What if the most transmittable pathogen in the world isn’t an identifiable bacterium or virus, but an ideology? A cognitive pathogen, impacting one’s ability to assimilate new and contradictory information into their world schema. It shouldn’t take long for one to identify a few examples of ideological pathogens which have gained a foothold and metastasized within larger social clusters (religion, politics), but how are such ideological pathogens spread? What makes them dangerous? How can we protect ourselves?
A pathogen, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is “a specific causative agent (such as a bacterium or virus) of disease.” In this respect, ideologies act as the primary causative agent, and much like physical viruses, can result in the malfunctioning of an internal organ (our brain). When contracted, ideological pathogens aim to influence and alter an individual’s thinking, resulting in potentially harmful and maladaptive behavior. An article published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, describes the likelihood for a pathogen to survive is contingent upon its ability to reproduce and spread to a new host.
Unlike physical viruses, ideological pathogens aren’t transmitted through direct contact with a contagious individual. Ideological pathogens spread through concisely orchestrated, manufactured, and targeted cognitive assaults, aimed at altering a person’s thinking and behavior. Social media platforms have enabled anyone with a smartphone, tablet, or laptop to purport an endless array of ideological pathogens in the blink of an eye.
What makes an ideology dangerous is contingent upon the resulting behavior after the ideology is adopted by an individual. If one adopts the ideology that “vaccines cause autism”, the danger lies in choosing to not vaccinate their children, which could result in illness or even death. We’ve seen a rise in equally disturbing and potentially dangerous ideologies during and since President Trump’s election. One article succinctly points out how Trump and his administration repackaged dangerous and malignant ideologies under the guise of populism by incorporating elements of nationalism, xenophobia, anti-immigration, sexism, racism…the list goes on. But unlike a slow spread of infection facilitated through human contact, many of these ideologies have swept the country quickly via route of transmission being the internet and social media.
Many factors could predispose an individual’s susceptibility to certain ideological pathogens such as location, level of education, socioeconomic status, etc. We are all contributors and products of the culture and society we exist within, but now we all share a collective global outlet, the internet, which continues to illuminate our cognitive immunities and vulnerabilities. Possible defenses we could implement to limit the amount of ideological pathogens we are exposed to might be to limit the time we spend on social media, ensuring that the sources of information we are exposed to are credible, and encouraging those around us to engage in a culture which emphasizes a focus on critical thinking, an essential skill needed to put up a psychological defense against such ideological pathogens.
Considering recent events unfolding across the world regarding the novel coronavirus, we’ve seen the collective majority become more conscientious of their behavior pertaining to hygiene and disease prevention. In this same spirit, I hope that we all treat the information and content we are exposed to daily in the same regard with what we physically encounter. As our world faces temporary instability, many will try to use this moment of vulnerability to spread ideological pathogens to achieve personal or organizational gains by infecting the more susceptible. We need to remain vigilant in protecting both our physical and cognitive health in order to get through this current situation together.