Ask Dr. Nerdlove by Harris O'Malley

Help! My Boyfriend Turned Into A Right-Wing COVID Conspiracy Theorist!

DEAR DR. NERDLOVE: I’m a black woman and I have been dating a white man for 5 years. He is a Republican from a family of Democrats. When George Floyd hit, he marched in 3 BLM marches and helped to organize one in his hometown. Then he tried to read The New Jim Crow and How to be Anti-Racist.

He’s recently imploded with statements about inequity not being real, racism not being as common and systemic racism not existing. He also went from COVID vigilance to COVID = common cold. Having no empathy for any death or illness saying – People have to die of something.

He is Christian and although I am as well, I was raised with open minded critically thinking educated parents. Basically I am not a follower; even while I love God and the Bible I understand the human lens and the millions of enslaved, killed and marginalized victims of religion. He is not deep diving into Christianity, he is deep diving into YouTube right-wingers and Donald Trump. He calls Democrats “pedophiles” and “communists” and says that “BLM founders are violent socialist lesbians who hate all white people.”

He also has interrupted my phone calls to voice his opinion and every conversation about the weather ends with a comment about Trump being maligned and discriminated against and how Democrats have ruined the world and tricked black people into thinking in evil and unproductive ways. AND MOST OF ALL I AM A 35 YEAR LONG ADVOCATE FOR MARGINALIZED COMMUNITIES! A LOBBYIST, TRAINER AND UPLIFTER OF VOICES. THIS IS HOW I GET PAID AND THIS IS WHO I AM TO MY CORE.

I have a 14 year old son – he now hates my boyfriend and I am making plans to leave. I just need 250.00 increase in monthly income which I know I do.

Please, explain why a white man dating a black woman who works to improve lives would suddenly shift to worshipping Trump, dismissing disparity and lack empathy for victims of COVID.

Because most of my work is within mental health – I am worried he is mentally ill.

Dating Mr. Hyde

DEAR DATING MR. HYDE: First and foremost: good for you for leaving. This is an increasingly untenable situation, and getting the f--k out is the right thing to do.

This is a thing that’s come up a lot in the last few years — and you can find these letters in my archives: people dating dudes — or dealing with family members — who seem to suddenly shift from being reasonable individuals to alt-right s--theads… or in your case, a QAnon and COVID denier. And unfortunately, it’s really not that hard to pinpoint a cause. Hell, you’ve actually put your finger square on at least part of what’s been causing people to lose their goddamn minds: they’re self-radicalizing because of YouTube. But it’s not just YouTube. It’s also Facebook, Twitter, and a s--tload of other social media sites, in no small part because of the way that these companies treat their audience and the material that they serve up.

(And as someone with a decent social media following and a YouTube channel, we will pause to appreciate the irony about complaining about social media)

The issue at hand is that on social media and sites on YouTube, the audience isn’t the customer; it’s the product. The sites themselves rely on keeping and growing their audience, in part to better serve ads, but also for user data. Sites like YouTube and Facebook don’t just want you to use their sites and then click away to something else; they want you to stay and linger there for as long as possible. One of the ways that they do that is by serving up media and posts that they feel you’ll want to see — continuing to refresh Facebook to see what people are posting or clicking through to the next recommended video. In theory, these are things that are related to what you’ve just watched or interacted with; watch some movie trailers and you’ll see film commentary videos come up as the next recommendation, for example. This is part of why it’s so easy to fall down a YouTube rabbit hole; the site is showing you more of what it thinks you should see.

But the problem is that part of what drives the algorithm is engagement — how long people watch the video and comment or hit the thumbs up, how many people like, comment or share that link or that post, and so on. And the content that generates the most engagement also tends to be more extreme and vitriolic. This makes a certain amount of sense; people post something stupid about Donald Trump or the Snyder Cut of Justice League or Steven Universe or about how the world is flat and trees aren’t real and folks engaging with the content. It doesn’t matter that half of them may be yelling in the comments about how goddamn dumb it is, or sharing that link or quote-tweeting that post so they can dunk on it. That post, link, tweet or video is still getting high-levels of engagement and so it is going to get a higher priority in the algorithm.

