Jonathan Haidt: Is social media a threat to democracy?


Jonathan Haidt and co-author Tobias Rose-Stockwell have a piece at the Atlantic arguing that social media has developed into a tool that is potentially doing more harm than good. Indeed, they argue it represents a threat to democracy as a whole. I’m not sure I completely agree with their argument but it did make me think.

The core of the argument is that social media has gradually changed from relatively inert personal pages on Friendster and early Facebook, to a place where ideological battles can take place and users are rewarded for offering the most viral, and most outrageous, opinions.

The problem may not be connectivity itself but rather the way social media turns so much communication into a public performance. We often think of communication as a two-way street. Intimacy builds as partners take turns, laugh at each other’s jokes, and make reciprocal disclosures. What happens, though, when grandstands are erected along both sides of that street and then filled with friends, acquaintances, rivals, and strangers, all passing judgment and offering commentary?

The social psychologist Mark Leary coined the term sociometer to describe the inner mental gauge that tells us, moment by moment, how we’re doing in the eyes of others. We don’t really need self-esteem, Leary argued; rather, the evolutionary imperative is to get others to see us as desirable partners for various kinds of relationships. Social media, with its displays of likes, friends, followers, and retweets, has pulled our sociometers out of our private thoughts and posted them for all to see.

The idea of sociometer seems like an accurate description of a lot of what I see on Facebook. I don’t spend much time on Facebook because it often seems to be a competition over who has the most fabulous life and that’s not a game I’m interested in playing. Everyone posts images of the new haircut, the new car, the day at the beach, the grand vacation, etc. I don’t begrudge people sharing their happiness with the world, but you do get the feeling that some of it is strategic. Like social media influencers, some people have learned to turn their own lives into a low-rent Keeping Up with the Kardashians. I don’t want any part of that so I rarely if ever post anything on Facebook.

The philosophers Justin Tosi and Brandon Warmke have proposed the useful phrase moral grandstanding to describe what happens when people use moral talk to enhance their prestige in a public forum. Like a succession of orators speaking to a skeptical audience, each person strives to outdo previous speakers, leading to some common patterns. Grandstanders tend to “trump up moral charges, pile on in cases of public shaming, announce that anyone who disagrees with them is obviously wrong, or exaggerate emotional displays.” Nuance and truth are casualties in this competition to gain the approval of the audience. Grandstanders scrutinize every word spoken by their opponents—and sometimes even their friends—for the potential to evoke public outrage. Context collapses. The speaker’s intent is ignored.

Moral grandstanding is the lingua franca of Twitter. It’s hard to imagine the site without the constant, daily outrage mobs. I’ve succumbed to the temptations of moral outrage on the site many times which is why I now limit the time I spend on the site and especially the number of tweets I publish. Over the years I’ve seen quite a few people build up big follower counts and it clearly is a sign of status on the site, but it also seems to come at a price. Twitter is looking for a certain type of viral content and only those who provide it get rewarded. Again, this one is a lot harder for me than Facebook, but in the past year or so I’ve been trying to step back.

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Haidt and Rose-Stockwell argue that the negative aspects of social media didn’t happen by accident but by design. The creators of sites like Facebook and Twitter want more engagement and, unfortunately, what’s engaging to humans is drama and conflict. From there the authors suggest we may be pushing ourselves away from real dialogue toward a future where compromise is forbidden and democracy is weakened as a result. I’d argue we’ve seen some of the play out with the “not my president” resistance and the two-year march toward impeachment. In the last part of the piece, they argue that it’s still possible to re-engineer a better outcome.

If we want our democracy to succeed—indeed, if we want the idea of democracy to regain respect in an age when dissatisfaction with democracies is rising—we’ll need to understand the many ways in which today’s social-media platforms create conditions that may be hostile to democracy’s success. And then we’ll have to take decisive action to improve social media.

But if social media is a threat to democracy, and it may be, it’s an even greater threat to autocracy. When protesters started marching in the streets in Iran, Iran immediately shut off the internet. When there were protests in Iraq, Iraq shut down the internet. The internet hasn’t been shut down in Hong Kong yet but activists fear that will be a final step before a Chinese crackdown.

I don’t think that undercuts the argument the authors are making in this piece, but it does add a twist. Perhaps social media has made nations of people less governable and less willing to compromise than before, but there are still parts of the world where that’s clearly a good thing.

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