Haidt on the seemingly irreparable brokenness of American life

April 18, 2022 • 9:20 am

One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.” (From the article discussed below).

If you want a nice enlightening yet depressing read for this rainy day (at least it’s rainy in Chicago), here’s an Atlantic piece by the ever-thoughtful and eloquent Jonathan Haidt about how America “got broken”.  By that he refers to the seemingly irreparable divisions among us—not just Right versus Left, but also schisms within segments of the political spectrum—that are making life more and more difficult in America.

In the end, Haidt attributes this to the culture created by electronic social media (i.e., the Internet), which has exacerbated tribalism in many ways.  Although he offers solutions to the problem, since the Internet is here to stay, he actually sees things getting worse, not better, for his solutions aren’t likely to be adopted (or, if they are, are still overwhelmed by the hegemony of the Internet). Neverthless, he’s persisting.

Click below to read. Given that the piece is 15 pages long when printed out in 10-point type, I’m not going to even try to summarize his many points. I’ll just outline the main thrust of his argument. But I emphasize that this is a very good piece and well worth your time. Haidt’s quotes are indented:

The problem:

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.

Haidt dates the real increase in tribalism to between 2011 and 2015, when social media really began taking off and incorporating some features, like the “retweet” or “like” button, that exacerbated tribalism. And the most inimical result of this was a loss of trust:

Recent academic studies suggest that social media is indeed corrosive to trust in governments, news media, and people and institutions in general. A working paper that offers the most comprehensive review of the research, led by the social scientists Philipp Lorenz-Spreen and Lisa Oswald, concludes that “the large majority of reported associations between digital media use and trust appear to be detrimental for democracy.” The literature is complex—some studies show benefits, particularly in less developed democracies—but the review found that, on balance, social media amplifies political polarization; foments populism, especially right-wing populism; and is associated with the spread of misinformation.

When people lose trust in institutions, they lose trust in the stories told by those institutions. That’s particularly true of the institutions entrusted with the education of children. . .

The reasons: Haidt avers that “the warped ‘accountability’ of social media has also brought injustice—and political dysfunction in three ways.” I’ll give quotes:

1.) First, the dart guns of social media give more power to trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens. Research by the political scientists Alexander Bor and Michael Bang Petersen found that a small subset of people on social-media platforms are highly concerned with gaining status and are willing to use aggression to do so. . .

2.) Second, the dart guns of social media give more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority.

3.) Finally, by giving everyone a dart gun, social media deputizes everyone to administer justice with no due process. Platforms like Twitter devolve into the Wild West, with no accountability for vigilantes. A successful attack attracts a barrage of likes and follow-on strikes. Enhanced-virality platforms thereby facilitate massive collective punishment for small or imagined offenses, with real-world consequences, including innocent people losing their jobs and being shamed into suicide. When our public square is governed by mob dynamics unrestrained by due process, we don’t get justice and inclusion; we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth.

All of this rings true, of course, but Haidt also cites a number of studies supporting his arguments. He sees “stupidity” on both the Right and Left that has been promoted by social media:

Stupidity On the Right: 

The traditional punishment for treason is death, hence the battle cry on January 6: “Hang Mike Pence.” Right-wing death threats, many delivered by anonymous accounts, are proving effective in cowing traditional conservatives, for example in driving out local election officials who failed to “stop the steal.” The wave of threats delivered to dissenting Republican members of Congress has similarly pushed many of the remaining moderates to quit or go silent, giving us a party ever more divorced from the conservative tradition, constitutional responsibility, and reality. We now have a Republican Party that describes a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol as “legitimate political discourse,” supported—or at least not contradicted—by an array of right-wing think tanks and media organizations.

The stupidity on the right is most visible in the many conspiracy theories spreading across right-wing media and now into Congress. “Pizzagate,” QAnon, the belief that vaccines contain microchips, the conviction that Donald Trump won reelection—it’s hard to imagine any of these ideas or belief systems reaching the levels that they have without Facebook and Twitter.

Stupidity On the Left:

The Democrats have also been hit hard by structural stupidity, though in a different way. In the Democratic Party, the struggle between the progressive wing and the more moderate factions is open and ongoing, and often the moderates win. The problem is that the left controls the commanding heights of the culture: universities, news organizations, Hollywood, art museums, advertising, much of Silicon Valley, and the teachers’ unions and teaching colleges that shape K–12 education. And in many of those institutions, dissent has been stifled: When everyone was issued a dart gun in the early 2010s, many left-leaning institutions began shooting themselves in the brain. And unfortunately, those were the brains that inform, instruct, and entertain most of the country.

