommending lockdowns, masks, and vaccines, telling the woo faithful that despite their beliefs, enough smoothies, colonics, and sage-burning do not in fact make them immune to COVID and allow them to do whatever they want. So, it’s very little wonder that Trump, with this miracle cures, opposition to lockdowns, and constant downplaying of the virus’ dangers suddenly found fans in the alt health ecosystem.
Remember that these are fairly well-to-do people who don’t have to worry about daily survival, who are going stir crazy after a year in on-again, off-again mass quarantines, and whose entire political philosophy is basically just a noxious mix of oppositional defiant disorder and a fervent belief that wishful thinking will manifest their desired reality. They’re convinced that any failure of the real world to live up to their fantasies means someone is out to get them, and politicians who tap into that misplaced fear and loathing can quickly curry favor with them. With targeted social media ads and group recommendations, appealing to them, then confining them to your echo chamber for further radicalization and fleecing, is easier than ever.
how do you break people out of their echo chambers?
With a growing segment of the public viewing defiance of basic public health guidelines as a badge of honor, and considering scientists and doctors who refuse to entertain their whims as unhinged tyrants, it’s awfully difficult to run any civilized, first world country, which is why some lawmakers are starting to ask if we should be modifying recommendation algorithms on social media platforms. And while there are certainly a lot of cons to regulating public discourse in privately owned spaces, no matter how large, they’re not entirely off base. Just consider that Facebook’s own research shows that nearly 2 in 3 people who end up joining an extremist or disinformation group do it because the site itself nudges them to do so.
Even worse, another study found that while Facebook does tend to polarize avid users, the effect is significantly more pronounced on the right than the left, with the conservative media diet being far more tilted towards hyper-partisan sources. Meanwhile, conservatives on Reddit shifted far more towards moderate, mainstream sources, and Twitter’s recommendations had pretty much no effect on polarization. The reason is simple. By prioritizing engagement metrics over anything and everything else in their algorithms, Facebook is telling outlets that content which gets users’ blood boiling will do best, and therefore favors gloom-and-doom conspiracy theorists and propagandists spreading fear, chaos, and doubt.
Bring it all together and we’re looking at poor tech, media, and science literacy from people who paid very little attention to today’s politics until they were affected by a global crisis they don’t understand and don’t really want to, and are used to getting their way being lured in by a group of conspiracy theorists, snake oil peddlers, and sleazy politicians thanks to a helping hand from social media, primarily Facebook. No wonder they’ve become so angry, jumpy, and incredibly opinionated on topics they seemingly couldn’t give less of a damn about four or five years ago. They’ve brainwashed themselves, and it’s affecting every facet of their lives, with even health pages pitching fluffy woo just a few years ago becoming gateways to radicalization.
This is why so many skeptical groups were so worried about the implications of letting these snake oil merchants and conspiratorial frauds run unchecked on social media, and why they really needed to have kept their wits about them and refined their activism instead of quickly descending into infighting. The last decade or so was like warning about a pile of tinder in a dry forest, then watching Facebook use it to set up a bonfire as others joined in to make it bigger, and walking away to let the fire burn completely out of control. To put that fire out, we’ll need technical help, as well as cultural, and educational, and the only way to start this process is to finally explain to the afflicted that they’re just pawns being used for others’ gain…