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:
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.