Several years ago, Jonathan Haidt wrote a ground-breaking book to explain why people divide so quickly over religion and politics. The book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Religion and Politics, released in 2013, and his analysis helped me understand some of what happened in the last few years.

I’ve been captivated by Haidt’s insightful diagnosis of our underlying problems ever since.

He recently published another masterful and informative article in the Atlantic: Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.

Russell Moore also hosted Haidt on his podcast for an excellent and insightful conversation. I commend both resources to you.

The Premise: Haidt’s article chronicles the pervasive negative effects of the internet and social media on our culture, systems, institutions, and relationships. Additionally, he uses the tower of Babel as a metaphor to describe what we’re experiencing.

The article is long and dense. Here are six take-away points with direct quotes (in italics).

Background and a Metaphor

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.

Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth…Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people…

Babel is not a story about tribalism. It’s a story about the fragmentation of everything.

…History involves a series of transitions, driven by rising population density plus new technologies (writing, roads, the printing press) that created new possibilities for mutually beneficial trade and learning…The early internet of the 1990s, with its chat rooms, message boards, and email, exemplified {this}… as did the first wave of social-media platforms, which launched around 2003.

The high point of techno-democratic optimism was arguably 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring and ended with the global Occupy movement. That is also when Google Translate became available on virtually all smartphones, so you could say that 2011 was the year that humanity rebuilt the Tower of Babel. We were closer than we had ever been to being “one people,” and we had effectively overcome the curse of division by language. For techno-democratic optimists, it seemed to be only the beginning of what humanity could do.

In February 2012, as he prepared to take Facebook public, Mark Zuckerberg reflected on those extraordinary times and set forth his plans. “Today, our society has reached another tipping point,” he wrote in a letter to investors. Facebook hoped “to rewire the way people spread and consume information.” By giving them “the power to share,” it would help them to “once again transform many of our core institutions and industries.”

Six Takeaways:

1. Social Media Shifts People Toward Performance Over Connecting

But gradually, social-media users became more comfortable sharing intimate details of their lives with strangers and corporations. As I wrote in a 2019 Atlantic article with Tobias Rose-Stockwell, they became more adept at putting on performances and managing their personal brand—activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships in the way that a private phone conversation will….Once social-media platforms had trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting, the stage was set for the major transformation, which began in 2009: the intensification of viral dynamics.

2. Social Media’s Innovations (i.e., Likes, Share, and Retweet) Increase Division

Before 2009, Facebook had given users a simple timeline––a never-ending stream of content generated by their friends and connections, with the newest posts at the top and the oldest ones at the bottom. This was often overwhelming in its volume, but it was an accurate reflection of what others were posting.

That began to change in 2009, when Facebook offered users a way to publicly “like” posts with the click of a button. That same year, Twitter introduced something even more powerful: the “Retweet” button, which allowed users to publicly endorse a post while also sharing it with all of their followers. Facebook soon copied that innovation with its own “Share” button, which became available to smartphone users in 2012. “Like” and “Share” buttons quickly became standard features of most other platforms.

Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best “engaged” its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a “like” or some other interaction, eventually including the “share” as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.

This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action.

3. Social Media Weakens Trust

An autocracy can deploy propaganda or use fear to motivate the behaviors it desires, but a democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. Blind and irrevocable trust in any particular individual or organization is never warranted. But when citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side.

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 has weakened all three.

4. Social Media Encourages Division

A mean tweet doesn’t kill anyone; it is an attempt to shame or punish someone publicly while broadcasting one’s own virtue, brilliance, or tribal loyalties. It’s more a dart than a bullet, causing pain but no fatalities. Even so, from 2009 to 2012, Facebook and Twitter passed out roughly 1 billion dart guns globally. We’ve been shooting one another ever since.

Three problems:

First, the dart guns of social media give more power to trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens.

Second, the dart guns of social media give more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority.

Finally, by giving everyone a dart gun, social media deputizes everyone to administer justice with no due process.

5. Social Media Facilitates Confirmation Bias

The most pervasive obstacle to good thinking is confirmation bias, which refers to the human tendency to search only for evidence that confirms our preferred beliefs. Even before the advent of social media, search engines were supercharging confirmation bias, making it far easier for people to find evidence for absurd beliefs and conspiracy theories, such as that the Earth is flat and that the U.S. government staged the 9/11 attacks. But social media made things much worse.

6. Social Media Weakens Institutions

Part of America’s greatness in the 20th century came from having developed the most capable, vibrant, and productive network of knowledge-producing institutions in all of human history, linking together the world’s best universities, private companies that turned scientific advances into life-changing consumer products, and government agencies that supported scientific research and led the collaboration that put people on the moon.

This, I believe, is what happened to many of America’s key institutions in the mid-to-late 2010s. They got stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted. The shift was most pronounced in universities, scholarly associations, creative industries, and political organizations at every level (national, state, and local), and it was so pervasive that it established new behavioral norms backed by new policies seemingly overnight.

Haidt concludes the article by offering some solutions from a cultural and political perspective. I’m still processing his recommendations.

Given this post, you might think that I’m completely against social media. I’m not. I’ll unpack a few thoughts on the positive value – even common grace – of social media in a future post.

But for now, his analysis of how the internet and social media contributed to our present cultural crisis is profoundly helpful.

We’re probably in a revolution of some kind.

It may be unfamiliar to us, but it’s a story we’ve read before – see Genesis 11.

Mark Vroegop is the Lead Pastor of College Park Church in Indianapolis. He’s the author of Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy: Discovering the Grace of Lament, the ECPA 2020 Christian Book of the Year, Weep with Me: How Lament Opens a Door for Racial Reconciliation, and the Dark Clouds Deep Mercy Devotional Journal.

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