Assessing the Impact of Social Media, Especially After the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election

It is generally understood that Social Media is a product of the Internet, and that one of the results of social media is the creation of echo chambers in which people share the same viewpoint, often uncritically. As a result, viewpoints– often extreme viewpoints– become reinforced by the recognition that they are widely shared within the social media group, and what is essentially gossip or even conspiracy theory, or deliberate misinformation with no factual basis, may be confused or preferred to fact-based views on similar topics. This interpretation has been provided as a factor in the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in which a presidential candidate, who always promoted conspiracy theories over facts, received over 70 million votes.

As is my habit, during and after the 2020 U.S. presidential election I searched for antecedents to social media and its use for promotion of conspiracy theories. In principal, since social media is a product of the Internet, one would assume that its history could not extend back more than a few years, especially since before the Internet most communication media were broadcast--one directional from the editorial source, such as newspapers, radio, and television. One of the most dramatic and innovative results of personal computers connected to the Internet was the development social and interactive media, in which the social media platform acts like a printing press and everyone on the platform, such as Facebook or Twitter, becomes a writer and publisher of free information without the intermediary of an editor or a fact-checker who might work for a traditional publisher.

But long before the Internet there was gossip, and many conspiracy theories and popular delusions spread like wildfire before electronic media. These popular delusions were documented as early as 1841 in a three-volume classic by Scottish poet, journalist, and song writer Charles Mackay in his Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. MacKay studied the popular delusions (similar socially to conspiracy theories, or misinformation) with respect to economic bubbles particularly, since in the 19th century when he wrote those were the primary manifestations of misinformation that could be recognized, especially since that term and the concept of government using lies for social/political influence was not yet coined. It was as late as 1923 that Joseph Stalin coined the term desinformatsiya as the name of a KGB black propaganda department. Stalin gave the department what he thought was French-sounding name in order to claim the name had a Western origin. What I think would be confirmed with good historical research is that the scale of these popular delusions has increased as media reach more and more people free of charge. It was undoubtedly not a coincidence that Orwell published the predictive distopian novel 1984  after he recognized the dominance of propaganda from the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany over the people of those countries.

One of the most famous landmarks in the history of popular delusions amplified by radio was Orson Wells' 1938 broadcast of "The War of the Worlds." Wells may not have intended to deceive in the manner of propaganda, but his broadcast had that effect on many people, causing well-documented mass hysteria.

Prior to the French Revolution, in the 18th century Mesmerism became a social/political movement in France that some thought threatened the Ancien Regime. Mesmerism was "suggestion" or hypnosis amplified by social gatherings. Between 1777 and 1787 more books and pamphlets were published in France on Mesmerism (also called Animal Magnetism) than any other subject. The practice became socially fashionable, much like certain elements of social media today. One might say that Mesmerism would be one of the very best early examples of how bogus information, which was in this case essentially beign, captivated elements of society. By 1783 the Medical Faculty of Paris became so alarmed by the spread of Animal Magnetism, which they perceived as quackery, that they commissioned a report by a blue-ribbon committee of inquiry. The committee included Benjamin Franklin, Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, Michael Joseph Majault, Jean Sylvain Bailly, and Jean d'Arcet. Finding no evidence of the magnetic fluid that was promoted by Mesmer as responsible for Animal Magnetism, these scientists attributed the power of mesmerism to the “imagination” and so drove Mesmer from Paris. Lavoisier may have been the author of the report. English translation, London, 1785. I should also mention that driving Mesmer out of Paris did not put a stop to Mesmerism or Animal Magnetism. This was one more example of how facts have only limited influence on entrenched and socially reinforced belief.

In the 19th century hypnosis was studied scientifically and understood as a therapeutic technique in psychiatry, and even used as an anesthetic in surgery. Long after it came to the attention of physicians as a society fad supported by bogus theories from Mesmer, hypnotism was eventually put to scientific use in psychiatry and psychology. It is reasonable to theorize that social media echochambers on Facebook and Twitter may sometimes have an mass-hypnotic effect today.

Jeremy M. Norman
November 22, 2020