Musk unlikely to mend political divide
May 4, 2022
If Elon Musk is going to take over Twitter, I hope he reads a recent article in The Atlantic magazine by Jonathan Haidt, about the impact social media is having on our democracy and what we can do about it.
Of course, the richest man in America isn’t likely to listen to a peon like me, which is why I also recommend this article to you. As Haidt points, we can’t really rely on anyone but ourselves to address this problem.
Haidt is a social psychologist at the New York University School of Business. A fairly prolific author and self-described political centrist, his Atlantic essay is headlined “After Babel: Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” It’s well worth the read.
The article starts with a story from the Book of Genesis, about the descendants of Noah who used their common language to build a great tower into the heavens, called Babel. God ended their ambitions by making them speak in different languages — what Haidt considers a metaphor for what’s been happening in America today. We’re no longer speaking the same language.
Haidt’s article outlines the rise in social media, from the 1990s to 2011, when “techno-democratic optimism” abounded with uprisings such as the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement.
But in 2012, social media changed when Mark Zuckerberg “rewired” Facebook to give its users “the power to share.” As likes, shares and retweets became standard fare on social media platforms, emotional and angry responses, including “dishonesty and mob dynamics,” began to dominate the online “conversations” taking place, to the point at which social media has now “magnified and weaponized the frivolous,” Haidt says.
It has eroded trust in our institutions, our leaders and our “shared stories” — all of which are essential for a democratic society. And of course, it erodes our trust in each other, too.
The fall of our modern-day tower of Babel, Haidt contends, came in the years 2011 through 2015, when the left and the right began to speak “different languages.”
Haidt likens the social media tools being used to publicly “shame or punish” people to darts being thrown around. They won’t kill you, but they do cause enough pain to discourage the “moderate majority” to withdraw. A survey Haidt cites found that only 6% of Americans hold extremist views on the right, while 8% occupy the extreme left, and yet they’re now dominating the debates on social media.
Haidt says we need three basic reforms. We need to “harden” our democratic institutions, reform social media without censorship, and prepare our younger generations for “citizenship in this new age.”
He recommends open party primaries and ranked choice voting to make candidates less vulnerable to the extremists, and term limits to the Supreme Court to offset the partisanship that now dominates the selection process.
He advocates for algorithmic changes that are more viewpoint- and content-neutral, so the extremists’ views don’t take over.
And to prepare upcoming generations, particularly Gen Z (those born in or after 1997), Haidt thinks we should give our children off-line, outdoor and minimally supervised “free play” so they can learn the social skills they need to manage conflicts.
We can’t just wait for government or tech companies to make things right, we’ve got to bridge the divide ourselves. Haidt points to the fact that hundreds of groups are already “dedicated to building trust and friendship across the political divide” — our best chance to reverse the Babel-like “confusion and loss” we are currently experiencing.
That seems to be a far better approach than waiting for Musk to do anything about it.
Tom McDonald is editor of the New Mexico Community News Exchange. Contact him at: