Jonathan Haidt and the Erosion of American Democracy by the Corrosive Waters of Social Media

Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth.

Courthouse Towers and Tower of Babel. Moab, Utah

Jonathan Haidt wrote this week in the Atlantic, “The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit.” He says,

“Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past.”

I resonate deeply with this.

Haidt observes that we are “becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history.” Many people talk about the tribalism of our times, but Haidt suggests that tribalism isn’t the most accurate description of what is going on. Haidt finds the clearest understanding of the polarization of our times in the story of the Tower of Babel:

“Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.”

Haidt focuses blame on social media. He identifies 2011 as “the year humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel” with Google Translate symbolically bridging the confusion of different languages. He says (for “techno-democratic optimists”), “[I]t seemed only the beginning of what humanity could do.”

Around the same time, Zuckerberg proclaimed “the power to share” a catalyst to transform “our core institutions and industries”. He may have been prophetic, but I doubt he envisioned such a corrosive change.

Haidt, something of a social scientist, himself, says, “Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories.” Social media substantially weakens all three of these fundamental building blocks of a cohesive society.

It started harmlessly with the sharing of personal information to stay connected, but it quickly morphed into a kind of personal performance and branding platform. Along the way it developed into powerful weaponry at the fingertips of anyone and everyone at once.

The “Like” and “Share” buttons became commodities of individual enterprise and personal combat. Algorithms exposed (and exploited) the emotional currency of heightened individuality and the power of anger.

“Going viral” fed the hopes of Internet junkies like the possibility of a jackpot snares gambling addicts in its steely fingers, and the stakes were just as high. Haidt says, “The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking….” The rapidity and its ability to spread was more virulent than COVID, or the plague.

Haidt lauds the framers of the Constitution for designing a republic built on “mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment….” Haidt recalls Madison’s warning of “the innate human proclivity toward ‘faction’” so “inflamed with ‘mutual animosity’” that people are “more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.’”

Haidt recalls also that Madison warned of a human tendency toward “factionalism” that can fan “the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions” into passions that ignite our most violent conflicts. Social media has ultimately proven him right.

Thus, Haidt says, “Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous,” chipping away at our trust. The loss of trust makes every decision and election “a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side”.

The sagging number of people who have faith in their elected officials hangs at an all time low. In my lifetime, the United Sates of America has gone from a high of 77% trust in the federal government (1964) to a low of 17% in 2019. (See Public Trust in Government: 1958-2021, by PEW Research May 21, 2021)

Social media has corroded trust in government, news media, institutions and people in general. Some claim that social media may be detrimental, maybe even toxic, to democracy, which requires “widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions” for survival. “When people lose trust in institutions”, says Haidt, “They lose trust in the stories told by those institutions.”

Insiders have been warning us of “the power of social media as a universal solvent, breaking down bonds and weakening institutions everywhere”, while offering nothing in return but the chaos of utter freedom and will. Haidt references movements like Occupy Wall Street, fomented primarily online, that “demanded the destruction of existing institutions without offering an alternative vision of the future or an organization that could bring it about”.

We have become a society of “people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another”, says former CIA analyst Martin Gurri, in his 2014 book, The Revolt of the Public. The people behind the social media giants may not have intended such a result, but they have “unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together”.

Haidt claims he can pinpoint the proverbial fall of the American Tower of Babel to the intersection of “the ‘great awokening’ on the left and the ascendancy of Donald Trump on the right”. Haidt doesn’t blame Trump for the fall; he merely exploited it. Trump proved that outrage is the currency of the post-Babel economy in which “stage performance crushes competence” and Twitter overwhelms newspapers and the nightly news, fracturing and fragmenting the truth before it can spread and take hold.

“After Babel”, Haidt says, “Nothing really means anything anymore––at least not in a way that is durable and on which people widely agree.” Haidt is particularly morose on the prospect of overcoming the rapid dissolution of the American democracy. Unfortunately, I share his pessimism. How did we get here? How do we move forward?

Haidt traces the trend of polarization forward from 50 years ago, tracking the growing “ideological distance” between the parties to the present time. Indeed, I have found independent evidence of this in a recent PEW research summary. Moderates in both parties have dwindled from 160 in 1971 to 24 in 2022, and both parties have moved farther away from the ideological center from that time to the present. (See The polarization in today’s Congress has roots that go back decades, by Pew Research March 10, 2022)

“Ever since [2022], the gaps between the least conservative Republicans and least liberal Democrats in both the House and Senate have widened – making it ever less likely that there’s any common ground to find.” While Republicans have moved further away than the ideological middle than Democrats, both parties have coalesced into polarized voting blocks with a no-man’s gap left in the middle. (See Political polarization at its worst since the Civil War, USC News November 8, 2016).

Haidt says, “[T]he enhanced virality of social media” today” makes “fraternizing with the enemy or even failing to attack the enemy with sufficient vigor” an hazardous affair. RINO (Republican in Name Only) and “cuckerservative” mix like oil and water with the callout and cancel culture on the left to suffer no breach of the walls that divide us.

Far from advancing the moral progress of man in social and political arenas, social media has set us back. Haidt says, “the warped ‘accountability’ of social media has … brought injustice—and political dysfunction—in three ways.”

