There are few things in life more insufferable than an opinionated and ill-informed spectator with a planet-sized megaphone. Such a person and their tool alone is not enough to cause a problem other than mere annoyance. With the addition of a bucket of money, a dash of ego, and a following of loyal acolytes, the severity of annoyance quickly accelerates beyond the escape velocity of Earth.
Such is life in 2020. A year in which nearly everyone has vast amounts of quality information quite literally at the tips of their fingers and, instead of using it to reduce their ignorance, dismiss the inconvenient or disagreeable portions in favor of the deranged rantings of followed celebrities.
Consider someone like Elon Musk. He has been and is the founder and head of some successful and, frankly, impressive technologies. The notches on his belt list off behemoths such as PayPal, Tesla, and SpaceX. The reasons for the successes of these companies can certainly be debated, but what is certain is that Musk has been involved with all of them.
Now consider the strange musings that ooze from his Twitter profile. It takes merely one brief visit before you’re swimming in nonsensical posts, cult like worship, endless whataboutisms, links to anecdotal clickbait, and people relentlessly screaming past each other. While that type of behavior isn’t unique to Musk, the combination of his past successes, the money that came with those successes, and his appeal to entrepreneurs has allowed him to build a near impenetrable following of zealots that hang on his every word.
And therein lies the problem. Cult and celebrity worship inevitably leads credulous individuals to throw their support behind nearly everything the cult or celebrity does.
There is a tactic employed by propaganda outlets that allows them to get started and build an audience from among a sea of activity.
It begins by operating a run-of-the-mill operation in which “normal” information is released to potential followers. An article from the New York Times here, a video from Bloomberg there, and a well-researched paper from the journal Nature over there. Over a period time, a following accelerates, builds, and begins participating and responding to the activity of the outlet.
A healthy following demands progress into the next phase of propaganda. This period is marked by a transition from informed authors to the sharing of more fringe resources. Such a transition does not happen immediately, as followers would be repelled and seek a different outlet that more aligns with their worldview. Instead, the outlet slips a few fringe articles in with the more mainstream articles. Since the outlet has built trust with their audience, such outliers are less repulsive to the followers. After all, the followers have spent a considerable amount of their time listening to an outlet that they have come to trust. Why would they turn their back on something that has regularly provided them with good information? Surely all future data has been as thoroughly vetted as in the past, right?
It is at this moment that the outlet swoops in for the coup de grâce. With a large readership now willing to accept slight fringe elements being pushed for the purposes of propaganda and profit, it is easy enough for a larger percentage of shared resources to reflect that shift. Tapping in to innate emotions such as loyalty, a sense of following, and trust, the outlet will have transformed their followers into something that they themselves will not recognize upon honest reflection.
That said, it is doubtful that Elon Musk is willfully engaging in such strategies as previously described. But there is a blurry and obscure line separating explicit and implicit indoctrination. Musk’s megaphone is as large as his ego. A nontrivial size of his following base is as loyal and zealous as Donald Trump’s. The marked difference between a spectator with an opinion and a billionaire or celebrity with an opinion is the responsibility bestowed upon the latter as a result of influence that they wield (whether they like it or not).
It is through the irresponsible and cavalier operation of influence that the influencers are able to sway opinions in intellectually dishonest directions. In a world where information travels at the speed of light (literally), it is often difficult to detect true motives. Often an influencer’s goal is to make a quick buck by funneling eyeballs and clicks through advertisements, distract audiences from unflattering news, or to simply nurse a sensitive ego. Musk meets all the criteria: spectator, billionaire, host of opinions, large influence, huge ego, irresponsible use of public forum, active interest in influencing public opinion to his self interests and benefactors.
As such, it is the responsibility of the public at large to engage in critical thinking, respond through logic rather than emotion, and hold authority figures accountable for their inappropriate lever-pulling. Credulity leads to blindly following, and blind followers are unable to see clear deception.