LQCs: Jonathan Haidt on the Corrosive Effects of Social Media

The Atlantic website has a long essay (some 5000 words at an estimate) by Jonathan Haidt, to appear in the May 2022 print edition.

The Atlantic, Jonathan Haidt, 11 April 2022: Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid, subtitled, “It’s not just a phase.”

As it happens, Jerry Coyne has summarized and commented about the piece in some detail, this morning, in Haidt on the seemingly irreparable brokenness of American life. So I’ll borrow a couple of his paragraphs to begin.


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). Nevertheless, he’s persisting.

I’ve read the piece thoroughly and taken notes, but before I boil them down to a summary, including the systemic changes he recommends, I’m going to wonder to what degree *individuals* can be part of the solution and not the problem.

Haidt begins in broad strokes. “There is a direction to history and it is toward cooperation at larger scales.” He mentions Robert Wright’s Nonzero and how the wars of religion led to modern nation-states. Recently came social media and seemingly beneficial effects, from the 2011 Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, Google translate, and Zuckerberg’s plans in 2012 to take Facebook public. But it hasn’t worked out as planned.

What holds together successful democracies? Social capital, strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.

Personal pages to share things with families became vehicles for sharing with strangers and corporations. Social media became about performing rather than connecting. The problems began with Facebook’s “likes” and the “share” function, and algorithms to enhance them. Posts that trigger emotions, especially “anger at out-groups,” became the most likely to be shared.

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.

This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action.

Haidt notes that Madison and the other framers wrote the Constitution…

They knew that democracy had an Achilles’ heel because it depended on the collective judgment of the people, and democratic communities are subject to “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions.” The key to designing a sustainable republic, therefore, was to build in mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment while still holding them accountable to the people periodically, on Election Day.

And to circumvent the human proclivity toward “faction,” the tendency to divide into mutually antagonistic groups. Social media has undermined that mechanism.

This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action.

…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. History curricula have often caused political controversy, but Facebook and Twitter make it possible for parents to become outraged every day over a new snippet from their children’s history lessons––and math lessons and literature selections, and any new pedagogical shifts anywhere in the country. The motives of teachers and administrators come into question, and overreaching laws or curricular reforms sometimes follow, dumbing down education and reducing trust in it further.

Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.

Trump took advantage of all this. Social media gave individual people the ability to “throw darts.”

Coyne’s summary:

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.

Haidt describes “stupidity” on both the right and the left.

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.

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 toward realizing the noble promise of its founding.

There’s more, but your time is better spent reading Haidt than my or Coyne’s summaries. I’ll just finish with Haidt’s three suggested remedies.

We must harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.

Harden Democratic Institutions. One idea: end closed party primaries; instead do a single open primary to select several top candidates that move on to the general election, using ranked-choice voting. Another: Eliminate gerrymandering and similar ways political parties game the system in their favor.

Reform social media: Examples include reforming the ‘share’ function on Fb; verify users to block bots and fake accounts and general trolling

Prepare the Next Generation: Don’t impede unsupervised play; set the age for ‘internet adulthood’ to 16 to avoid the effects of social media on younger people.


And so, to finish up, what might an individual do, aside from getting involved in politics to try to make those political reforms?

I would say: Exercise social media hygiene. Be skeptical of shared posts, especially those from anyone you do not know personally (and even theirs, depending on *their* sources). (There have been many stories about how Russian and other bots spread stories throughout the internet to promote actual “fake news,” e.g. currently Russian propaganda about Ukraine.)

Next, avoid “helicopter parenting,” the idea that children must be supervised every moment of their young lives. Beyond that, for their own social health, consider keeping young teens off social media until late adolescence. (Some parents, for different reasons, keep their young children away from any kind of screen.)

At the same time… for whatever social benefits these suggestions might bring about, aren’t some of them infringements on individual “liberty”? But this is why I am not a “free speech” or libertarian absolutist. I believe there are some constraints on individual liberty (from obeying traffic signals to following public health guidelines) that should be taken for the sake of a better society. (And this seems to be the concern about Elon Musk taking over Twitter, that he does not believe this.)



First, I should discuss my own interactions in social media, given this context, sometime.

Second, we filed our taxes today. It’s complicated given our “Registered Domestic Partnership” status. And we had to pay.

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