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The Future of Brainwashing in Neuroscience and Social Media

Joel E. Dimsdale—

Twenty-first century brainwashing researchers will also exploit the capa­bilities of a very different area—social media. Recall how governments seized upon pharmaceutical developments in obstetrics and used those drugs to facilitate interrogations. How could countries not study social media as a tool for brainwashing in the twenty-first century?

If that sounds too far-fetched, recall that brainwashing is facilitated by limited communication with outsiders and when people are subjected to surreptitious destructive coercion. How well does that describe the capabilities of social media when it is deployed for disinformation, fake news, stoking fundamentalism and extremism? To answer that question, one needs to recall social media’s roots in social psychology, advertising, social modeling, and social intoxicants.

In numerous experiments Solomon Asch (1907–96) demonstrated that adult judgments are surprisingly malleable to group pressures. Social factors influence even simple matters like judging the length of a line. If the first few members of a group report that line A is longer than line B, most subsequent people will go along with that judgment even if it is in­correct.29 Less than one-third of individuals are able to resist conformity pressures in such a simple task. Even more important, the conformity pressures need not be oppressive. Simply being part of a group influences one’s judgment, perception, and behavior. As Singer and Lalich observed: “If you say it in front of others, you’ll do it. Once you do it, you’ll think it. Once you think it, you’ll believe that you thought of it yourself.”30 Asch’s most famous student, Stanley Milgram, demonstrated darker implications of such conformity pressures. Mentally healthy, normal individuals could be persuaded to administer unconscionably painful electric shocks to an­other person in a laboratory setting.31 To what extent can social media stoke conformity pressures?

. . . .

The speed and anonymity of the internet are intoxicating, and it is worth recalling that cultures are generally helpless against novel intoxi­cants. It takes generations before cultural norms begin to shape how we deal with such intoxicants. The Gin Craze of the seventeenth century pro­vides a vivid example. When William of Orange moved from Holland to become king of England in 1689, gin became so popular that the mean per capita consumption rose to a phenomenal 10 liters of gin per year. For comparison, the current annual U.S. per capita consumption is 0.21 liters.40 The heavy consumption of gin was devastating because it led to public drunkenness, crime, child abandonment, and malnutrition. It took sixty years to control the Gin Craze with a series of taxes and licenses.41

Similarly, we have been struggling with drunk driving ever since auto­mobiles were invented. Even after a century of laws, norms, and education, driving under the influence is still a major problem.42 Given that we have been fighting drunk driving for over one hundred years, how confident can we be that social media will be reined in as an intoxicating tool for foster­ing coercive persuasion?

. . . .

Social media has gone from techno-utopianism to dystopic weaponization. Perhaps Timothy Leary was more accurate than he realized when he branded the internet the new LSD (and we saw how well the LSD story worked out in the government’s hands). Social media can be so compelling that it verges on being coercive. Furthermore, it is subliminally persuasive in ways that can be profoundly destructive to the user. Tomorrow’s brainwashers could not help exploring the possibilities. Experts in cognitive science, communication, and computer science will continue enhancing the capabilities of social media to link people and carry messages. Plato cautioned that storytellers rule the world.61 Tomorrow’s citizens will need to evaluate the storytellers’ tales on social media with great care.

29. Asch reported that the idea came to him while reflecting about his childhood experience attending a Passover Seder. An extra glass of wine was poured for Elijah and the seven-year-old Solomon asked if Elijah would really come. His uncle replied, “Oh, yes. You just watch,” and Solomon thought he saw the wine level diminish slightly in the glass. David Tout, “Obituary—Solomon Asch Is Dead at 88: A Leading Social Psychologist,” New York Times, February 29, 1996.

30. Singer and Lalich, Cults in Our Midst, 76.

31. S. Milgram, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View (New York: Harper and Row, 1974).

41. Similar stories could be told of other newly introduced intoxicants (for example, alcohol to the New World, opium to China). In such instances, people obsessively reoriented their lives around a new North Star, seeking comfort from that which was actually destroying them, obsessionally circling around their drug like a moth around a flame.

42. L. M. Maruschak, “DWI Offenders under Correctional Supervision,” Bureau of Justice Statistics, June 1999, https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/ascii/dwiocs.txt. For a more current analysis reporting similar findings, see Office of Behavioral Safety Research, Traffic Safety Facts Research Note, “Results of the 2013–2014 National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drug Use by Drivers,” DOT HS 812 118, February 2015, https://www.nhtsa.gov/behavioral-research/2013-14-national-roadside-study-alcohol-and-drug
-use-drivers. Although it has decreased, drunk driving remains an extremely common problem; in 2010, there were 1.4 million arrests for drunk driving in the United States. M. Chambers, M. Liu, and C. Moore, “Drunk Driving by the Numbers,” Bureau of Transportation Statistics, 2017, https://www.bts.gov/archive/publications/by_the_numbers/drunk_driving/index.

61. Plato, The Republic, chapter IX.

From Dark Persuasion: A History of Brainwashing from Pavlov to Social Media by Joel E. Dimsdale. Published by Yale University Press in 2023. Reproduced with permission.

Joel E. Dimsdale is Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychiatry at University of California, San Diego. He consults widely to government agencies and is the author of numerous other works, including Anatomy of Malice: The Enigma of the Nazi War Criminals. He lives in San Diego, CA.

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