Social media has made us stupid - how to fix it

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University's School of Business, argues that social networking platforms "train" users to focus more on performing. But this is only the beginning.


What would it be like to live in Babel after its destruction? Genesis tells us that Noah's descendants built a large city on the land of Shinar. They built a tower that aimed to reach the top of the skies. And this to "make a name".

God was offended by the insult of mankind and thought to confuse their language, so that they would not understand each other.


The text does not say that God destroyed the tower, but in many popular versions of history it does, so let us keep this dramatic picture in mind: people wandering among the ruins, unable to communicate, doomed to mutual misunderstanding.

The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened in America in the 2010s and the shattered country we live in now. Something went terribly wrong, and it happened very suddenly. We are disoriented, we can not speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from each other but also from our past.

It has been clear for some time that red and blue America are becoming two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, the economy and American history. But Babel is not a story about racism, it is a story about the fragmentation of everything. It is the crushing of all that seemed stable, and the dispersal of people who formed a community. It is a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but also within the left and the right, in universities, in companies, in professional associations, museums, and even families.

Babel is a metaphor for what some social media has done to almost all the groups and institutions that are most important to the country's future - and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it show about American life?

The rise of the modern tower

There is a direction in history to collaboration on a larger scale. We see this trend in biological evolution, in the series of "major transitions" through which multicellular organisms first appeared and then developed new symbiotic relationships. We also see it in cultural evolution, as Robert Wright mentions in his 1999 book, Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright showed that history involves a series of transitions, which inevitably come from increasing population density and new technologies (writing, roads, printing).

They created new opportunities for mutually beneficial trade and learning. Zero-sum conflicts - such as the religious wars that erupted as the printing press spread heretical ideas throughout Europe - were seen as temporary setbacks, and sometimes even as an integral part of progress. (These religious wars, he argued, made it possible to move to modern nation-states with better-informed citizens.) President Bill Clinton praised Nonzero's optimistic vision for a more cooperative future thanks to continued technological advances.

The early 1990s Internet, with chat rooms, message boards, and e-mail, set the example for Nonzero's dissertation, as well as the first wave of social media platforms that began around 2003. Myspace, the Friendster and Facebook made it easy to connect with friends and strangers to talk about common interests, for free, and on a scale never before imagined.

By 2008, Facebook had emerged as the dominant platform, with more than 100 million monthly users, as it grew steadily to the approximately 3 billion users it has today. In the first decade of the new century, social media was widely regarded as a blessing in disguise for democracy. What dictator could impose his will on an interconnected citizen?

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The peak of techno-democratic optimism was undoubtedly 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring and ended with the global Occupy movement. It was also then that Google Translate became available on almost all smartphones, so we could say that 2011 was the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel. We were closer than ever to being "one people" and we had overcome the curse of division by language. To the optimistic techno-democrats, it seemed to be only the beginning of what humanity could do.

In February 2012, as Facebook was preparing to launch, Zuckerberg thought about all of the above and outlined his plans.

"Today, our society has reached another turning point," he wrote in a letter to investors. Facebook hoped to "reposition the way people disseminate and consume information." Giving them "the power to share" would help them "transform once again many of our core institutions and industries".

In the 10 years since then, the Zuckerberg he did exactly what he said he would do. It reformed the way we disseminate and consume information, it transformed our institutions and it pushed us to cross a threshold. But it did not turn out exactly as he expected.

Things are falling apart

What holds large and diverse secular democracies like the United States and India, or modern-day Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that unite collectively successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared histories. Social media seems to have weakened all three. To see how, we need to understand how social media has changed over time - and especially in the years that followed 2009.

Initially, platforms such as Myspace and Facebook were relatively harmless. They allowed users to create pages where they posted photos, family updates, and links to the mostly static pages of their friends or favorite bands. In this way, early social media could be seen as just another step in the long-term advancement of technological advances - from the Post Office to telephone and text messaging - that helped people achieve the eternal goal of maintaining their their social ties.

Gradually, however, social media users became more comfortable sharing personal details of their lives with strangers and companies. As I wrote in a 2019 Atlantic article with Tobias Rose-Stockwell, they have become more experienced in giving performances and managing their personal brand name to impress others, but without deepening friendships in the way they can a private telephone conversation.

Once social networking platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for a major transformation that began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.

Babel is not a story about racism. It's a story about the fragmentation of everything.

Prior to 2009, Facebook had given users a simple timeline - an endless stream of content generated by friends and their links, with the latest posts at the top and the oldest at the bottom. The amount of information was overwhelming, but it was an accurate reflection of what others were publishing.

