It’s hard to argue with the voice of reason. In April Jonathan Haidt, an American social psychologist at New York University, published an essay titled “Why the past ten years of American life have been uniquely stupid” in the Atlantic. The piece distilled how the rise of social media has not only polarised US society and eroded public discourse, but has damaged the country’s democracy by destroying trust.
Facebook and Twitter in particular – which “enhanced virality” via their like, share and retweet buttons – encouraged the spread of outrage, and in the process “passed out roughly one billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since.” The piece resonated, especially with those who spend time on social media witnessing – or partaking in – Twitter and Facebook feuds.
For Haidt, 58, what was most surprising wasn’t that his essay was so widely read and shared, even by Barack Obama. Instead, “the response was kind of astonishing because it turns out that it’s the least controversial thing I’ve ever written”, he told me over Zoom recently. “People are relieved to have a diagnosis.” He was speaking from his home in Manhattan, near Washington Square Park, where he lives with his wife and two children. (“We’re having a heatwave here in New York and also a crime wave,” he said, when I asked how he was. “But other than those two things, it’s fine.”)
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In his Atlantic article, Haidt didn’t just offer a diagnosis; he also proposed solutions, none of which included moderating content or legislating so that the tech giants are made responsible for what is published on their platforms. Instead, he advocated merely tweaking social media platforms’ design to limit the speed and ease with which content can be shared. “That’s what has to change – it’s the architecture, not the content moderation.” He also recommended raising the so-called age of internet adulthood – in effect the age at which US teens can freely use social media without parental consent – from 13 to at least 16. The platforms should be required to enforce that restriction, and to be more transparent about their data and algorithms. He told me that his suggestions inspired a wave of lawmakers to contact him.
“I was invited to testify before a Senate committee that was considering the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act,” Haidt said, referring to a bipartisan bill that would require social media companies to provide independent researchers and the public with access to certain platform data. While Haidt was testifying on 4 May, he was asked by a senator from Georgia whether he thought that social media was influencing legislators to the extent it was interfering with their jobs. Haidt said he thought that was true.
Then, to his bewilderment, “Ted Cruz requested five minutes to ask a question. But he did not ask a question. All he did was complain about his number of Twitter followers fluctuating.” Haidt shook his head recalling the moment. “It was just a long recounting of his number of Twitter followers linked to some kind of a claim that Twitter was discriminating against him.”
Haidt blames Republicans for the coarsening of public discourse; the party is “broken” and “stupid”, he said. “All of these trends were happening before Donald Trump [but] he accelerated them greatly. He accelerated our complete hatred of the other side, our sense of chaos and confusion, the decline of trust in institutions. Our system is based around two parties. And the worst number of political parties to have in a country is one, but the second worst number is two.”
Yet Haidt fears the state of social and political affairs in the US is a harbinger for what is to come in the UK, which is already fractured and polarised. “We are the ghost of liberal democracies’ future. We hold out to you one possible vision of what could happen to you.”
Not all of Haidt’s work has been so well received. His 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind, written with lawyer Greg Lukianoff, argued that the recent preoccupation with identity politics, trigger warnings and safe spaces on American campuses is putting a generation of students at a disadvantage. The book was a New York Times bestseller but the reviews were mixed. By dismissing women’s and minorities’ concerns as something that was “all in their heads”, Haidt and Lukianoff undermined progress, wrote Moira Weigel.
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Haidt is Jewish-American and grew up in Scarsdale, New York state, an affluent town that’s about 23 miles north of Manhattan. He has spent his career in academia, first at the University of Virginia, before moving to NYU in 2011.
As a self-described Democrat-voting centrist, Haidt has drawn criticism for giving equal weight to what he views as the sins of the left (a fixation on identity politics) with those of the right (the Republicans, he told me, are encouraging “right-wing militias that are likely to bring us violence”). His frustration with identity politics was apparent in our conversation when I asked him if perhaps he was a bit too dismissive of the potential upsides of social media. I pointed specifically to the #MeToo movement, and the solidarity and revelations that were initially made possible through digital platforms.
He looked distinctly bored. “With the #MeToo movement, I think that was a case where there was a long-standing practice of sexual abuse and harassment by powerful men. And that was effectively torn down,” he said, politely, before shifting topic. “If you look at political movements more generally, even if they appear successful at first, look more closely at the dynamics as soon as the conversation turns to what should be done. The degree of intimidation and fear in social media discussions is such that they are almost always structurally stupid.”
How so? “In the wake of the George Floyd protests,” he said, “we had a lot of reforms implemented throughout American society. But they were implemented in a climate of fear, in which people were terrified of standing up and saying, ‘Wait a second, will this work?’ And so many policies were implemented that it backfired horrifically.”
I asked him which policies in particular he was referring to. “Defund the police and the decarceration movement – there was a surge of [proposed] policies that were intended to promote racial equity. But many of them seem now to be backfiring and giving ammunition to the Republican Party, [which speaks] about the ‘soft-on-crime Democrats’.”
This is where Haidt’s argument about current political discourse – and the ways in which social media stifles debate – can sound unreasonable. If the Republican Party has indeed become the “broken party” and embraced extremism, as Haidt puts it, it seems illogical for Democrats to eschew policies simply to avoid being attacked; the GOP will do that in any case. Moreover, while the defund-the-police movement has proved controversial, there’s little evidence that Democrats have been “terrified” to say so: many prominent voices, including Barack Obama, have publicly questioned its proposals.
That’s not to say that social media and polarisation aren’t a problem for the left. But in so much of his work, Haidt seems determined to get to the root of the issue, relying on research and data to back up his theories. Here, however, he seems to have overlooked the crux of the matter. If the aim is to improve the ways in which we communicate with one another, shouldn’t we be particularly rigorous when unpacking the issue? How else will discourse in the public sphere improve? But Haidt doesn’t seem all that optimistic either way. “I’m not hopeful at all,” he said, about the prospect of his reforms being implemented. “Our democracy is already teetering on the brink.”
[See also: Noam Chomsky: “We’re approaching the most dangerous point in human history”]
This article appears in the 22 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Britain isn’t working