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Social Media and the Deterioration of Democracy

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Jonathan Haidt argues that social media is destructive to our key democratic and epistemic institutions. He identifies seven pathways through which social media is damaging American democracy and society:

  1. it amplifies tribalism
  2. it undermines the authority of traditional sources of information
  3. it encourages extreme speech and behavior
  4. it spreads misinformation and conspiracy theories
  5. it allows foreign actors to interfere in domestic politics
  6. it encourages self-censorship
  7. it polarizes the public

Haidt proposes three imperatives to repair the damage: hardening democratic institutions, reforming social media, and better preparing the next generation for democratic citizenship in the digital age.

Social Media and Democracy

Social media has infiltrated every aspect of American life, leaving its mark on our social and political landscapes. It's changed the way we interact, communicate, and even form our identities. However, despite the growing concerns over its effects on democracy, social media companies like Meta continue to downplay the risks and insist that the science is not settled. But is social media really as harmless as they claim it to be?

Academic researchers are still divided on the issue, which has given social media companies an opportunity to avoid accountability. But the lack of consensus doesn't necessarily mean that social media is safe. In fact, it may be changing too rapidly for researchers to fully understand its impact. Social media platforms can change dramatically in just a few years, whereas it can take several years or even decades for researchers to conduct and publish their findings. As a result, we may not know the full extent of social media's impact until it's too late.

The rise of social media has brought with it a range of harms, from political polarization to a decline in institutional trust and mental health issues among teens. However, some argue that these concerns are simply the result of another moral panic about new technology, and that social media may not be as harmful as we think. But what if it's changing too quickly for us to measure its impact? What if the harm done in earlier decades is already irreversible?

Recent events, such as the January 6 insurrection, have shown us just how much of an impact social media can have on our society. Donald Trump's tweets played a key role in inciting the mob that stormed the Capitol, while far-right groups used various platforms to coordinate their attack. However, social media's impact on democracy goes beyond just one event. Studies have shown a global trend towards polarization and a decline in the quality of democracies, which may be linked to the rise of social media.

Social media has made it easier than ever for anyone to attack anyone else, which has given rise to far-right and far-left groups as well as trolls. This has led to the domination of certain conversations and the intimidation of dissenters into silence. Russian agents have also taken advantage of social media to promote stories that increase Americans' hatred of one another and distrust of institutions. All of these factors point to the harmful impact of social media on our democracy.

So, is social media really undermining democracy? The answer is not yet clear, and it may take several more years before we fully understand its impact. However, recent studies have shown a global trend towards polarization and a decline in the quality of democracies, which suggests that social media may be contributing to these issues. As we continue to grapple with the impact of social media on our society, it's important to remain vigilant and keep questioning the status quo.

Social Media is an Echo Chamber

Social media has often been accused of creating harmful echo chambers that isolate people into like-minded communities and reduce the quality of democratic thinking. However, social media companies such as Meta have denied these claims, citing research that contradicts them. This lack of consensus among academic researchers has allowed social media companies to avoid responsibility, much like tobacco companies did in the past.

But evidence suggests that social media does indeed create echo chambers. A collaborative review document created by sociologists at Duke University, which includes abstracts of all the studies on social media's impact on democracy, indicates that conflicting studies are common in social science research. While some researchers who measure echo chambers by looking at the diversity of people's news consumption find little evidence of their existence, others who measure echo chambers by examining social relationships and networks find evidence of homophily, where people engage with those who are similar to themselves.

Moreover, recent research shows that these closely bonded groupings can have profound political ramifications, as the extremes are now far louder and more influential than before. This has led to the rise of toxic polarization, which is characterized by declining respect for counter-arguments and associated aspects of the deliberative component of democracy. People are more willing to commit violence when they are immersed in a community they perceive to be morally homogeneous.

The fact that social media provides a platform for people to easily find and connect with like-minded individuals can lead to dangerous consequences, such as the case of the 18-year-old man who killed 10 Black Americans in a Buffalo supermarket. His manifesto revealed that he had little influence from people he met in person and instead obtained most of his beliefs from the internet. This underscores the need to address the harmful effects of social media and the importance of promoting diverse and inclusive discourse in a democratic society.

Facebook is an Echo Chamber in pursuit of Profit and by Design

Facebook's algorithm is designed to create an echo chamber by serving up more content that reinforces what a user already thinks. This is achieved through the use of machine learning and artificial intelligence, which analyze a user's behavior on the platform, including what they like, comment on, and share.

