Over the past year I had been experiencing the pervasive sense that large numbers of people in the US were going crazy. From neighbors, colleagues, patients and random persons on the internet I heard statements that sounded extreme in their despair, fear and rage. At times the statements entered the realm of clinical paranoia. I was told by left-of-center persons that America was full of Nazis, and by persons to the right that the "Left" was engaged in a purposeful campaign to destroy the Constitution and install a totalitarian regime. I blamed the media and our two main political parties for the incessant drumbeat of hysterical "news" stories, inflammatory language and demonization of others that fed this mass hysteria. But it turns out that the real story is even weirder: It was the Russians.
Why do people succumb to propaganda and why can't they see that they are being manipulated? There are many factors:
Conformism: Humans are social animals and want to "belong." If a group of people with whom someone wants to associate insists on a shared belief system, many people will adopt the beliefs even though those beliefs have no basis in fact. The strong need to "belong" will override logical thought processes.
Displacement: Persons with histories of abuse or neglect in childhood deal with anxiety, anger and even outrage, but may be unable to connect those emotions with their childhood experiences due to wanting to protect the images of their family members. Instead, they direct their fear and outrage toward public figures or groups or imagined groups. It is emotionally convenient to fear and hate those you don't personally know.
Self-esteem: Many people revel in a belief in their own moral superiority. By aligning themselves with what they see as a virtuous or righteous position and condemning others who disagree, they feel better about themselves.
What can counter these dangerous tendencies? Here are some tips:
1. Learn history. The better educated and older people I know demonstrated less susceptibility to the propaganda, and not just because they don't use Twitter. It's that they (we) have seen it all before, and what we haven't seen personally we have read about. Propaganda and popular hysteria are nothing new. There have been waves of mass hysteria throughout history, often with atrocious, catastrophic or genocidal results.
2. Use logical analysis to assess claims made by groups, including established groups. It doesn't matter who made the argument or published the news story if it doesn't make sense.
3. Listen to your gut instincts. If something seems fishy, it probably is. If you can't put the pieces together, maybe it's because they don't fit. Ask yourself: Is something missing from the story? Does the story seem too bad or too good to be real?
4. Live a healthier lifestyle: Acknowledge your childhood traumas, build your self-esteem in healthy ways and seek friends who don't demand that you agree with their political beliefs. Talk to different types of people and listen to them.