But — as pointed out in the Daily Beast article “How YouTube Built a Radicalization Machine for the Far-Right” — this has the effect of creating a filtered bubble. If, for example, you’re watching some Call of Duty streams, you may get recommended videos from streamers or Twitch personalities who fall on the more conservative side of things. Watch those and you’re not going to get more liberal videos to balance things out; you’re much more likely to have a video from (or about) Joe Rogan recommended to you. Watch that and you’re likely going to get Dave Rubin or Ben Shapiro or Jordan Peterson videos in your recommendations… and those lead to alt-right folks and folks like Stefan Molyneux, whose views tend to line up precisely with neo-nazis.

(Well, you would before Molyneux got kicked off YouTube, but my point remains).

These days, a lot of the so-called “Intellectual Dark Web” — entry points to the alt-right like Molyneux, Peterson, etc. — have fallen out of favor and become increasingly less relevant. Not, unfortunately, because their audiences wised up and moved on, but because the discourse changed. Not only did the far right become more open, more extreme and strident under Trump, but the far right and the grifters that latch onto them like remoras shifted focus to new outlets.

One of the bigger changes was Pizzagate — which already was being promoted by right wing figureheads like Charlie Kirk and Mike Cernovich evolving into QAnon, and QAnon making the leap from fringe sites like 8chan/8kun to increasingly mainstream platforms. QAnon’s chief advantage in the marketplace of ideas is that it’s a reskinned version of The Satanic Panic, just updated for the 21st century. Because the so-called “Q drops” are basically glossolalic word salad, with no real context or meaning, it’s possible to read anything into them. This has the added benefit of making QAnon a clearinghouse for every conspiracy theory out there. Adrenochrome? Sure, that tracks. Harvesting mole children who’ve been specially bred for Satanic pedophiles? Why not. Seth Rich? Yeah, there’s probably a way to squeeze that in there too. And of course, where there is right-wing nonsense, there are people who’re ready to profit off of it, whether trying to harness it to win elections or to just soak people for as much money as possible. Hence, QAnon “thought leaders” made concerted efforts on YouTube, Facebook, TikTok and other social media sites. And because Facebook — like YouTube — uses an algorithm that prioritizes engagement and, as a result, prioritizes far right discourse, people were increasingly directed to QAnon related pages, videos and groups.

The other significant change was COVID-19. Unlike a lot of other scandals or f--k-ups by the Trump administration, COVID wasn’t something that they could ignore or brush off. So instead, the right wing politicized it — making denial of basic reality part of membership of their club. And, of course, in the echo chambers created by algorithmic filters like the ones used by YouTube or Facebook, there is incentive to stand out by being more outrageous and more extreme than others — particularly if you’re trying to run a grift. Which then, of course, becomes the new accepted norm.

And since both of those parallel nicely with one another… well, you end up with a whole lot of people who think that wearing a mask to keep from spreading a virus is a form of slavery and that choosing to NOT go to super-spreader events is fascism.

(And this is before we get into the toxic masculinity aspects of COVID denialism or Trump’s Potemkin tough-guy displays)

Part of what makes this insidious is how much all of this triggers a specific blindspot in the human psyche; when we’re exposed to something enough times, we start to be more warmly inclined to it. This is why advertisers will blitz you with ads about a specific product until sheer familiarity leads to your giving it a try because it’s a brand you’ve seen over and over again. It’s why you may hate a particular song at first, but after the first… fifty times you’ve heard it on the radio or Spotify or on TV, you’ll decide it’s a real bop. And it’s why when someone says something often enough times, in an authoritative enough tone, people will tend to start to buy into it. Being exposed to the same ideas over and over again — the words may vary slightly but the sentiment is the same — means that it tends to sink into your psyche in ways that you aren’t even aware of. It’s part of why taking social media breaks often makes you feel so much better; you’re not being subjected to the same levels of panic, anger, fear and negativity over and over again.