Liberals in the late 20th century shared a belief that the sociologist Christian Smith called the “liberal progress” narrative, in which America used to be horrifically unjust and repressive, but, thanks to the struggles of activists and heroes, has made (and continues to make) progress. . .

But when the newly viralized social-media platforms gave everyone a dart gun, it was younger progressive activists who did the most shooting, and they aimed a disproportionate number of their darts at these older liberal leaders. Confused and fearful, the leaders rarely challenged the activists or their nonliberal narrative in which life at every institution is an eternal battle among identity groups over a zero-sum pie, and the people on top got there by oppressing the people on the bottom. This new narrative is rigidly egalitarian––focused on equality of outcomes, not of rights or opportunities. It is unconcerned with individual rights.

The universal charge against people who disagree with this narrative is not “traitor”; it is “racist,” “transphobe,” “Karen,” or some related scarlet letter marking the perpetrator as one who hates or harms a marginalized group. The punishment that feels right for such crimes is not execution; it is public shaming and social death.

There’s a section of Haidt’s piece called “It’s going to get much worse”, in which he argues that if we don’t counteract these changes (and of course digital media is here to stay), then “our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown, or constitutional crisis.” Several readers have been saying things like this before, but they usually impute the future downfall entirely to the Right. Haidt thinks that everyone, Right or Left, can promote this collapse.

So what is his solution? Again, it’s threefold, and again I quote:

1.) “Harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust.”

. . . we must reform key institutions so that they can continue to function even if levels of anger, misinformation, and violence increase far above those we have today.

For instance, the legislative branch was designed to require compromise, yet Congress, social media, and partisan cable news channels have co-evolved such that any legislator who reaches across the aisle may face outrage within hours from the extreme wing of her party, damaging her fundraising prospects and raising her risk of being primaried in the next election cycle.

Reforms should reduce the outsize influence of angry extremists and make legislators more responsive to the average voter in their district.

2.) “Reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive.”

But it is within our power to reduce social media’s ability to dissolve trust and foment structural stupidity. Reforms should limit the platforms’ amplification of the aggressive fringes while giving more voice to what More in Common calls “the exhausted majority.”

. . . the main problem with social media is not that some people post fake or toxic stuff; it’s that fake and outrage-inducing content can now attain a level of reach and influence that was not possible before 2009. The Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen advocates for simple changes to the architecture of the platforms, rather than for massive and ultimately futile efforts to police all content. For example, she has suggested modifying the “Share” function on Facebook so that after any content has been shared twice, the third person in the chain must take the time to copy and paste the content into a new post. Reforms like this are not censorship; they are viewpoint-neutral and content-neutral, and they work equally well in all languages. They don’t stop anyone from saying anything; they just slow the spread of content that is, on average, less likely to be true.

Perhaps the biggest single change that would reduce the toxicity of existing platforms would be user verification as a precondition for gaining the algorithmic amplification that social media offers.

By “user verification,” Haidt doesn’t mean that users must give their real names online. Rather, it means verifying to the platform “that you are a real human being, in a particular country, and are old enough to be using the platform.”  That sounds eminently reasonable to me, and platforms could pledge to keep names anonymous or pseudonymous.

3.) “Better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.”

Haidt has long criticized the notion of “helicopter parenting,” which tends to give children a sense of fragility and has, he’s maintained (along with Greg Lukianoff), contributed to the syndrome of victimization and tribalism that characterizes wokeness. Here are two of Haidt’s suggestions:

The most important change we can make to reduce the damaging effects of social media on children is to delay entry until they have passed through puberty. Congress should update the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which unwisely set the age of so-called internet adulthood (the age at which companies can collect personal information from children without parental consent) at 13 back in 1998, while making little provision for effective enforcement. The age should be raised to at least 16, and companies should be held responsible for enforcing it.

More generally, to prepare the members of the next generation for post-Babel democracy, perhaps the most important thing we can do is let them out to play. Stop starving children of the experiences they most need to become good citizens: free play in mixed-age groups of children with minimal adult supervision. Every state should follow the lead of Utah, Oklahoma, and Texas and pass a version of the Free-Range Parenting Law that helps assure parents that they will not be investigated for neglect if their 8- or 9-year-old children are spotted playing in a park. With such laws in place, schools, educators, and public-health authorities should then encourage parents to let their kids walk to school and play in groups outside, just as more kids used to do.

I’m not sure how the first provision will reduce damages, unless it works to prohibit kids from using social media at all until they’re 16 (can they enter earlier with parental consent?). But if that’s the solution, it seems unworkable to me. Perhaps you can prevent a kid from posting on social media until he or she is 16, but the exposure to tribalism will still be there,. Well, perhaps preventing the ability of kids to interact with others could stave off some psychological damage, anger, and tribalism.

As for the second second suggestion, “let the kids out to play,” I’m wholly in favor of that. Yes, it’s how I and my generation were brought up, and it did confer a tremendous sense of freedom. When I came home from school, or especially on weekends, I just got on my bike and pedaled away to have adventures with my friends, or simply to visit them. And I walked to school every day from the sixth grade on (I was 12; before that I took a bus as the distance was greater). The only thing that’s changed since then is that the the threat of violence to kids on their own (I think Lukianoff and Haidt give the evidence in their book) has decreased. 

But still parents simply won’t let their kids run free. In fact, in some places it’s illegal. Like Haidt, I’m not suggesting that kids be allowed to run wild at all hours, but simply that parental supervision be minimized or removed in some cases.  While I’m not sure how much this will reduce future enmity, it will certainly promote maturity and the ability to form harmonious groups through social interaction and negotiation. And maybe that will reduce tribalism.

I am not an expert in social psychology, but Haidt is. I’m not really qualified, either, to pass judgement on his diagnoses and prescriptions. All I can say is that they ring true. As for things getting worse rather than better, I’m inclined to go with that as well. I don’t see the Right and Left becoming more conciliatory, and the tide of social-media demonization and punishment seems to be rising, not falling.

53 thoughts on “Haidt on the seemingly irreparable brokenness of American life

  1. It is not just social media on the internet that is contributing to social and political fragmentation. The internet has revolutionized where people get their news. Prior to the advent of the internet people got their news from TV and radio, their local newspaper, and possibly subscribing to a weekly news magazine such as Time or Newsweek. Only a relatively few subscribed to more opinionated sources such as The New Republic on the left or The National Review on the right. In other words, the vast majority of people got their news from more or less middle-of-the-road sources.

    As we all know, the internet has provided the public with the ability to get their news from hundreds, if not thousands, of sources, not just social media. People will generally read sites that they temperamentally or ideology agree with. But, at least until lately, they at least had the opportunity to be exposed to views different from their own. This is now changing with the emergence of the paywall, now becoming ubiquitous. The paywall is an example of something that is good for the individual, but very bad for society at large. It is not surprising or wrong that people or businesses expect to be compensated for their content. But, this means that people will have even less opportunity or desire to consider views that contrast with their own. If people are compelled to pay for news content, particularly those on limited budgets, they will only subscribe to sources that they find congenial. Whatever inclination they had to consider opposing views will be gone. Hence, the paywall is contributing to polarization, of which the internet, in general, is a major contributor.

    1. Sure but the paywalls pay reporters’ salaries so we should be careful what we wish for here. It has been noted that media companies have had to cut back on investigative reporting because they no longer have the money. If we eliminate paywalls, this will only get worse.

  2. I would add to #2 that we adults need to modify our behavior too. Kids learn what “normal adult” is from watching their parents interact with other adults. So it’s up to us – not them – to decide through our actions whether “normal adult” means interacting with other adults by sitting in front of a screen from 6pm-9pm typing away, or whether interacting with adults means going for a walk, visiting with friends, hosting a bbq, feeding the ducks, going to the theater or sports events, etc.

    And we should know this, because it’s true of other problems and benefits we had way before internet problems. What’s a leading indicator of teen drinking? Adult drinking in the home. Who’s kids read and study more? Those from families of well-educated parents who read. Do the sons and daughters of athletes tend to do more athletics? You betcha. So why should it be any surprise that if you (the rhetorical you) play on your phone instead of paying attention to the world, your kid is going to play on their phone instead of paying attention to the world.

    1. Who’s kids read and study more? Those from families of well-educated parents who read.

      True, but the evidence from twin studies is that such similarities in behavioural traits are not the result of parental example, it is genes. Parents with genes for reading a lot pass on genes for reading a lot to their children. “Shared environment” (that is, family environment shared by siblings) seems to have little effect.

      Most people find this counter-intuitive and struggle to believe it, but that’s what the evidence seems to show. E.g. link.

      1. Anecdote but: a couple we know are avid readers; so are their kids.

        My wife and I are avid readers: it’s been IMPOSSIBLE to get either of our (now adult) sons even interested in reading at all. It’s like a brick wall of genetics…wherever they got their genetics from.

      2. 0.85 is pretty good correlation, but certainly not sufficient to make the statement ‘it is not parental example, it is genes.’ It is mostly genes; it is also somewhat environment.

        In fact in making your strong statement, you seem to be ignoring their #2 big finding.

        1. Yes, it is partially environmental, but not shared environment (defined as environmental factors shared by siblings), it is non-shared environment. See point 9 of the above link: “Most environmental effects are not shared by children growing up in the same family”.

      3. You make a good point, and although I’m no expert, my reading of the literature supports what you say.

        However, as Haidt says, so much has changed, and it’s happened almost instantly; our society is not what it was 10 or even 5 years ago. The West is in a real pickle, and I think it’s fair to say that things have moved so fast we don’t really understand where we are.

        We have been unceremoniously dumped in a more polarised, extreme and aggressive socio-political environment. The goalposts have changed, and it could well be the case that in such troubled times, family environment has a greater impact on our social and psychological development than it did in just 10 years ago.

        All existing studies, even recent ones, have effectively been conducted in a previous era. Things are now very different, and hough human nature has not changed, circumstances have.

  3. If you want a nice enlightening yet depressing read for this rainy day (at least it’s rainy in Chicago) …

    There’s three things guaranteed to make a rainy day seem so sunny:

  4. “1.) “Harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust.””

    All three parts of the solution Haidt offers are very difficult things to do and would take a long time to make any progress on. But number 1 seems impossible to me. Easy to say, but basically a pipe dream. I can’t imagine what could be done to make it happen, what reforms could be implemented that would have the desired effect.

    Seems to me that any government system ultimately relies on enough of the people involved holding to certain principles of what is allowed with a certain minimum degree of fidelity. For example, I’m pretty sure that the problems with the current era US government is not that the rules, regulations and laws that are supposed to apply to it aren’t sufficient, it’s because too many of the people that make up government don’t follow them. Basically the problem is that at a high enough level the rules only have force if enough of the players involved agree to abide by them. For example, Congress is supposed to have certain oversight responsibilities, but as we have seen in recent years it doesn’t have the ability to enforce its will when the entire RP decides to not play by the rules.

    How do you fix that? I don’t see how new rules will fix it. The only way to fix it would be changeover of the people. Getting rid of the Senators and Congresspersons that won’t abide by the rules and replacing them with ones who will. But how do you do that? First step would be anything and everything that is effective at getting the money out of politics. And good luck with that.

    1. One thing that would help would be term limits for both houses of Congress, and even the Supreme Court. As it is, the sole job of an elected official is to run for re-election, starting day one in office. If they knew they only had, say, two terms to get leave their mark, they could concentrate on fulfilling their campaign promises instead of appealing to the lowest common denominator of future voters.

      1. I do think term limits would be a good thing to implement. However, it seems to me that a primary problem is that too many people seek high political office for only 1 purpose, as a means to make money, gain authority and feed their ego. Too many haven’t the slightest intention of ever doing anything to fulfill campaign promises. Being representatives of their constituents means nothing to them. At best they see them as marks that need to be conned. I don’t think term limits would have any positive impact on that, at least not by themselves. The major political parties, particularly the RP, would simply cycle an unending supply of stooges through office as needed.

        1. I am skeptical of term limits. Although I am definitely in favor of removing the unfair advantages incumbents receive, term limits throw the baby out with the bathwater. If we find someone good at their job, we still have to get rid of them.

          There’s relevant news today on this subject. If the GOP takes the House in November, which is virtually certain, they’ve promised to introduce term limits for committee chairs. At this point, if the GOP leadership wants it, its probably bad for the country.

          1. I don’t think anyone should get good at ruling others.

            Lack of term limits combined with a seniority system in Congress means that people like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell accrue power far outside what their positions should have. Term limits are one way to prevent voters in other states from being subject to the whims of more senior politicians they did not elect.

            Term limits also have the effect of ensuring that politicians must eventually live under the same rules as the rest of us, which may make them think twice about supporting oppressive legislation.

          2. There is certainly an advantage in keeping people that are good at their job in position. What’s much less clear, I think, is whether that pro outweighs the cons of having no term limits. There are tons of variables. It seems plausible to me that in certain circumstances no term limits could be generally positive. But as things are at the moment, if all else remained the same except that term limits were implemented, I don’t think it would make a difference worth mentioning.

            Actually, on 2nd thought I would bet that the RP finds ways to make it work to their advantage while the DP suffers significantly.

      2. Its the implementation that is the problem.
        A slightly different solution would be to have an effective 3 or 4 party system that includes significant overlap between parties. So to exert influence you will have to be more bi- or try-partisan.

    2. I think by “harden” he means adopt measures like open primaries and single transferable voting. Both favour centrist candidates over extremists. Neither is a panacea but each is helpful.

