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Commentary: The threat of celebrity politicians and the imaginary world of social media

A recent poll found that 46% of Americans would support the actor Dwayne Johnson ("The Rock") running for president. It's time we took a moment to fear for the future of our country.

I have nothing against Dwayne Johnson; he may have all the qualities that we need in a president (except, of course, for any governing experience whatsoever). But the fact is that Americans have absolutely no idea who he really is or whether he would actually make a good president. They are confusing the characters he has played in movies for him as a person.

Caitlyn Jenner is running for governor of California. What are her qualifications? She was an Olympic champion when she was Bruce Jenner, and she has become an "activist" for transgender people more recently. But these are not qualifications. What she does have is 11 million Instagram followers and a record for gaining a million followers on Twitter more quickly than anyone before her. She may have other qualities as a person, but those who follow her have no idea if she does, and they don't care. They are only chasing an image, a figment of their imagination.

Americans are increasingly unable to distinguish between fantasy and reality. And this is where we are today. The rise of the conspiracy mentality is a corollary phenomenon. More and more people are seeking alternate realities to explain the world. A recent poll found that 15% to 20% of Americans accept the core QAnon beliefs, such as the conviction that the government, the media and financial markets are controlled by Satan-worshipping pedophiles. At a time when the internet makes access to information easier than ever, more and more Americans are choosing to ignore it and embrace attractive illusions.

What has led to this flight from reality? Have we lost a feeling of connectedness with others that we hope to replace with imagined intimacy? Has the real world become such a challenge for us that we would rather live in a world created for us online? Has our personal search for meaning been so unsuccessful that we are ready to allow others to create meaning for us? Social media is not the cause of our current problems, but it is a major factor in making these problems worse every day.

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The two main qualifications for office are wisdom and experience; one can be wise but have no experience, and one can have experience but no wisdom. Celebrities might have wisdom, even if they lack experience. And we all know politicians who have years of experience but have failed to learn anything by that experience. The problem is that we do not really know anything about celebrities through social media. It is too easy for them to cash in on their name recognition and benefit from the growing tendency of Americans to embrace the images they project.

Democracy is a very fragile form of government. Our Founding Fathers attempted to create a modified version of democracy — representative government — in order to strengthen it. But representative government depends on an informed, active citizen body — something that we have almost lost. We need to face the fact that modern forms of communication are creating new challenges to the idea of self-government. We are turning into a nation of (if you will excuse the social media pun) "followers." And when active citizens are replaced by followers, we are easy pickings for potential tyrants. Aristotle defined citizenship as participating in governing. We need to be active and involved in order to participate.

Each of us can work to fulfill the promise of self-government. We can wake up tomorrow and read a book. Next time we see a Facebook or Instagram post, we can check its sources or look for other perspectives. When it is time to vote, we can compare and contrast different perspectives and listen carefully to people who disagree with us. We can fight the temptation of rule by the imaginary world of social media. This is a fight worth winning. We must refuse to allow ourselves to become followers.

Solomon D. Stevens received his doctorate in political science from Boston College. His two books are “Challenges to Peace in the Middle East” and “Religion, Politics, and the Law” (co-authored).

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