That started to change in 2009, when Facebook offered users a way to "like" posts publicly at the touch of a button. That same year, Twitter introduced something even more powerful: the "Retweet" button, which allowed users to publicly approve a post while sharing it with all their followers. Facebook soon copied this innovation with its own "share" button, which became available to smartphone users in 2012. The "like" and "share" buttons quickly became standard features of most other platforms.

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Shortly after the "like" button began to generate data on what "attracts" its users the most. So Facebook has developed algorithms to give each user the content that is most likely to create another "like" or other interaction, including "share". Subsequent research has shown that posts that evoke emotions - especially anger in groups - are more likely to be reported.

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike in 2008. If you were skilled or lucky, you could create a "viral" post that would make you "famous on the internet" for a few days. If you make a mistake, you could end up with hate speech and a lot of controversy. Your posts could now lead you to fame, glory or controversy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers and you of course in turn contribute thousands of clicks to Zuckerberg's game.


This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not only by their actual preferences, but by previous rewarding experiences, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the Twitter engineers who worked on the "Retweet" button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because he had made Twitter a very bad place. As he watched crowds form on Twitter using the new tool, he thought, "Maybe we just handed a 4-year-old a loaded gun."

As a social psychologist studying emotion, ethics, and politics, I saw that happen. The recently modified platforms were designed almost perfectly to highlight our most ethical and least reflective selves. The volume of indignation was staggering.

It was precisely this kind of spasmodic and explosive outburst of rage that James Madison tried to protect us from while drafting the US Constitution. The authors of the Constitution were excellent social psychologists. They knew that democracy had some Achilles' heel because it depended on the collective judgment of the people and that democratic communities were subject to "the turmoil and weakness of the unruly masses." Therefore, the key to designing a sustainable democracy was to build mechanisms to slow things down, ease the passions of the masses, demand compromises, and give leaders some isolation from the rage of the moment while still being accountable to people magazines, on election day.

The tech companies that boosted virality from 2009 to 2012 took us deep into Madison's nightmare.

Social media has magnified and armed the superficial. Is our democracy healthier now that we had quarrels on Twitter over Melania Trump's dress at a 11/XNUMX memorial service that had such skyscrapers that it looked like a skyscraper? How about Sen. Ted Cruz's tweet criticizing Big Bird for his COVID vaccine tweet?

It is not just the waste of time that matters. It is the constant removal of trust. An authoritarianism can develop propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on the widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any particular person or organization is never justified.

But when citizens lose confidence in elected leaders, health authorities, courts, police, universities and the integrity of elections, then every decision is challenged. Every election becomes a life and death struggle to save the country on the other side. The latest Edelman Trust Barometer (an international measure of citizens' trust in government, business, media and non-governmental organizations) showed stable and capable dictatorships (China and the UAE) at the top of the list, while controversial Democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain and South Korea were near the bottom and just above Russia.

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Recent academic studies suggest that social media is indeed corrosive to trust in governments, the media, and people and institutions in general. A paper providing a more comprehensive review of the research, led by social scientists Philipp Lorenz-Spreen and Lisa Oswald, concludes that "the vast majority of the reported correlations between digital media use and trust appear to be detrimental to democracy." The literature is complex - some studies show benefits, especially in less developed democracies - but the review as a whole finds that social media reinforces political polarization, incites populism, especially right-wing populism, and is linked to the spread of misinformation.

When people lose confidence in institutions, they lose confidence in the stories told by these institutions. This is especially true for institutions entrusted with the education of children. History curricula often provoke political controversy, but Facebook and Twitter allow parents to get angry every day with a new excerpt from their children's history lessons. The motivations of teachers and administrators are called into question, and sometimes excessive legislation or curriculum reforms follow, reducing education and further reducing trust in it. One result is that young people educated in the post-Babel era are less likely to come up with a coherent story about who we are as a people and less likely to share any such story with those who attended different schools or were educated in a different decade.

Former CIA analyst Martin Gurri predicted these spasmodic consequences in his 2014 book, The Revolt of the Public. Gurri's analysis focused on the implications of the exponential development of subversive information starting with the Internet in the 1990s. Writing almost a decade ago, Gurri could already see the power of social media as a universal solvent, dissolving ties and weakens institutions. He said the networks "can protest and overthrow, but they can not govern." He described the zeroing out of many of the 2011 protest movements, mostly online, which, like Occupy Wall Street, demanded the destruction of existing institutions without offering an alternative vision for the future or an organization that could do so.

Gurri is not a fan of elites or centralized power, but mentions a constructive feature of the pre-digital age: a single "mass audience" consuming the same content is like everyone looking in the same giant mirror at the reflection of their own society. In a comment to Vox reminiscent of the first dispersal after Babel, he said:

The digital revolution has broken this mirror and now the public lives in these broken pieces of glass. So the public is not one thing. It is very fragmented and basically mutually hostile. They are mainly people who shout at each other and live in bubbles of one kind or another.