      1. I do think adopting these measures, or similar, would be fantastic. I think it’s one of the many things that needs to happen if we are going to avoid becoming something like Niven / Pournelle’s CoDominium US, or perhaps merely a banana republic. However, the chances of them being implemented in the near term seem to be near zero to me. The people in power are the only ones that could implement them and they have a vested interest in not doing so. Particularly the RP which has worked diligently for decades now developing the means to exert control over access to high political office at both the state and federal levels. They’ve developed such effective means that they came close to being able to change the outcome of the last presidential election by exerting control over election results at the state level.

        For these sorts of measures to be implemented we would first (or at the same time) have to remove the RP’s capabilities to interfere with the voting process via gerrymandering, controlling oversight of vote counting, giving themselves the authority to override the vote in jurisdictions they control, etc. We probably would need legislation at the federal level that compels states to abide by certain rules / laws for voting, and we all know how the ‘States Rights’ folks would feel about that.

      2. Haidt’s other suggestions (in addition to open primaries) include ranked-voting general elections; neutral, nonpartisan commissions to draw congressional districts (as opposed to the current system of partisan gerrymandering); and staggered 18-year terms for SCOTUS justices (so that a new justice is appointed every two years, giving each president the opportunity to appoint at least one during each term in office).

        Those all seem doable to me, if we have the wisdom and the will.

    3. Congress is supposed to have certain oversight responsibilities, but as we have seen in recent years it doesn’t have the ability to enforce its will when the entire RP decides to not play by the rules.

      We have a fixed number (538) of overseers for the business and operations of a population of 370 million and growing. Not only does this require massively more delegation of oversight down or across than what the founders likely envisioned, but it means direct Congressional oversight will continue to shrink with each generation – and that this is not a sign of failure, it is just a statistical necessity. So expect executive agencies to grow in both size and number, simply because as our population grows, we have more and more complex business to conduct.

      And to Peter N, below, note that term limits makes that problem worse, not better. Because it means Congresscritters will have less experience at their oversight jobs and will spend more time being “brought up to speed” by Congressional staffers, executive agency appointees and their staff, and campaign donors/lobbyists. So in supporting term limits, you’re supporting a system which likely puts more power in the hands of the civil service, political appointees, and lobbyists, and weakens congressional oversight. Now I’m not entirely opposed to term limits, but we do need to objectively weigh their pros and cons and not just pick out the bits we like about them…and I do see the reduction of Congressional on the job experience and a shift to greater reliance on other staff (well…at least the appointee and lobbyist bits) as a con.

    1. Yes he is making the rounds. He did a 100-minute podcast with Bari Weiss last week. He’s a thoughtful critic and a good speaker.

  5. Most of Haidt’s solutions seem to be flawed to me. For example, verifying user identities means that the social media companies will have this information, which also means it can be stolen. Even if successful, it would probably create a dark market for such identities. On the other hand, if the goal is to slow down the abuse, it might work. We need to try something and not much is happening now.

    Politicians seem to be all at sea when it comes to doing something about the social media ills Haidt describes. They are still in the mode of expecting social media to self-police. They parade the social media executives in front of the public and demand that they do better. And, of course, the social media executives promise that they are doing the best they can but will do better in the future.

    The social media execs also drop hints that they really shouldn’t be doing this. These are only hints because to say it outright would be admitting that there is a lot they aren’t doing because they are in competition and beholden to shareholders to maximize profits. Government, and the public, needs to realize that they can’t fix these problems unilaterally.

  6. Or put it another way, part of the problem is that Social Media rewards bad behaviour. Or unsocial behaviour. So you get more of the bad stuff and less of the good.

    1. It rewards money-making behavior, because that is how it is designed. Which usually means clicks, answering questions, etc., because that provides advertisers views and information on your preferences to the platform.

      So in theory, the way to fix this is to better link money to either good media platforms (and let them figure out how to monetize that), or good behavior by users directly.

      This is not as Machieavellian as it sounds. Or at least, not in a way that’s much different from what we already do. The FCC already sets limits on the amount and type of advertising allowed on TV (though I think they only limit amount for kids shows). So suggesting we need something like that in web space isn’t any sort of new big brother OMG how horrible thing, it’s just regular 30-70 year old business practices and regulations applied to the new format. The internet is the wild west, but it doesn’t *have* to be. After all, we don’t tolerate the west being the wild west any more now, do we?

  7. I read it a few days ago and found it misses the mark overall, while expressing a plausible sentiment. My first objection is that distrust in authorities or institutions is perhaps justified. Media has a number of incentives that traditionally warped the picture. Most of them are just a byproduct. Traditional media stories are dramatically different compared to the rich picture provided through the modern internet. Everything has so many more facets and tangents.

    Take the American view. You learn now that it’s not normal to cross an 8-lane highway to bike to work. Or that people elsewhere can stroll in the neighbourhood without having the cops called for looking suspicious. People elsewhere have a month of paid vacation, can see doctors without facing bankrupcy and so on. Americans must feel they have been lied to all their lives. That’s just one of myriad such pictures, there are endless more.

