If a Messiah-like figure appeared today, would you follow him?
At first blush, you may have a clear answer to this question. But don’t be fooled by its apparent simplicity; the calculus here isn’t a matter of pure logic.
Imagine for a minute that a mysterious, compelling man surfaces somewhere on the globe. He avows no single creed, performs miracle-like acts, and evokes a higher power. Word of his arrival spreads rapidly on social media and in the news. People around the world—including you—must reckon with who he is, what he wants, and if he’s someone to believe in. These are the events set forth in Messiah, a new geopolitical-thriller series from Netflix.
The circumstances in Messiah may be exceptional, but the questions it advances about the leaders we choose to follow are especially relevant given the current state of our world. Consider the rise of divisive politicians in recent years; the use of polarizing rhetoric to stoke cultural resentments; and the vast, global influence that public figures can wield with digital tools like social media. The people we elevate are the products of our contemporary conditions. While it’s common to consider the motives of leaders before supporting them, we often don’t scrutinize our own in following them. But doing so can reveal a great deal about how we perceive our world and needs.
A Search for Stability
Dr. Janja Lalich is an author, researcher, and consultant with expertise in cultic groups and coercive influence and control. Cults may seem like a dark, hyperbolic example of compelling leadership, but those who join them are in search of something all humans desire. “We’re all seekers, in a way,” says Dr. Lalich. “We all want to have some meaning in our lives. We all need a framework for understanding the world, especially as it gets more complex.”
In unstable times, we may feel that a single leader offers a sense of security. And our contemporary moment is undoubtedly insecure. In the U.S., trust in traditional institutions—and in each other—is on the decline: According to a recent Pew survey, 64 percent of adults believe their trust in fellow Americans is shrinking, and 75 percent say the same of their trust in the federal government.
This is further complicated by the spread of misinformation online, which muddles the factual basis of the world, and the fragmentation of the media environment. Not long ago, the public relied on the Big Three networks for its news, but that shared reality no longer exists. Today’s array of online sources—some more fact-based than others—includes journalistic establishments, video bloggers, podcasts, and social media feeds. This can breed further uncertainty because, as Matthew Hutson, a science journalist and author of The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, explains, “If we’re all getting news from different places, then we’re going to disagree on even the reality around us.”
Hutson has cited one evolutionary theory that speaks to the appeal of charismatic leadership in a time of tension or strife. It defines charisma as “the ability to convince followers that you can get other members of a wider group to cooperate,” a concept that clearly resonates with our world today. “If there is a situation in which people are not cooperating, if there’s division or divisiveness, then you might more strongly seek someone who can bring about cooperation,” says Hutson.
The Lure of Charisma
We often think of charisma as an innate personality trait. It is indeed about someone’s ability to persuade others and communicate emotion effectively, but it’s also about the person on the other end of the exchange.
Charisma is better understood as a social relationship. “It’s not something that inheres in a particular individual,” explains Dr. Lalich. “It’s about how people respond to that individual. In that sense, they are then bestowing this charismatic aura on this person. Charisma is in the eye of the beholder.”
Charismatic leaders provide a feeling of security in an unsteady or polarized time. They also seem to offer a clear moral framework that will lead followers to a kind of salvation—whether it’s self-improvement or a political revolution.
“Even in our supposedly secular age in which fewer people are attending religious services, [charisma] is a way of tracing the consistent hunger for spiritual and transcendent leadership that I think humans have,” says Dr. Molly Worthen, a writer and researcher of North American religious and intellectual history. She also observes that charisma seems to resonate in particular with those “who feel they’ve been betrayed by the other forms of authority,” such as the legal system or the market economy. Historically, charismatic figures have offered something that threatens to disrupt the working order of the world: an alternative for such people to believe in.
“Those are the moments when a charismatic leader who provides an empowering black-and-white narrative—in which you are on the side of angels and other people are on the side of darkness—becomes incredibly alluring,” says Dr. Worthen.
Followers in the Internet Age
Today, if a charismatic leader wants to gain a devout following—especially one that spans the globe rather than a single locale—social media can be a powerful tool. It enables leaders to expand their reach and build a virtual community of believers. But public figures must also strike a delicate balance between allure and accessibility.
Mae Karwowski, the founder and CEO of Obviously, an online platform that facilitates partnerships between brands and its network of social media influencers, notes that the preexisting power imbalance between leaders and followers is echoed on social media. “You start watching this content, and you start following along with this person’s life, and you feel like you really know them, but they don’t know you,” says Karwowski. “It is somewhat one-sided.”
In this way, charismatic figures online provide a space upon which we can imprint our aspirations and beliefs. As Nathalie Nahai, author of Webs of Influence: The Psychology of Online Persuasion and host of podcast The Hive, puts it, “It means that you can then project your fantasy of who they are and what your relationship is—because it will never be as deeply challenged as it might be if you meet someone in person and have to deal with their messy edges.”
These virtual social spaces also respond positively to the kind of moral language often put forward by charismatic figures. Content that moves users—whether it makes them feel sad, happy, or motivated—is most compelling for social media audiences and makes them more likely to engage. This quality can be weaponized to negative ends: Leaders who know that emotional appeals gain more traction online can ignite an emotional firestorm on social media—and, as we’ve seen in recent years, even promote a false agenda.
This connects to a social media phenomenon known as moral contagion. “An expression of moral emotion enables moral and political ideas to spread in online social networks,” explains Nahai. Consider how some leaders use moral-emotional words such as hate, shame, and fight in their messaging. Research suggests that a message’s diffusion increases by a factor of 20 percent for each additional moral-emotional word. “People are very responsive to morally emotional triggering words,” says Nahai. “And you tend to find that it’s also connected with group membership.” Social media dynamics encourage us to come back for more, which perpetuates this cycle and enables leaders’ morally tinged statements to rise to the top.
What makes us follow a leader? Compelling figures appeal to what we believe we need, such as strong leadership and stability. The most effective ones also know how to use current social and political contexts to their advantage. And when we make the choice to bestow them with any level of authority—by viewing them as a moral authority or clicking Follow—we enable them to influence a broader network of people.
By understanding our own qualities that might incline us to believe in these figures, we can better assess what exactly we want from the world. “The reasons why we gravitate toward the leaders we do are a messy combination of historical contingencies, personality, family, politics, and religion,” says Dr. Worthen, “and there’s no way forward but to pay attention to all of these things.”
Find out how people across the globe, living in an unstable time not unlike our own, respond when a charismatic leader surfaces in Messiah, now streaming on Netflix.