But when you fall down a YouTube rabbit hole, or you open up YouTube the next day and more and more of your recommendations are about COVID or QAnon or alt-right entry points like Shapiro, it starts to dig in harder.

Cults like QAnon and COVID-deniers even take it to the next level, inviting you to “do the research” or “investigate it yourself”. This isn’t just a way of dodging inconvenient questions that they don’t have an answer to; it’s a way of getting you more invested, because you’re actively taking part in finding this information, rather than passively having it handed to you. Because you’ve been an active participant, you’re much more likely to get invested in the results… in short, taking part in your own radicalization and brainwashing.

But it’s not just brainwashing and radicalization that keeps people from recognizing that they’ve been gulled. Another reason why people double and triple down on their own radicalization is simple and banal: it’s pride and embarrassment. When people look around at the damage that their beliefs and actions have caused… they don’t want to accept that they were part of this. QAnon forums, incel communities, even Trump subreddits are full of people who’ve been shut out by friends and family or kicked out of their social circles because of how toxic their beliefs and behavior has been. However, when looking at the wreckage that they caused, they won’t recognize that this is the consequences of their actions. In fact, they will often double down instead, choosing to believe that this is because the rest of us are sheeple or weak or deluded. This is because it’s very hard to accept that you’ve f--ked up that hard. There’s a lot of embarrassment and humiliation that comes from admitting that you bought into somebody’s grift-cult, hook, line, sinker and copy of the Angler Times. Rather than face that they were wrong and do the hard work of trying to repair their lives, they opt to dig in harder and deeper instead. Yes, it means that they end up further isolated, lonely and miserable… but they’re too busy trying to avoid the short-term discomfort to recognize the long-term consequences.

Of course for the folks who profit from these beliefs, that’s a feature, not a bug. Lonely, isolated people are that much easier to control and manipulate after all.

Now, the obvious question is “but what do we do about people who buy into this?” And the answer is… it’s hard to know, honestly.

Well, not that hard in your case, DMH, you’re already leaving his ass which is the absolute right thing to do. But for a lot of folks, it’s complicated.

It’s understandable to want to believe that fathers and mothers, brothers, sisters, lovers and friends could be redeemed or come back. It’s very hard to be willing to forgive and reach out to people who have been willing to cause that much destruction and pain in the lives of the people around them — more so when their beliefs lead to the spread of a deadly virus that’s killed more than 257,000 Americans and inflicted God-knows what kinds of long-term effects on survivors. I’ve seen people who’ve had their trust in their family irrevocably damaged by this, and with good reason.

While it’s easy to say “this holiday season, if you’re going to go to your parents’ house (but seriously, don’t, it’s a goddamn pandemic), get on their Facebook, Twitter and YouTube accounts and quietly block all the right-winger groups that they’re part of”… that’s more glibness than an actual plan. While that actually CAN help start to bring them out of it, it doesn’t do the hard work of fixing what they broke. And honestly… that’s something they need to do, rather than for the people they hurt to “reach out” to them first.

In an ideal world, the answer would be layered. Social media sites like Facebook and YouTube would take actual responsibility for the harm they’ve done and not just give after-the-fact meaningless apologies and token solutions, knee-capping the ability for this to spread. On the individual level, the best practice would be reaching people before they’re in so deep that they feel like they can’t get out, gently making them aware of how they’re getting played.

But we don’t live in an ideal world, and that means we as individuals have fewer options. But when people start to snap out of it, it’s going to be on them to do the work of trying to repair the damage and rebuild their relationships, not on you.

Good luck.

Please send your questions to Dr. NerdLove at his website (www.doctornerdlove.com/contact); or to his email, doc@doctornerdlove.com