The rise of the Internet and social media platforms has been essential for the globalization of information and communication. With the click of a few buttons, you can look up anything, talk to anyone or make your own content. However, these benefits can come at a cost. The internet, especially social media, is rife with misinformation and the discrediting of established professionals. Many of these negative qualities can be attributed to anti-intellectualism. But what is anti-intellectualism, and how is it related to the Internet and our society?
“Anti-intellectualism is the suspicion of institutional expertise as a viable source of trustworthy information,” says Bethany Johnson, a USC doctoral student on the History of Science, Technology and Environment track and Albert M. Greenfield Fellow at the Consortium for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine. Johnson says that anti-intellectualism, “leads people to think that sources and experts and knowledge created outside of traditional structures are automatically more trustworthy.” It is important to note that anyone is susceptible to anti-intellectualism, regardless of political leaning or ideology.
In Understanding Anti-Intellectualism in the U.S., Edric Huang, Jenny Dorsey, Claire Mosteller and Emily Chen explain that there is a difference between anti-intellectualism and critiquing established institutions. Professional fields often do not provide individuals with the resources and support they need, and most if not all institutions have participated in the exclusion and discrimination of marginalized groups. Moreover, access to relevant information within these institutions is often restricted behind paywalls, and academic papers will use language that is not accessible to the general public. The difficulties of navigating institutional databases to find this research can make accessing information even more difficult.
Advocating for change within these institutions invites a discussion into how these fields can better accommodate more groups of people. Anti-intellectualism, on the other hand, discourages critical thinking and nuanced conversation, thereby not only closing any discussion on how to make these systems more equitable but also stopping any further pursuit of knowledge. “I think plenty of our institutions in the US are racist, are sexist, are classist, are homophobic,” Johnson said. “But that doesn’t mean that people outside of those systems are automatically neutral actors to which we do not apply our critical thinking skills."
Although anti-intellectualism is a global phenomenon, it is tightly woven into the fabric of American history. Huang et al. explain that Founding Fathers Benjamin Franklin and George Washington supported the idea of the “self-made” man, who didn’t need an education to make his own way in the New World. This leans heavily into the ideology of anti-intellectualism by devaluing the importance of education. In the 1960s, Irving Kristol, who spearheaded the neoconservative movement, declared that capitalism was under attack by intellectuals such as journalists, professors, scientists and more, who wanted to take the hard-earned profit of corporate businessmen and provide it to the government. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, a postmodernist attack on science prompted many extremists of the movement to start asserting that all knowledge is relative. If new discoveries can change the way we view biology, chemistry or any other scientific field, how can science be trusted?
Today, anti-intellectualism seriously affects several fields, from politics to education to medicine. In the political sphere, anti-intellectualism is used to ostracize experts, which Huang et al. point out could be seen in Donald Trump’s undermining of Dr. Anthony Fauci during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. “What I would say is happening in the political sphere is limiting to people in academia and physically dangerous for people in healthcare,” Johnson says.
Johnson also explains that Florida’s Stop WOKE Act and the Parental Rights in Education Act, known respectively as the Anti-Woke and Don't Say Gay acts, stem from anti-intellectualism. According to TIME, the Stop WOKE Act prevents workplace or school teachings on ideas including the presence of oppression and privilege due to "race, gender, or national origin," and that individuals can hold racist, sexist or oppressive implicit biases. The Parental Rights in Education Act, "prohibits classroom instruction on sexual orientation and gender identity for students in kindergarten through third grade," according to NPR. Both of these acts serve to restrict important conversations on aspects of American history, societal issues and individuals’ identities.
As a teaching assistant, Johnson explains that she has often witnessed professors be accused of having a “liberal bias.” Johnson explains her confusion at this idea. “Anti-intellectualism devalues expertise by attempting to make all expertise equal. For example, my professor, who studied something for ten years, read thousands of pages on it, gave talks on it, and published on it, and a student who read seven pages on it and heard one lecture…are not equal in knowledge and expertise and do not have the same claim to certainty about their points.” Johnson also states that if a professor or TA says something that a student does not agree with, the student can report them to a far-right organization and "dox" them on the Internet. As a result, anti-intellectualism can prevent important discussions in the classroom while also continuing to take credibility away from professors and teaching assistants who are experts in their field.
