Youtube videos

YouTube videos brainwashed my father. Can I reprogram its flow?

For most of his life, my 80-plus-year-old father was a calm, gentle, and deeply religious man who attended Mass and recited the Rosary daily. While his political views have always been conservative, he has also always believed in kindness and fairness. Since the start of the pandemic, his social interactions have become severely curtailed, limited to daily calls from me (I live across the country), weekly visits from my brother, and occasional errands and church attendance. . As our mother passed away before the pandemic, her only faithful companion has been her iPad and YouTube. Due to his viewing of religious programs, YouTube has increasingly steered him towards the conservative media, so he is now obsessed with far-right politics and is absolutely against taking the Covid vaccine. Whenever my brother or I have a conversation with him he talks about politics and makes his views known, and even after we ask him to stop he tries to have the final say by sending us e-mails. – angry emails or SMS. Now we both try to avoid having interactions with him. I have the password for his YouTube account from a year ago when I helped him with a technical issue. In order to preserve our relationship, I am thinking of going into his account to delete and pause his viewing history, and perhaps put links to healthier entertainment such as music and football to counter the constant bombardment of the extremism. My rationale is that if he is brainwashed by an algorithm, then I might as well use the algorithm to bring him back to his old self so that we can at least have a normal conversation. What is your take on this? Name withheld

The phenomenon that you are the description has been widely discussed and reported, including in this publication. There is widespread concern that YouTube’s recommendation engine has had the unintended consequence of radicalizing some viewers by offering them increasingly inflammatory views on political or politicized topics. (YouTube says it has made adjustments in recent years to favor trusted media over sources of what it calls “borderline content and harmful disinformation.”)

So I understand the temptation. I’d definitely be tempted to edit the feeds of a few people I know – and yes, they probably return the sentiment. But let’s be clear: you plan to treat your dad as no longer competent to handle his own viewing. (You’re not just offering to send him scientifically sound links on vaccines, say.) You’re not suggesting, however, that he has any cognitive or psychiatric issues that would warrant such treatment. Indeed, while YouTube’s recommendation engine can have detrimental effects on people who are assumed to be normal, the fact that it has had a detrimental effect on your father is not necessarily proof of disability.

At the same time, your father doesn’t seem to realize how alienating his behavior is. Rather than manipulating him the way you suggest, you might get him to face the choice he’s faced with: either he’ll stop talking about things like that with you, or you’ll stop spending so much time with him. You value your relationship with your father. But it only really has value if he appreciates his relationship with you as well.

One of my wife’s oldest friends is involved in a cult. While it initially looked like a quirky pseudo-religious encounter, it now exhibits some pretty disturbing behaviors, steeped in conspiracy theories. She has two children with her ex-husband: an older child who decided to live with the father and a younger child who last time we saw them behaved strangely, playing characters from what her mother was calling past lives. It was initially thought to be a comedy act, but it turned out to be serious! Part of the belief system is a strange relationship to food and nutrition, and the child looked rather thin, bordering on malnutrition. The cult itself performs certain procedures that we find sexually abusive, wrapped in the mantra of alternative healing.

My wife feels that she can no longer maintain this friendship; it is exhausting, especially with the insistent preaching about the sect, which borders on emotional abuse. I would take it a step further, given our friend’s last post on social media, and call her a fascist. The question for us is how can we make sure that her child is safe, and whether ending the contact would cause both the friend and her child to be drawn deeper into this cult, which seems to be growing. more abusive and insulating? Name withheld

Considering your worries, you should definitely contact the other parent of the child. You can also contact the local authorities responsible for his welfare, who may conduct an examination. Of course, your worries aren’t limited to abuse and neglect. You think this child is brainwashed into a disconnected, psychologically abusive community and belief system.

Cults are a delicate subject in the liberal democratic tradition. The beliefs of most religious traditions seem strange from the point of view of those of other traditions or none. Thus, within wide limits, liberal societies have decided to leave religious education to families, while supporting the capacity of adults to leave these communities. It’s the right balance, I think, but those of us who believe in this liberal solution must recognize that it doesn’t always work very well for people raised far from local standards. They can be ill-prepared for society outside of their group, even putting aside the heavy burden of dislocation and the loss of friends and family.

We may regret the characteristics of these belief communities while further fearing highly intrusive state policies.

But many occult organizations do not need to be accorded the deference normally accorded to religions, because they do not ask for it. The group you are describing appears to be in debt to certain Theosophical teachings. Yet modern esotericists often define themselves not in religious but therapeutic terms, as offering healing or meditation techniques, and making health claims for their practices and prescriptions. As the previous letter suggests, there can certainly be other belief systems – see QAnon’s esotericism – which are not constituted as religions, and some prove to be both all-consuming and deeply disturbing.

Again, however, there is a reason we collectively give these groups great latitude, because we give people great latitude in their parenting choices. We may regret the characteristics of these belief communities while further fearing highly intrusive state policies. Apart from reporting what child welfare officials would consider to be a real danger, you and your wife are, as individuals, even more limited in what you can do. Your wife doesn’t have to have a relationship that she finds painful; but if you think that by gentle persuasion you could be of use in staying in touch, then do so by all means. Just keep in mind that it is an ethical demerit when our relationships with other people – even those whose opinions are falsely troubling – are simply manipulative.


Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at NYU. His books include “Cosmopolitanism”, “The Honor Code” and “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity”. To submit a request: Send an email to [email protected]; or send mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10018. (Include a daytime phone number.)


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