Based on this data, the algorithm predicts what content a user is most likely to engage with and shows them more of that content. Over time, this creates a feedback loop in which a user sees more and more content that confirms their existing beliefs and opinions, while content that challenges those beliefs is deprioritized or hidden from view.

This echo chamber effect can be especially pronounced in groups and pages focused on specific topics, where users are likely to share similar views and engage with content that reinforces those views. As a result, users may become more entrenched in their beliefs, less open to opposing viewpoints, and more likely to share and spread misinformation.

This approach is based on the premise that users are more likely to engage with content that resonates with them emotionally, which in turn generates more ad revenue for Meta. The longer users stay on the platform and the more they engage with content, the more data Meta can collect on their preferences and behaviors, which can be used to target them with more personalized ads.

Raychoudhury's Very Weak Argument Against Haidt's Conclusions

In response to Jonathan Haidt's essay, Raychoudhury did not deny some of his conclusions. However, she argued that the research is not yet definitive and suggested that the focus should be on mainstream media as the primary cause of harm, rather than solely on social media.

Raychoudhury referred to a study on the role of cable TV and mainstream media as major drivers of partisanship. She pointed out that the American culture war has roots going back to the 1960s, which activated evangelicals and other conservatives in the 1970s. While social media is indeed a more recent player in this phenomenon, arriving in 2004 and becoming truly pernicious only after 2009, as Haidt argues.

Although Haidt mentioned the role of Fox News and the radicalizing Republican Party of the 1990s, he acknowledged that the story of polarization is complex, with political scientists citing a variety of contributing factors, including the growing politicization of the urban-rural divide, rising immigration, and the increasing power of big and very partisan donors. The loss of a common enemy when the Soviet Union collapsed and the loss of the “Greatest Generation” also played a role, as they had an ethos of service forged in the crisis of the Second World War. Despite the rise of polarization in the 2010s, which began in the 1990s, Haidt cannot attribute the majority of the rise to social media.

While the factors above help to explain America’s ever nastier cross-party relationships, they cannot account for why so many college students and professors suddenly began to express more fear and engage in more self-censorship around 2015, as Haidt notes. These mostly left-leaning individuals weren’t worried about the “other side”; they were afraid of a small number of students who were further to the left and who enthusiastically hunted for verbal transgressions and used social media to publicly shame offenders.

This fearful dynamic spread to other parts of society, including newsrooms, companies, and nonprofits. The culture war had been running for two or three decades by then, but it changed in the mid-2010s when ordinary people with little to no public profile suddenly became the targets of social-media mobs. The fear of getting shamed, reported, doxxed, fired, or physically attacked is responsible for the self-censorship and silencing of dissent, which were Haidt's essay's main focus. When dissent within any group or institution is stifled, the group becomes less perceptive, nimble, and effective over time.

While social media may not be the primary cause of polarization, it is an important cause that needs to be addressed. Haidt also believes that social media is the primary cause of the epidemic of structural stupidity, which has recently afflicted many of America’s key institutions. To repair the damage caused by social media, Haidt proposes three imperatives: harden democratic institutions, reform social media to make it less socially corrosive, and better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.

Repairing the Damage of Social Media

As a society, we need to take action to repair the damage caused by social media companies. Structural solutions are necessary, including the hardening of democratic institutions to withstand chronic anger and mistrust, reforming social media to become less socially corrosive, and better preparing the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age. We should begin implementing these reforms now, even if the science is not yet "settled."

Collaborative-review documents are one way to speed up the process by which scholars find and respond to one another's work, and the social-science community should find quicker ways to study potential threats such as social media, where platforms and their effects change rapidly. As individuals, we can also be part of the solution by choosing to act with courage, moderation, and compassion, even when facing snide, disparaging, and otherwise hostile comments.

Fortunately, social media does not reflect real life, and understanding that social-media outrage is transient and performative can make it easier to withstand. We can offer honest dissent and support the dissenters within institutions that have become structurally stupid, and teach our children and students how to engage in deliberative democracy and the "art of association" for the digital age. Acting with compassion is also crucial, as social media tends to reward public displays of aggression, putting us all in the middle of a Roman coliseum.

We can refuse to fight and use social media to serve our own purposes, such as more private communication and fewer public performances. It is up to citizens to understand the forces that brought us to the verge of self-destruction and develop the new habits, virtues, technologies, and shared narratives that will allow us to live and work together in peace. The work of rebuilding the post-Babel world will not be left to technology companies alone.

William H. McDaniel, MD

Dr. Robert H. Shmerling is the former clinical chief of the division of rheumatology at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC), and is a current member of the corresponding faculty in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

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