Anti-intellectualism has found its way to various social media platforms and online spaces. Johnson explains that in relation to anti-intellectualism, “technology is really a double-edged sword.”
“[Social media] allows for the public-facing contact and public presence that I think scholars didn’t want to have and weren’t expected to have 75 years ago, maybe even 25 years ago.” Indeed, there are various benefits to using technology. In Is EdTech Fueling Anti-Intellectualism? Matthew Lynch describes that technology used for educational purposes can actually help prevent anti-intellectualism by increasing relevance to topics and developing digital literacy. However, Johnson also explains how the fact that anyone can make a social media account can lead to increased misinformation. This is exacerbated by social media algorithms that will only show viewers what they want to see and 30-second Reels or 3-minute TikToks that may not communicate the nuance of a topic. Combine this with the way information spreads like wildfire on the Internet, and it can make for the perfect storm.
In relation to healthcare, Johnson explains that she sees the rise of wellness culture on social media as related to anti-intellectualism. According to Michelle Konstantinovsky in “Is Wellness Culture Making Us Unwell?” wellness culture deprioritizes medical science, instead focusing on unhealthy diets and personal strength as motivation for achieving a healthy figure and “moral purity.” Johnson explains that wellness culture can offer those who are often not heard in medicine, such as women, people of color and transgender people, an opportunity to take agency in their health and look outside conventional structures for other treatments. However, Johnson says that, “to understand alternative forms of medicine as value neutral is something that results from anti-intellectualism.” Wellness culture is a multi-billion-dollar industry which takes advantage of the individuals involved, promotes unhealthy patterns and blames individuals for societal health issues.
Many of anti-intellectualism’s effects were even more evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. “TikTok, for example, had thousands of videos talking about how the COVID-19 vaccines were toxic and how they would actually change your DNA,” Johnson said. She explains that many of the videos she heard related to a distrust of medical expertise were simply untrue; in fact, the prototype for the COVID-19 vaccine had been manufactured in response to the MERS epidemic in 2008.
The effects of such videos are evident and have far-reaching consequences. According to a Nature Human Behaviour study in Canada in 2020, it was found that anti-intellectualism correlated with decreased concern for COVID-19 and its accompanying risks, leading to less stringent observances of social distancing. Not surprisingly, it was also found that anti-intellectualism was related to increased misconceptions about the pandemic.
In relation to her research on infertility and finding community on social media, Johnson explains that she discovered many individuals on the Internet who were able to provide each other with social and emotional support as they navigated their journeys with in-vitro fertilization. Social media allowed individuals to receive the emotional attention they were not getting in doctors' offices and exchange information, which gave individuals the ability to take control of their health in a way that did not turn them to alternative sources of medicine.
On the other hand, when Instagram began allowing for commercials, some companies started to advertise cheaper at-home fertility kits in lieu of doctor’s appointments. However, the results of these kits are inaccurate and a waste of money and time. “Anti-intellectualism clouds the actual structural issues and makes it seem like medicine is simpler or easier or clearer than it really is,” Johnson said. “And it’s so unfair to people.”
Ultimately, anti-intellectualism is a nuanced topic that directly affects us as individuals who are often on social media and the Internet. Anti-intellectualism is embedded in almost every field in today’s society, and it is not something that will go away in a day. Social media provides us with the ability to find a community and learn information in a way that is accessible to us. However, the same platforms can also encourage misinformation, inaccuracy, lack of nuance and distrust of experts.
In the midst of these complex topics of anti-intellectualism, there are many things you can do, as explained by Huang et al., to better interface with the internet and avoid anti-intellectual tendencies. It is important to always question what you know, face your implicit biases and seek new information. Engage with the content on your social media actively and consider the qualifications of the person you are listening to. Read books outside your area of focus to expand your own knowledge base and have conversations with your friends and family to encourage thoughtful discussions. Understand that you can’t know everything, and it is okay to change your mind as you learn new information.