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Synthesis Essay #2

On May 13, 2017, The Atlantic issued an article titled This Article Won’t Change Your Mind: The facts on why facts alone can’t fight false beliefs. Julie Beck, the author of this article, brings this idea that people believe things even though they are not facts, and by doing so they become bias and believe that these biases are facts themselves.

In Beck’s analysis, she brings up this theory by social psychologist Leon Festinger called cognitive dissonance —  the extreme discomfort of simultaneously holding two thoughts that are in conflict with each other. An example of this conflict, is a study analyzed by Festinger where Dorothy Martin and her cult believed that a spaceman called the “Guardians” were coming to save them in spaceships, to protect them from a flood. Despite their strong beliefs, no spaceman and no flood ever occurred.  Of course, the spacemen did not show up today, but they believed they were bound to show up sometime soon. At the end of the study, all the researchers were amazed as to how they kept on believing on something that would never happen. Festinger later goes on to say, “Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources… Suppose that he is presented with evidence.. that his belief is wrong: what will happen? The individual will emerge more convinced of the truth of his beliefs than ever before.” This is an interesting claim by Festinger – the idea that social stubbornness can play a role in a person’s truth is in the eye of the beholder. This contrasts to Roberts-Miller’s demagoguery because cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon, meanwhile, demagoguery is a social phenomenon. 

Social stubbornness, however, can be exploited and even cultivated through identity. In Demagoguery and Democracy Patrica Roberts- Miller, advocates that demagogues — those who gain power by exploiting prejudice and refrain from rational argument — are evil and proposes plans of actions for what citizens can do to restore democracy. In Chapter 4, “How Demagoguery Works,” Roberts-Miller presents the characteristics of demagoguery: “the most important characteristic is the reduction of political questions to us versus them.” Social psychologists use the term “in-group favoritism.” These terms “in-groups” (us) “out-group” (them), refer to “social groups.” Roberts-Miller then provides an example, “people will often reject a source as “biased” on the grounds that the author is a member of an out-group as though group membership is sufficient proof of bias.” People tend to believe those who are within their group because they relate to their ideology and values. 

In an article by the New York Times  titled The Making of A Youtube Radical  presents Caleb Cain, a high school dropout, who came into contact with youtube and through his various searches the Youtube algorithm presented him with far right-wing videos. Throughout his journey on Youtube, Cain received threats from several right wing trolls in response to a video he posted on YouTube. In the video, he told the story of how, as a liberal college dropout struggling to find his place in the world, he got sucked into a vortex of far-right politics on YouTube. Cain had been trapped. As he says, “I fell down the alt-right rabbit hole.” Since then he began his alt-right critic movement following these threats. 

Caleb Cain, just like several other people have been in a similar situation where at first they are starstruck by such evidence and sometimes get attached to it and are not able to see the world around them. Using social psychologist Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance ⁠— this psychological phenomenon— Cain encountered it throughout his five years of Youtube radicalism. In his mind, he knew there was something out there; different to what he had been exposed to, but because of Youtube’s complex algorithm he was never exposed to the other side of the spectrum. Cain also mentions, “I just kept falling deeper and deeper into this, and it appealed to me because it made me feel a sense of belonging.” Roberts-Miller idea of social belonging played a role in Cain’s obsession with right-wing critics Steven Crowder and Paul Watson. Since Cain felt part of the group and it represented his identity he never questioned their beliefs because in turn their beliefs resonated with him. Crowder and Watson (demagogues) exercised their power to attract people like Cain and used them to solidify their credibility and transmit their beliefs onto people. Luckily, Cain was able to see through this far right wing demagogues and gradually shift to left wing videos. In summation, both Beck and Roberts-Miller present two distinct ideas. Beck, introduces the concept of cognitive dissonance and how people will still strongly believe in an idea through their social norms and ideology. Roberts-Miller describes the characteristics of a demagogue and the ideology of ”in-group favoritism” and how we tend to lean towards them because we share the same ideology and values. Kevin Roose’s article presents Caleb Cain as an example of how cognitive dissonance differs from demagoguery. Both articles demonstrate that with the growth of  fake news and the subconscious practice of genetic fallacy, the concept of truth is becoming questionable.


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