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A neuroscientist explains how Trump and his media allies stir up paranoid delusions in vulnerable people

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While it has been severe since Trump began campaigning for president, recently mainstream news has picked up on the scope of the problem of rampant belief in bogus conspiracy theories that involve politicians with nefarious plots. Ironically, the politicians with the truly nefarious plots are the ones who support and encourage the spread of these heinous stories, which are precisely and intentionally designed to target mentally-vulnerable people. While the conspiracy theory crowd—who predominantly support Donald Trump and crackpot allies like Alex Jones and the shadowy Q—may appear to just be an odd quirk of modern society, the truth is that many of them suffer from psychological illnesses that involve paranoia and delusions, such as schizophrenia, or are prone to them, like those with schizotypy personalities.

Schizotypy refers to a thinking style that puts one at risk for developing schizophrenia-spectrum disorders and involves cognitive and socio-emotional deficits along with severe behavioral problems. For these people, the terrifying conspiracies fuel their delusions, and it is likely that such ideas have pushed many individuals with sub-threshold levels of mental illness over the edge into full-blown clinical territory.

The link between schizotypy and belief in conspiracy theories is well-established, but a recent study published in the journal Psychiatry Research has demonstrated that it is still very prevalent in the population. The researchers found that those who were more likely to believe in outlandish conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the U.S. government created the AIDs epidemic, consistently scored high on measures of “odd beliefs and magical thinking.” One feature of magical thinking is a tendency to make connections between things that are actually unrelated in reality.

While it is estimated that over one percent of the United States population has clinical schizophrenia, many times that have schizotypy or similar psychological profiles that involve difficulty distinguishing between delusion and reality. To further complicate things, there is a thriving subculture that has emerged on the Internet in recent years composed of people calling themselves “Targeted Individuals,” who believe they are the targets of a complex harassment campaign by people who want to ruin their lives and drive them insane.

It is such a large and active community that they’ve been featured in articles and videos by publications including WiredThe New York Times, and Vice. These people, and other similar online subcultures, often believe that they are also the victims of mind control and mental attacks from secret government technologies. The truth is, almost all of these technologies cannot work in reality given the scientific knowledge we have today. In pop culture, they are commonly depicted as people who wear tinfoil hats to block attacks from “directed energy weapons,” and some actually do. While this might sound amusing on the surface to some, we must not forget that these people are struggling with nightmarish delusions and intense paranoia, and need our compassion and care. They certainly do not need to be strategically manipulated with propaganda that further deteriorates their mental health.

This kind of targeting is exactly what Steve Bannon and the Trump campaign did when they used data from Cambridge Analytica, which the company had gotten from Facebook, to create psychographic profiles of vulnerable voters. And all one has to do is visit alt-right media outlets and discussion boards to see that such manipulation is still going on and is worse than ever.

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But the effects of this psychological manipulation are not only limited to people who have delusional disorders or are prone to them. Certain they have uncovered powerful and shockingly devious conspiracies, these troubled individuals become online evangelists for their cause, putting great effort into converting psychologically-normal others into conspiracy theorists. To them, it’s a battle between good and evil, and they believe Trump is the former and his political opponents the latter, who are all involved in insidious affairs like pedophilia rings and the “deep state.” These people have essentially become “radicalized,” and will spend much of their time spreading the gospel of Trump and Q to anyone in cyberspace who will pay attention.

One reason this is much more effective than one might guess is that the signs of their mental illness are largely hidden from view. Average Internet users do not see their off-kilter appearance or behavior—they only see their message, which is loud and confident. For those who lack sufficient education in subjects like politics and world affairs, the ideas of these sick individuals can often sound like informed, well-researched opinions.

Mental health is already a major problem in America without politicians and their media allies stirring up the paranoid delusions of those who are mentally at risk. This is not just playing politics, it is damaging psychological abuse that is harming literally millions of people, and it shouldn’t be ignored any longer.

Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.

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Trump endorses killing journalists, like Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Online ad networks are now targeting sites that cover acts of violence against dissidents, LGBTQ people and people of color.

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