Global politics expert explains why it’s so hard to ‘deprogram’ Trumpian conspiracy theorists

The word "deprogramming" is typically used in connection with extremist religious cults such as the Unification Church, the Tony & Susan Alamo Christian Foundation or Jim Jones' the People's Temple, but cults can be political as well — for example, the QAnon movement. Political science expert Brian Klaas, in a Washington Post op-ed published on January 25, lays out some reasons why it is so difficult to "deprogram" Americans who have embraced far-right political cults and outlandish conspiracy theories.

"For the past four years, the United States was governed by a conspiracy theorist in chief," explains Klaas, who teaches global politics at University College London. "Whether by retweeting QAnon accounts from the Oval Office or painting himself as the victim of shadowy 'deep state' plots at rallies, President Donald Trump injected the toxin of baseless conspiratorial thinking straight into America's political bloodstream. On January 6, America saw how far that venom had spread as a ragtag group of militias, racist extremists and flag-waving disciples of Trumpism stormed the Capitol."

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Imagine you've forgotten once again the difference between a gorilla and a chimpanzee, so you do a quick Google image search of “gorilla." But instead of finding images of adorable animals, photos of a Black couple pop up.

Is this just a glitch in the algorithm? Or, is Google an ad company, not an information company, that's replicating the discrimination of the world it operates in? How can this discrimination be addressed and who is accountable for it?

“These platforms are encoded with racism," says UCLA professor and best-selling author of Algorithms of Oppression, Dr. Safiya Noble. “The logic is racist and sexist because it would allow for these kinds of false, misleading, kinds of results to come to the fore…There are unfortunately thousands of examples now of harm that comes from algorithmic discrimination."

On At Liberty this week, Dr. Noble joined us to discuss what she calls “algorithmic oppression," and what needs to be done to end this kind of bias and dismantle systemic racism in software, predictive analytics, search platforms, surveillance systems, and other technologies.

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