YouTube videos brainwashed my father. Can I reprogram his feed? (Released 2021) (2023)

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The magazine's ethics columnist on how to deal with a parent radicalized by a referral engine and how to snub a friend who's joined a cult.

YouTube videos brainwashed my father. Can I reprogram his feed? (Released 2021) (1)

ThroughKwame Anthony Appiah

For most of his life, my father, in his 80s, was a quiet, gentle, and deeply religious man who attended Mass and prayed the Rosary daily. Although 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 been severely restricted, limited to daily phone calls from me (I live across the country), weekly visits from my brother, and occasional trips to the grocery store and church. When our mother died before the pandemic, his only faithful companions were his iPad and YouTube. YouTube has increasingly steered him towards conservative media for watching religious programs, to the point that he has become obsessed with far-right politics and is staunchly opposed to taking the Covid vaccine. Every time my brother or I have a conversation with him, he talks about politics and expresses his views, and even after we've asked him to stop, he tries to get the last word by blasting us angry e- send emails or SMS. Now we're both trying to avoid interactions with him. I have the password to his YouTube account from a year ago when I was helping him with a technical problem. To keep our relationship alive, I'm considering going into his account to clear and pause his viewing history and maybe include some links to healthier entertainment like music and soccer to counteract the constant bombardment of extremism. My justification is that if he's brainwashed by an algorithm, I might as well algorithmize him back to his old self so we can at least have a normal conversation. What's your take on this?name withheld

The phenomenon that you areThe writing has been extensively discussed and reported, including in this publication. There are widespread concerns that YouTube's recommendation engine has had the unintended consequenceto radicalize certain viewers by offering them increasingly inflammatory takeson political or politicized topics. (YouTube says it has made adjustments in recent years to favor trusted journalistic media outlets over sources of so-called "borderline content and harmful misinformation.")

So I understand the temptation. I would certainly be tempted to change the feeds of some people I know — and yes, they're probably giving back the opinion. But let's be clear: you're considering treating your father as no longer competent to manage his own television. (They don't just suggest sending him science-based links about vaccines, for example.) However, they don't imply that he has any cognitive or psychiatric problems that would justify such treatment. In fact, if YouTube's recommendation engine can have a negative impact on supposedly normal people, the fact that it had a negative impact on your father isn't necessarily evidence of impairment.

At the same time, your father doesn't seem to realize how alienating his behavior is. Instead of manipulating him the way you suggest, you could get him to face the choice he actually faces: either he stop talking to you about this stuff, or you don't spend like that anymore much time with him. You value your relationship with your father. But it's only really valuable if he also values ​​his relationship with you.

One of my wife's longtime friends became involved with a sect. While it initially looked like a quirky pseudo-religious encounter, she's now exhibiting rather worrying behavior that's steeped in conspiracy theories. She has two children with her ex-husband: an older child who chose to live with the father and a younger child who, last we saw, was acting strange and playing characters from what hers Mother called past lives. We thought this was a comedy at first, but it turned out to be serious! Part of the belief system is an odd relationship with food and nutrition, and the child looked quite slim, bordering on malnutrition. The cult itself practices certain procedures that we consider sexually abusive, disguised in the mantra of alternative healing.

My wife feels that she can no longer maintain this friendship; it's draining, especially with the insistent preaching about the cult that borders on emotional abuse. Given our friend's latest post on social media, I would go one step further and call her a fascist. The question for us is how do we ensure her child is safe, and would ending contact result in both the friend and her child being drawn more deeply into this cult, which seems increasingly abusive and isolating?name withheld

given your worries,You should definitely contact the child's other parent. You can also contact the local authorities responsible for his welfare, who can conduct an investigation. Of course, your concerns aren't just limited to abuse and neglect. They think this child is being indoctrinated into a community and belief system that is unrealistic and psychologically abusive.

Cults are a touchy subject in the liberal-democratic tradition. The beliefs of most religious traditions look strange from the perspective of those in other traditions or none at all. Thus, liberal societies have widely chosen to leave religious education to the families, while supporting the possibility for adults to leave such communities. That's the right balance, I think, but those of us who believe in this liberal solution have to acknowledge that it doesn't always work very well for people who grew up far from local norms. They may be ill-prepared for society outside their group, even putting aside the significant burden of displacement and loss of friends and family.

We can deplore features of these faith communities while fearing more intrusive government policies.

But many occult organizations do not need to be accorded the reverence normally accorded to religions because they do not ask for it. The group you describe sounds as if they are committed to certain theosophical teachings. However, today's esotericists often define themselves not in religious but in therapeutic terms, offering techniques for healing or meditation and making health claims about their practices and recipes. As the previous letter suggests, there can certainly be alternative belief systems -atthe esoterics of QAnon – which are not constituted as religions, and some are proving both all-consuming and deeply troubling.

But again, there's a reason we collectively give such groups a lot of leeway, just as we give people a lot of leeway in choosing their parents. We can deplore features of these faith communities while fearing more intrusive government policies. Aside from reporting what child welfare officials would consider an actual threat, your options as individuals are further limited. Your wife is hardly obligated to maintain a relationship that she finds burdensome; but if you think that gentle persuasion could help you by keeping in touch, by all means do. Just remember that it is an ethical mistake when our dealings with other people—even those with disturbingly wrong beliefs—are simply manipulative.

Kwame Anthony Appiah teaches philosophy at N.Y.U. His books include Cosmopolitanism, The Honor Code, and The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity. To submit a request: email ethicist@nytimes.com; or send a mail to The Ethicist, The New York Times Magazine, 620 Eighth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10018. (Provide a daytime phone number.)

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