    That is not even including the perverse incentives created by selling attention of specific target audiences to advertisers. With a broad profit-oriented media industry, and without regard for truth, almost “anything goes”. Roger Ailes’ Fox News and talk radio was there first, but liberal media have adopted the model for good when Trump ran for president. Now liberals could enjoy a daily dose of paranoia, too, for instance with “Russiagate“. Every day another explosive reveal was about to happen, that was dropped quietly by the end of the week, for another soon-to-explode story.

    Politics is generally the target of polemics, but Americans have it especially rough. What was that Reagan era all about? Trickle down? Let me laugh for a few minutes, i’ll continue writing later.

    For a few years now, US corporations can pour unlimited funds into politics and outright buy their representatives (or as many as is beneficial to them), thanks to Citizens United. That‘s not an opinion. Political scientists have sounded the alarm for a while now.

    His discussion of social media is also undercomplex. It’s a long article, but he does mention the retweet mechanic. I agree that it has a strong negative effect, but for a different reason: since messages always have an identity function (what does it say about you, that you say/share/retweet this), the identity aspect can easily overpower the ostensible purpose of the mechanic, that is sharing something interesting. It can‘t discuss the details here, but I think this leads to a fatal flaw that turns social media into a black-white prism: your followers must be able to read your identity as either totally approving, or totally condemning the message. This leads to a kind of Outrage Rorschach Test, with runaway positive feedback effects, feeding into attention-for-advertisers schemes and so on.

    The final objection to this article is a latent both-sidism in the wrong areas. It‘s true that many topics are “both-sides”. Every year, politicians agree to give yet more money to the military. They all agree that basic healthcare is however not important enough to even vote on preliminary steps. Politics gets stuff done; it just “so happens” that things come out beneficial for lobbies and cooperations only. You can be gifted with being born into the richest country in human history, and work for one of the most profitable cooperations yet still discretely pee into a bottle, because you’re not allowed to take a break. That’s ultimately the direction it is going, and it’s the future both Red and Blue America, ultimately, want. Haidt however is talking about both “extremes” that allegedly get their politics done, as if American bosses are ever in danger of giving paid-vacation to their workforce. It’s no accident that an obscene billionaire (or pretend-billionaire) with golden toilets gets to be the President, but the “Communist” extremist counterpart (with politics that would work in European conservative parties) can’t even run.

    1. “My first objection is that distrust in authorities or institutions is perhaps justified.”

      To what extent government can be trusted is a hard question to answer; perhaps it cannot be answered. But, what is sure is that it has eroded in the past decades. Pew Research’s 2021 report on this issue says the following:

      “When the National Election Study began asking about trust in government in 1958, about three-quarters of Americans trusted the federal government to do the right thing almost always or most of the time. Trust in government began eroding during the 1960s, amid the escalation of the Vietnam War, and the decline continued in the 1970s with the Watergate scandal and worsening economic struggles. Confidence in government recovered in the mid-1980s before falling again in the mid-1990s. But as the economy grew in the late 1990s so too did confidence in government. Public trust reached a three-decade high shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but declined quickly thereafter. Since 2007, the share saying they can trust the government always or most of the time has not surpassed 30%.”


      Lack of faith in one’s elected officials is a sure sign that a society is disintegrating. One can view the American Civil War as an outgrowth of lack of faith in government. The South was convinced that Lincoln would not protect the property in the enslaved. Going back to Reagan, some would argue Goldwater, the right wing has relentlessly attacked government as an oppressor, a tyranny suppressing liberty. The right wing assault has convinced the Republican masses of this, resulting in them voting against their economic interest while the corporate world is doing just fine. It is uncertain that faith in government will ever be restored. Continual social disintegration can only lead to societal collapse, followed by period of anarchy with the end result that is anyone’s guess, except it will not be good.

  8. Excellent summary of a good article. Certainly Haidt’s suggestions for improvements are both difficult and topics for debate. I do think the important point here is that we shouldn’t respond to suggestions like his with “but free speech” (as do Elon Musk or others). Rather, we need to be addressing the structures underlying social media and other forms of online discourse.

    One side note – I strongly recommend The Atlantic as a source of thoughtful, diverse opinion writing. In its pages you will find a range of perspective, from Kendi and Coates on the left to David Frum, Peter Wehner and David French on the right. Add to that excellent science and medicine (Katharine Wu, Sarah Zhang, and Pulitzer-winner Ed Yong) and it’s more than worth the cost ($50.00 per year; 50% off for educators).