Mark Zuckerberg may not have wanted any of that. But by reconnecting everything to an irresistible rush to grow - with a naive understanding of human psychology, a minimal understanding of the complexity of institutions and no worries about the external costs imposed on society — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and some other great platforms they inadvertently dissolved their trust, their faith in the institutions, trying to establish a large and diverse secular democracy.

I think we can date the fall of the tower to the years between 2011 (the focal year of Gurri's "zero-sum" protests) and 2015, a year marked by the "big awakening" on the left and the dominance of Donald Trump on the right. Donald Trump did not destroy the tower, he just took advantage of its fall. He was the first politician to reach its new dynamics after the Babel era, in which indignation is the key to virality, stage interpretation crushes ability, Twitter can dominate all the newspapers in the country.

Politics after Babel

"Politics is the art of the possible," said German politician Otto von Bismarck in 1867. That may not be the case in a post-Babel democracy.

Of course, the American Cultural War and the decline of cross-party cooperation precede the arrival of social media. The mid-20th century was a period of unusually low polarization in Congress, which began to return to historical levels in the 1970s and 1980s. The ideological gap between the two parties began to widen faster in the 1990s. the 1994 "Republican Revolution" turned the GOP into a more militant party. House Speaker Newt Gingrich, for example, discouraged new Republican members of Congress from moving their families to Washington, where they were likely to forge social ties with Democrats and their families.

Thus, cross-party relations were already strained before 2009. But the growing virality of social media has since made it more dangerous to see a brother with the enemy or even not be able to attack the enemy with enough vigor. On the right, the term RINO (Republican in Name Only) was replaced in 2015 by the most contemptuous term cuckservative, spread on Twitter by Trump supporters.

Trump Carson

On the left, social media started promoting culture in the years after 2012, with transformative effects on university life and later on politics and culture around the English-speaking world.

What changed in the decade of 2010?

Let's see again the transfer of the Twitter engineer giving a full gun to a 4 year old. A malicious tweet does not kill anyone. It is an attempt to punish someone in public when transmitting a virtue of their own, splendor or racial faith. It is more of an arrow than a bullet, causing pain, but not death. Even so, from 2009 to 2012, Facebook and Twitter had about 1 billion arrows worldwide.

We have been shooting at each other ever since.

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Social media has given a voice to some people who did not, and has made it easier for the powerful to be held accountable for their wrongdoings, not only in politics but also in business, the arts, academia and elsewhere. Sexual harassment before Twitter was difficult to report, which was easily changed by the #MeToo movement. However, the distorted "accountability" of social networks has led to injustice and political dysfunction in three ways.

First, social media arrows give more power to trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens.
Second, the arrows of social media give more power and voice to the political extremists while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority.
End, giving everyone arrows, social media replaces everyone in administering justice without due process. Platforms like Twitter have been turned into the Wild West, and no one needs to be held accountable. A successful attack attracts a storm of likes and continuous share / retweet.

Structural Stupidity

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Ever since the tower fell, discussions of all kinds have become more and more confusing. The most pervasive obstacle to good thinking is the bias of affirmation, which refers to the human tendency to seek only evidence that confirms our preferred beliefs. Even before the advent of social media, search engines overwhelmed confirmation bias, making it much easier for people to find evidence of irrational beliefs and conspiracy theories, such as that the Earth is flat. But social media made things much worse.

The most reliable treatment for confirmation bias is interaction with people who do not share your beliefs. They treat you with counter-explanations and contradiction.

John Stuart Mill said: "He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of it" and urges us to seek conflicting opinions "from people who really believe them".

People who think differently and are willing to talk if they disagree with you make you smarter, almost as if they were extensions of your brain. People who try to silence or intimidate their critics become fools, almost like throwing darts at their brains.

Part of America's greatness in the 20th century came from the development of a capable, vibrant, and productive network of knowledge-based institutions, connecting the world's best universities with private companies that turned scientific advancement into life-changing consumption, products, government services. They supported scientific research and led a collaboration that brought humans to the moon.

But this regulation is not self-sustaining. It is based on a set of some sensitive social norms and understandings, and these need to be understood, affirmed and protected. So what happens when an institution is not well maintained and internal disagreement ceases, either because people have become ideologically homogeneous or because they are afraid to disagree?

This, I believe, happened in many of America's key institutions from the mid to late 2010s. They became more foolish en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of being exposed. The change was more pronounced in universities, academia, the creative industries, and political organizations at every level (national, state, and local) and was so pervasive that it introduced new rules of conduct supported by new policies overnight.