First, it gives “more power to trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens”. It gives a relatively small number of aggressive people the ability to attack larger groups of “victims”, and silences the more moderate, less passionate, more thoughtful people who tend closer to the middle.

Second, social media empowers the political extremes to the detriment of “the moderate majority”. A study published by the group, More in Common, in 2018 found the 8% of “progressive activists” and the 6% of “devoted conservatives” on the edges of the ideological spectrum are, by far, the most “prolific” groups of people on social media. (Interestingly, these two groups are the whitest and the richest of the seven groups identified in the study. But I digress….)

Within the concrete bunkers of each ideological bulkhead, the extremes police their own troops with severity and dispatch, “targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers” in their own ranks with the efficiency and efficacy of the military. Any movement toward the center exposes the traitors.

The last way social media creates an environment of injustice and dysfunction is by “[deputizing] everyone to administer justice with no due process”. Social media is like “the Wild West, with no accountability for vigilantes” for real-world consequences like lost jobs and shame-induced suicide. Haidt says,

“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 says we live in an age of “structural stupidity” – organic structures that feed and get fat off confirmation bias. While “the most reliable cure for confirmation bias is interaction with people who don’t share your beliefs”, social media allows us to insulate ourselves into small incestual families. As with incestual families, developmental abnormalities proliferate.

Haidt cites John Stuart Mill for the proposition that “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that,” and added advice to seek out conflicting views “from persons who actually believe them.” Real interaction with people who think differently and disagree with us makes us smarter and wiser about the things we believe. People who block out and silence opposing voices, likewise, “make themselves stupider” says Haidt.

I find agreement on this from Scripture: “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17); and “Iron sharpens iron”. (Proverbs 27:17) As if we need a higher authority on these points.

We have done much better in the past of maintaining the “delicate balance” of constitutional, social and institutional “settings” to prevent ideological uniformity, says Haidt. Freedom of speech, due process, and counterbalancing houses of government were baked into the structure of government. Universities were once a free marketplace of ideas, any and all.  

Implicit is the assumption that ideological nonconformity is healthy. Any diet limited to certain foods, beneficial as they are, is ultimately unhealthy and detrimental.

In very recent years those “universities, scholarly associations, creative industries, and political organizations at every level (national, state, and local) have fallen victim to the chronic fear of reprisal, and we have gotten “stupider en masse” as a result, says Haidt. “[N]ew behavioral norms backed by new policies” crystalized “seemingly overnight”. Haidt summarizes the changes this way:

“The new omnipresence of enhanced-virality social media meant that a single word uttered by a professor, leader, or journalist, even if spoken with positive intent, could lead to a social-media firestorm, triggering an immediate dismissal or a drawn-out investigation by the institution. Participants in our key institutions began self-censoring to an unhealthy degree, holding back critiques of policies and ideas—even those presented in class by their students—that they believed to be ill-supported or wrong.”

I won’t recount Haidt’s examples of the “stupidity on the right” and “structural stupidity” on the left. You can read the article for that. He finds plenty, and there are plenty more he could have used. It isn’t a pretty picture.

The capacity for weaponizing social media and reinforcing the structural dysfunction has become potentially exponential with the advent of AI. “[Existing technology] is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence.” AI makes “spreading falsehoods … inconceivably easy”.

Haidt warns that American democracy is currently “operating outside the bounds of sustainability” and is on the verge of collapse. His solution is “redesigning democracy for the digital age by hardening democratic institutions to “withstand chronic anger and mistrust”, reforming social media to make it less toxic, and preparation of the next generation for “democratic citizenship in the new age”.  

Easier said than done! I can’t help but think that social media has merely allowed what was already in our heads all along to spill out into the public marketplace of ideas, like a raging flood of epic proportions. Our innate tendencies are no longer held back by dams of human limitation. Those dams that are necessary to protect us from ourselves have been eroded in the wash of social media.

I agree with Haidt that the old structures are no longer adequate for the job, but what form must new structures take to reclaim the ground we have lost? Do we even have the foresight or the will to change?

Revolutions are historically the result of impossible tensions pushed to the breaking point. We have been uniquely resilient to revolution in the United States, largely because of the structures built into the constitutional foundation of our country. Even that dam shows signs of erosion now.

Revolutions don’t necessarily discriminate against regressive and repressive change. But, “something needs to give”, as the common adage goes. Something needs to change.

If, indeed, we still have a majority in the middle, the “moderate majority” needs to stand up and be heard, or (perhaps) be forever silenced. We need a canary in the mine to warn us when the deadly toxins we have allowed in have reached deadly levels. We need to look in the fractured mirrors of our dissipated souls and reclaim the reality that we are all sinners that can only hope to be saved by grace – individually, collectively and divine.

5 thoughts on “Jonathan Haidt and the Erosion of American Democracy by the Corrosive Waters of Social Media

  1. In 2010, Nicholas Carr penned “The Shallows”, a book that examines how technology, and specifically the internet, has changed the way we view life and “the way we think, read and remember.” I highly recommend every reader of your precious blog to also read this book. It’s an eye-opener. Thank you, Kevin, for being so diligent. God bless you.


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