Close up photo of a group of people holding mobile phones.

Social media has put us all in the middle of a Roman coliseum, and many in the audience want to see conflict and blood.

The Atlantic | August 2022

Jonathan Haidt says researchers such as himself start out with a ‘null’ hypothesis – in his case ‘social media is NOT harmful’ and then must rigorously prove any conclusions that shift this presumption. Professor Haidt’s research into social media has led him to unambiguously conclude it IS harming us.

The problem is this research takes time (frequently many years), while social media is leaping ahead in the meantime, profoundly changing its model and impacting society with each move. Big tech, Haidt says, with its algorithmic logic set to maximise engagement – where conflict is the most engaging of interactions – is undermining civil discourse and ultimately, democracy.

Extreme views are algorithmically logical

Haidt offers a critical commentary on the amplified individual megatrend which tracks how technology and increased connectivity are amplifying the actions of individuals.

Social media’s process is to create ‘echo chambers,’ says Haidt, where discussions are polarising us into ‘tribes’ with the conversations becoming increasingly vitriolic.

Haidt acknowledges that political polarisation predates social media: the arrival of Fox News in the 1990’s kicked-off the toxic and divisive language in the public arena. Initially social media was a benign force, but from 2009 Haidt says the platforms (Facebook and Twitter in particular) tweaked their systems architecture to increase the virality of posts – and kaboom! Rumours, half-truths and blatant lies exploded with increasing velocity into the feeds of ‘ordinary’ social media users.

While this misinformation is initiated by the ‘extreme’ right and left (as well as nefarious actors or foreign operatives) the platforms’ algorithmic logic drives engagement (in the interests of profits) conscripting all users into being agents of distribution.

Consequently, we are, says Haidt, increasingly afraid of each other: social media ‘mobs’ storm freely across these platforms attacking academics, journalists and – after the 2020 US presidential election – independent election officials. Thanks to the amplifying power of the content distribution algorithms, these angry actors receive outsized audiences.

Running out of time

Haidt acknowledges that others (respectfully) disagree with his verdict. Meta’s CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, reaches the exact opposite conclusion. “Most of the academic studies that I’ve seen actually show that social-media use is correlated with lower polarisation.”

While Haidt has set up a public Google document to facilitate a public ‘collaborative review’ we don’t, he argues, have time to prove the harm case beyond reasonable doubt. It will take 10 or more years for social science to ‘settle’ the matter. By that time not only will social media be “radically different – and the harms done in earlier decades may be irreversible.”

The bad fight

Haidt proposes we: (1) harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust, (2) reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive, and (3) better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.

Ultimately Haidt calls on all of us to ‘refuse to fight‘ in the show put on by Twitter, Facebook et al.

We can be more understanding toward our fellow citizens, seeing that we are all being driven mad by companies that use largely the same set of psychological tricks. We can forswear public conflict and use social media to serve our own purposes, which for most people will mean more private communication and fewer public performances.

Haidt’s analysis is further confirmation of the amplified individual megatrend: megatrends are, by definition, unstoppable forces. Coursing through business and society, megatrends play out in ways that are not always predictable. While their reach is global their impacts are not necessarily inevitable – their paths can be realigned in the public interest. Haidt is calling on governments, communities and individuals to oppose social media’s worst impulses. Failure to push back against the current trajectory, Haidt warns, will be dire for democracy.

Megatrends watch: amplified individuals

Subverting
Stable
Accelerating

This update is part of our Megatrends Watch series, which tracks developments that inform our six global megatrends….

Image: Camilo Jimenez

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