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Mass delusions have taken place periodically in history. In America, we’ve experienced many mass delusions, a few of the most well-known delusions is the Mississippi scheme in which investors lost money. The McMartin trial in which preschool workers were wrongfully accused of mistreatment and misconduct of their students, and the current delusion of fake news. As a result of the false information, people would make faulty decisions and base their conclusions on what they hear instead of doing their own research.
Delusions originate from misinformation, lies, and misrepresentation of facts presented to gullible people.
A Scottish man who loved gambling established the Mississippi Scheme delusion. After leaving Scotland, he spent many years in continental Europe surviving on returns on gambling and he made friends with some influential people. In partnership with others, he established a bank that started the use of paper money. Although private, the bank capital came from government bills and notes and he sought to help the French colony of Louisiana.
The French government made him the chief director of the company. The further did consolidation led to the monopoly of trade or commerce on all seas and it issues notes in the name of the king of France who guaranteed their value.
One of the causes of the delusion was the shaky foundation behind the financial theories that led to the founding of the company. After engaging in endless wars, the king of France realized that the country was bankrupt. He had taken massive debts to support wars and endless foreign missions against Britain and other enemies.
John Law proposed that by giving his company extraordinary privileges, it could take the debts of France and repay them via revenues from ventures in Louisiana however, Louisiana was underdeveloped and had little settler population the promised revenues were not possible. It would take many years to build the foundational economy in the colony for the French to make meaningful returns.
Another reason for the delusion was wild speculation due to exaggerations by Law as a marketing ploy. Law told potential investors that the wealth of Louisiana would make the company rich beyond imagination and the investors would get hefty returns on their investments. The shares of the company became so popular that the demand for more paper banknotes increased dramatically. The government gave Law more positions to such as comptroller of general finances to attract capital. However, the scheme unraveled when the government admitted that gold did not back all the paper notes, which meant they were worthless.
The McMartin case delusion started with a claim by Judy Johnson that the teachers of the preschool her son attended, had sodomized her son while in their care. She believed that one of the teachers known as Ray Buckey had committed sexual acts towards her son. Parents of children who attended the same school began to claim that teachers had molested their children as well, including exposing them to pornographic films. After investigations, police arrested and charged five teachers at the preschool, the administrator known as Peggy McMartin, Ray Buckey and Virginia McMartin with ritualistic satanic abuse. The government later closed down the school although investigators did not find any evidence of pornography or corpses.
The main cause of the delusion is concerns in the 80s that child sexual abuse in daycare centers and preschools were increasing. The media had widely reported a few high profile cases of abuse in daycare centers so the fear among parents and the public was very high. Police had arrested and charged around 80 people and courts convicted them for abuse but further investigation found no foundation for the convictions. Sensational reporting must have played a key role in instigating unfounded fears about the risk of children being abused. Therefore, when Judy’s son made claims that he had an itchy anus, the mother’s first instinct was to think of possible abuse.
Another possible cause was the sexual revolution of the previous two decades. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s because people gained massive sexual freedom. The gains were a spillover from the civil rights attained by African Americans (Haberman n.p). With the sexual revolution, people could express freely their sexual orientation in ways never found before. The conservatives did not like the revolution and claims of abuse are one of the backlashes against liberal sexuality. The conservatives resented sexual liberation of homosexuals and other forms of free expression of the alternative sexual expression and other liberal ideas on sex and marriage. Conservatives feared for the safety of their children from sexually liberated men and women.
The current concern about fake news is an example of the contemporary mass delusion. It started in the last few years after people noted that a few publications posted false or misleading stories on social media. Facebook and twitter were the most popular platforms where the authors of the stories posted them. A closer analysis of the stories suggested that the authors created false and misleading stories to attract clicks to earn advertising revenue. People tend to read false and shocking stories regardless of their authenticity. However, despite the clear intention in authoring those stories, people started to believe there is a conspiracy to mislead people intentionally for political or other purposes. Critics also started to lump stories from mainstream media that they did not support as fake news.
One possible reason for the delusion is the deepening sectarian divide between democrats and republicans and between liberals and conservatives. The two groups now have little in common. The divide has created fears that the other group is using underhand methods to influence views or narratives that suit their purposes. There is not rationality even when facts are evident for all to see (Masterson n.p). People hold to their interpretation of reality and fail to see things in a different light regardless of the information to the contrary.
The rise of social media and the internet has played a key role as well. Unlike a few hundred years ago, it is easier to spread a rumor that might lead to a delusion. In this case, influential personalities such as Donald Trump believe fake news is real and the mainstream media peddle them to target persons like him due to his politically incorrect stand on most issues. Because he has followers, the story of fake news has gained prominence. Moreover, even ordinary people can create memes or videos and post them on the internet to peddle lies or spread misinformation. To conclude, it is evident that doing research can help prevent mass delusions from happening; however, it is more likely as a whole that we rely on getting information from word of mouth and social media. As a result, past or present it’s clear mass hysteria will always have a way of occurring one way or another.
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