A Theory of Why We’re All Going Nuts Online

Read in your language:

Alan Jacobs in The New Atlantis: On January 6, 2021, Samuel Camargo posted a video on Instagram showing him struggling to break through a police barrier to get into the U.S. Capitol building. The next day he wrote on Facebook: “I’m sorry to all the people I’ve disappointed as this is not who I am nor what I stand for.”

A month after the riot, Jacob Chansley, the man widely known as the QAnon Shaman, wrote a letter from his jail cell in Virginia asking Americans to “be patient with me and other peaceful people who, like me, are having a very difficult time piecing together all that happened to us, around us, and by us.”

“This is not who I am,” “all that happened … by us” — it is commonplace to hear such statements as mere evasions of responsibility, and often they are. But what if they reflect genuine puzzlement, genuine difficulty understanding one’s behavior or even seeing it as one’s own, a genuine feeling of being driven, compelled, by something other than one’s own will?

n 1841, the Scottish journalist Charles Mackay published a book that would eventually assume the title Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. “We find that whole communities suddenly fix their minds upon one object, and go mad in its pursuit; that millions of people become simultaneously impressed with one delusion, and run after it, till their attention is caught by some new folly more captivating than the first.”

Thirty years later, Fyodor Dostoevsky would publish a novel about a town that seems to lose its mind: We see murder, arson, suicide, and pedophilia, much of it driven by self-proclaimed revolutionaries who know neither what they are protesting nor what they endorse. He called the novel Demons, and prefaced it with a story from the Gospel of Luke of how Jesus exorcised a man possessed by many demons: More here.