The ubiquity of social media and viral meant that a word uttered by a professor, leader or journalist, even if said with a positive intention, could lead to a storm on social media, triggering an immediate dismissal or a prolonged research by the institution. Participants in institutions began to self-judge to an unhealthy degree.

But when an institution punishes internal strife, it throws darts at its brain.

American politics is becoming more and more ridiculous and dysfunctional not because Americans are becoming less smart. The problem is structural. Thanks to social media and viralism, dissent is being punished in many of our institutions, which means that bad ideas are being raised in official politics.

It will get much worse

Artificial intelligence is about to allow the unlimited spread of highly credible misinformation. The GPT-3 AI program is already so good that you can give it a theme and a tone and it will bring out as many essays as you want, usually with perfect grammar, syntax and an amazing level of consistency. In a year or two, when the program is upgraded to GPT-4, it will become much more capable. In a 2020 essay entitled "The Supply of Disinformation Will Soon Be Infinite," Renée DiResta, a researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explains that spreading fake news will quickly become inconceivably easy. .

Democracy after Babel

We can not go back to the way things were in the pre-digital age. The rules, institutions and forms of political participation developed in the age of mass communication are not going to work well now that technology has gotten to where it is.

Everything is much faster and more versatile. American democracy now operates outside the bounds of viability. If we do not make big changes soon, then our institutions, our political system and our society may collapse in the next big war, pandemic, economic collapse or constitutional crisis.

What changes are needed?

Redesigning democracy for the digital age is far beyond my reach, but I can suggest three categories of reforms - three goals that must be achieved if democracy is to remain viable in the post-Babel era.

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

Hard democratic institutions

Political polarization is likely to increase in the near future. Therefore, we need to reform the basic institutions so that they can continue to function even if the levels of anger, misinformation and violence rise well above what we have today.

Reform of social networks

A democracy cannot survive if its public squares are places where people are afraid to speak and where a firm consensus cannot be reached. The empowerment of the far left, the far right, domestic trolls and foreign agents on social media is creating a system that looks less like democracy and more like the domination of the more aggressive.

But we can reduce the ability of social media to erode trust and incite structural stupidity. Reforms should limit the increase of offensive margins by platforms, while giving a greater voice to what More in Common calls an "exhausted majority."

Opponents of social media regulation generally focus on the legitimate concern that content restrictions imposed by the government will in practice be turned into censorship. But the main problem with social media is not that some people post fake or toxic things. It is that the fake content that provokes anger can now reach a level of scope and influence that was not possible before 2009. The complaint of Frances Hagen for Facebook supports simple changes to the platform architecture, instead of huge and ultimately futile policing efforts across content.

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For example, suggest modify the "share" function on Facebook so that after twice sharing any content, the third person in the chain will have to take the time to copy and paste the content into a new post. Reforms like this are not censorship. They are neutral in terms of content and content, and work equally well in all languages. They do not prevent anyone from saying anything, they just slow down the spread of content that, on average, is less likely to be true.

Prepare the Next Generation

Gen Z - those born in 1997 and later - have no responsibility for the chaos we are in, but they will inherit it and the bad thing is that their older generations prevented them from learning how to handle it.

Childhood has become more limited in recent generations - with fewer opportunities for free, unstructured play. Less time out unattended and more time online. Whatever the implications of these changes, they are likely to hinder the development of skills needed for effective self-government in many young adults. Unsupervised free play is nature's way of teaching children the skills they will need as adults, namely the ability to cooperate, enforce rules, compromise, condemn conflict, and accept defeat.

And while social media has eroded the "art of association" throughout society, it leaves deeper and more lasting marks on teens. A surge in anxiety, depression, and self-harm among American teens began suddenly in the early 2010s. (The same thing happened to Canadian and British teens at the same time.) Social media contributes substantially, as the growth began at a time when the majority of American teens became day-to-day users of major social platforms. Studies support the link between depression and anxiety, as well as reports from young people themselves and Facebook research itself, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The most important change we can make to reduce the harmful effects of social media on children is to delay their entry. Congress should update the Child Internet Privacy Act, which sets the age of so-called Internet adulthood (the age at which companies can collect personal information from children without parental consent) at 13 in 1998, while it does not provide for the effective enforcement of the law. The age should be raised to at least 16 and companies should be held accountable for law enforcement.

In general, to prepare the next generation for democracy after Babel, perhaps the most important thing we can do is let the children play.

This article was published in its May 2022 print edition TheAtlantic entitled "After Babel." Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist at New York University's School of Business. He is the author of The Righteous Mind and co-author of The Coddling of the American Mind. The Best Technology Site in Greece
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