The Process of Falling into Misinformation Rabbit Holes and Strategies to Help Individuals Escape

The Process of Falling into Misinformation Rabbit Holes and Strategies to Help Individuals Escape

As the rise of misinformation and radicalization continues, it is natural to search for something or someone to blame. The internet, social media personalities, sensationalized political campaigns, religion, and conspiracy theories are often targeted. And once a cause is identified, solutions are proposed, such as fact-checking, advertising regulation, and banning certain YouTubers.

However, if these strategies were the complete answer, we would already see a decrease in people being drawn into fringe communities and beliefs, as well as less misinformation online. But that is not the case.

New research published in the Journal of Sociology suggests that radicalization is a process with increasingly intense stages, and only a small number of individuals progress to the point of committing violent acts. This research indicates that the process of misinformation radicalization is driven by human emotions rather than the information itself. Understanding this may be the first step in finding solutions.

The researchers analyzed public statements from former radicalized individuals, identifying different levels of intensity in misinformation and its associated online communities. In the early stages, people encountered misinformation through algorithms or friends, or actively sought explanations for things that made them uneasy. Regardless of how they came across it, they often reported finding a new sense of certainty, a community to belong to, and a feeling of regained control over their lives.

As individuals progressed to the middle stages of radicalization, they became invested in the new community and its goals. During these more intense stages, they experienced negative impacts on their lives, such as losing friends and family, health issues from excessive screen time and lack of sleep, and feelings of stress and paranoia. To cope with these challenges, they turned to their fringe communities for support.

Most individuals did not progress beyond these middle stages but continued to contribute to the misinformation ecosystem. However, those who reached the extreme final stages actively caused harm. They spoke of breaking ties with loved ones, participating in disruptive public acts, and engaging in violence in the name of their cause. Interventions at this stage required significant effort to remove individuals from their radicalized state.

The challenge lies in intervening safely and effectively during the earlier stages of radicalization. Responding with empathy rather than shame can have a positive impact. Friends and trusted advisers, such as doctors or nurses, can play a significant role in understanding the underlying concerns of individuals expressing fringe views. Maintaining a connection with them can serve as a lifeline and help them exit the radicalization process sooner.

In the middle stages, third-party online content not produced by the government but regular users can reach individuals without backfiring. The responsibility for the effects of automated tools on society should lie with the private companies behind social media platforms. By this stage, logical or factual arguments are ineffective, regardless of the source.

At the most extreme final stages, only heavy-handed interventions, such as forcibly hospitalizing radicalized relatives or government-supported deradicalization programs, have proven effective.

To protect oneself from radicalization, fostering critical thinking skills through reading long-form texts from paper books is recommended. Limiting social media use to small, purposefully-directed pockets of time can help guard against emotional manipulation by platform algorithms. Sustaining connections with other humans and leading a more analog life are also beneficial.

In summary, disconnecting from digital technologies, reading books, and spending time with loved ones are strategies to protect oneself from radicalization.

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