  9. “Harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust.”

    The best way to do that is to limit their power. The federal government is far larger, costlier, and more intrusive than ever intended by the founders. That overreach contributes significantly to the political divisions because losing an election becomes an existential threat. If the federal government were pared back to protecting the U.S. from foreign enemies and protecting U.S. citizens from violations of their rights by state governments, there would be far less to fight over. The individual states could act as laboratories for different governing ideas (within constitutional limits) and people could vote with their feet.

    1. It is indeed larger.

      But the U.S. is also now the world’s foremost superpower, both militarily and economically. Our single economic rival is China, and they have grown massively economically since they ditched hardline communism and added some managed capitalism to their strong federal system of government.

      I wonder if this federal growth could somehow be related to the increase in economic growth in both countries.

      Hmmm. Nah. Must be pure coincidence.

      It’s kinda amazing how people long for the days when the government was as weak as it was in 1900 or even 1800. The US was a frakking poor backwater then, people. You want to know what lack of government looks like? It looks like Somalia.

      And oh, that “voting with your feet” idea? Not to worry, Republicans are already working on how to prevent their serfs from doing that. Missouri is as we speak figuring out how to throw women in jail for crossing the state line to get an abortion. You’ve got folks like Arpiao already deciding to stop and harass anyone looking vaguely Hispanic on the street…that’s obviously going to increase in your ‘let the states do what they want’ Red state utopias. And of course we have Republicans ratcheting up the barriers to vote and be a state citizen, which will further prevent people from moving into or out of states – unless they want to give up their right to vote for some time, or spend a lot of money (which is kind of the point, isn’t it? Create the modern equivalent of poll taxes to ensure only those with the requisite time to jump through the hoops get to vote).

      Yeah, I can just smell the freedom in the air.

  10. Agreed that this is a good article, and I would support his remedies (in principle; as others have pointed out, putting them into practice is another matter).

    I would suggest that another remedy might be to try to inoculate our kids against the corrosive influence of social media-driven falsehoods by teaching them the basics of critical thinking (not to be confused with critical theory…please!) Many parents will not be capable of doing this, and so it has to be part of the school curriculum from an early stage.

    The problem is that all too many of the authorities concerned with education, including (in the UK) the churches, are opposed to any such injection of enlightened thought into their children’s development. It takes an enlightened system of government to bring about change, and unfortunately that is in short supply at the moment.

    1. It would be nice, I agree, but I think this is wishful thinking. People are lazy and too heavily influenced by those in their immediate environment. That’s human nature and, as most know who read this website, that doesn’t change very quickly. The changes will need to be made in our societal infrastructure, which we task with keeping us moving forward in spite of our genetic heritage.

  11. Corruption and lies do create public distrust in institutions, but that doesn’t answer the question as to why so many people accept the word of one broadcaster or one journal or one organization without checking the credentials and veracity of the writer for themselves. We see this with the Covid pandemic every day. The distrust in science and medicine is at a peak because most doubters and deniers know nothing about the issue and accept gossip and rumor from friends or peers as truth. I believe that public ignorance and naïveté about what they read or hear is at least as big a problem as the misinformation that is spread on the internet. The public is lazy and just reads and believes whatever they hear from their closest source, without bothering to learn the facts themselves. I think this is worth more attention and research, along with social media (which undeniably is negative and encourages laziness).

    1. Because “checking the credentials and veracity of the writer for themselves” really means trusting one source of information over another. Although we on WEIT might trust some of them over others for good reasons, in the minds of the general public, they are all biased one way or another. This has always been a problem but politicians in recent times, especially Trump, have made this much, much worse. Where is the Oracle when we need it?

    2. “The distrust in science and medicine is at a peak because most doubters and deniers know nothing about the issue and accept gossip and rumor from friends or peers as truth.”

      Yep, just ask that judge in FL who single-handedly quashed CDC’s mask mandates today.

  12. All well and good to call for all this re-engineering, but until the powers-that-be are on board, this won’t go anywhere. There are significant challenges to all of the ideas.
    I do like the idea about making it more difficult to re-tweet, for example, but that will conflict how social influencers (celebrities and politicians) propagate and monetize their social platforms. So you can see how that alone will run into resistance right away.

    1. You give a good example of why we shouldn’t look to social media companies to self-police. Assuming by “powers-that-be” you mean government, we do have to convince them to stop begging social media companies to fix these things themselves and start doing their job. I’m a big fan of capitalism but not completely unrestrained. It’s a game and government needs to establish the rules by which it is played. As in sports, technology and society change, and the rules need to be change with them.

