“What you find is people are most vulnerable to authoritarianism and extremist impulses when they don’t know what they’re supposed to do,” Berger says. “They don’t know where they fit in the world.”
Arie Kruglanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, says that something that motivates people in uncertain times is a need to feel significant.
“These things increase the motivation to reassert your significance. Once you have that, you’re vulnerable to narratives that promise you a restoration of your significance,” Kruglanski says. “Many of these conspiracy theories—most of them, I would think—do that.”
Extremist movements can make people feel significant, give them a sense of purpose, and provide them a narrative that explains why everything seems so screwed up. They also give them a sense of community and support. Kruglanski says the more you feel embraced by a network of people, the more you feel motivated to embrace their narrative, even if it’s extreme. Oftentimes, he says, people don’t realize how extreme the group they’re joining actually is until they’ve become invested in it.
Berger says social media has ramped up feelings of uncertainty. He says that’s partly due to the fact that ideas can now almost instantly be spread far and wide with little effort, which can be destabilizing.
“In the past, when transmission of ideas was slower, the ideas had a chance to evolve as they were being transmitted. This would sometimes create a sort of moderating influence,” Berger says. “With social media, ideas move so fast that there’s really no prospect for moderation. Even the most extreme ideas can spread incredibly quickly.”
Social media has also made it easier for people to become radicalized because they can easily find people who share any extreme views they may have and who will happily invite them into a movement. Someone who wouldn’t have met people who share their views in the small town they lived in years ago can easily find a community online and become further radicalized.
“Social media has radically changed how people communicate,” Berger says. “It’s radically changed the kinds of ideas people are exposed to.”
Research has shown social media exacerbates political polarization, often pushes users to view more extreme content, and helps extremists organize and coordinate their efforts. Social media also has positive impacts in terms of helping organize activists and connecting people in beneficial ways, but its negative effects and uses are significant.
“The network support, the clandestine conspiracy narratives combined with the sense of uncertainty, sense of lost significance—these elements create a combustible mixture that can be lit and lead to radicalization and radical action,” Kruglanski says.
So, many people feel uncertain and insignificant, and social media is flooded with disinformation and groups of extremists who will invite them into a movement. That’s some of it. The more obvious aspect of this, but one that is important, is the role of political leaders in America and a Republican Party that has become more extreme itself.