  13. I think the anonymity of social media is a major problem. As ‘dark vampire’, ‘tiny winky’, ‘blunt baboon’ or ‘Oglala leopard’ (etc.) I can post anything without any repercussion.
    If these media would require a real name, I think they would get rid of much of those inflammatory posts. I’m not sure that can actually be implemented, but I suspect it would go a long way to improve the level of discussion on these forums (fora?).

    1. I agree. On the other hand, there are presumably lots of cases where anonymity is important and justified. Somehow we need to find a set of rules that allows anonymity and popularity but not both together in a single account.

    2. I could not disagree more. There is no evidence for the assertion that using clear names makes people behave better. I’ve seen too many counter examples, some of that horrifying, that were made a million times worse because real identities were on the line. Justine Sacco will never be more than the person with the “racist tweet”. It’s irrelevant what she actually said, or what she meant. The internet grinds off all nuance and context and exaggerates the features to their most extreme conclusion, especially with Americans around.

      Irish atheist activist Michael Nugent had to defend against grossest accusations from some US activists. We are talking a level of libel that gets you into serious trouble, and possibly prison (!) if you did this in Europe. They were entirely baseless, and the accusators did not even hide their bizarre reasons (nor their names). They worked with bizarre skeptic lawyering of the strangest kind to support why they made these allegations. The point was to print certain extreme words next to a person’s name with impugnity. Now Nugent has a site and activist fame, and can plausibly explain why he happened upon unhinged individuals from Minnesota. A normal person might not have that. They can skip dessert, get a rope and find an attic.

      It’s actually real names that turn today’s social media into a hellscape. Real names first make people aware they are on a stage, and what they say is effectively logged for their next job interview, or date, or future ancestor. Forever. This is a huge power differential that just comes from having a name that affords some crowd protection (John Smith vs Earnest Jeromé Quackmire III). Some people have f%€k you money to not worry about their reputation, or happen to work or live in a way where a certain “brand” works for them. Or they can grow their own follower brigade. What‘s fair about any of that? And free speech in the USA is so broad that even severest, made-up accusations can be thrown around. It’s not enforceable.

      However, making accusations is fine. There is just no symmetry. The only defense are more nasty side effects we already see today: being preemtively holier-than-thou so that accusations can be warded off, or accuse and denounce first, be the inquisitor so you don‘t end up as a witch.

      I can‘t stress enough how bad your takes are. And that doesn‘t even touch on total surveillance by corporations and the many outright dangerous, anti-democratic side effects (and from yet more when you add money and influence, managing personal brands, scrubbing the internet because you have lawyers etc.)

      1. Let’s examine your motivating example more closely. If someone, using their real name, says things that later come back to haunt them or prevent them from getting a job, isn’t it really the behavior of the one doing the hiring that we dislike? People should own what they say. On the other hand, a mistake one makes on, say, Facebook when they’re 17 shouldn’t make them unemployable years later, though it does depend on what was said and the job they’re applying for.

        The infinite memory of the internet does certainly change the social landscape, presumably forever. The anonymity issue cuts both ways, showing how hard it’s going to be to deal with this.

  14. Here’s an interesting article on Twitter’s unique value and possible changes that might be made to improve it. Here’s a taste:

    “The average half life of a tweet is about 20 minutes, compared to five hours for Facebook posts, 20 hours for Instagram posts, 24 hours for LinkedIn posts and 20 days for YouTube videos. The much shorter half life illustrates the central role Twitter has come to occupy in driving real-time conversations as events unfold.”

    Elon Musk’s bid spotlights Twitter’s unique role in public discourse, and what changes might be in store

  15. The piece needs to be in other venues that more people will read or hear. Only “Libs” read the Atlantic.

  16. I used to think social media was *probably* a net positive. Just. I based this on one simple belief: it’d be harder to go to war, certainly a full scale one a la the World Wars, if those most likely to be sent to the battlefield had a voice. I erroneously thought most people would be anti-war and would protest as such.

    The current conflict in Ukraine has made me see that warmongers seem to shout the loudest and are plentiful, both on the right and left. I think social media is actually more likely to give those in charge the impetus to go to war.

    I’m now completely off social media (I get the irony of posting here, I mean Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter), but I would ask if those advocating troops on the ground would be willing to serve themselves/send their kids. Most wouldn’t. But didn’t stop them shouting for war.

    I don’t know how we get rid of social media. I don’t know how we police it. I think the genie is powerful and is well and truly out of the bottle and I think it’s very bad for humanity.

    1. I’m sure social media can be policed, just not by the social media companies themselves. It’s an industry in need of regulation but Congress doesn’t yet know it or, if they do, they don’t want to deal with it. There are a huge number of things that can be done. We don’t know if they will work but it’s time to start trying some out.

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