A Drop of Ink - Social Media Undermining Democracy

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By Reed Anfinson

Publisher

In his piece for The Atlantic magazine, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” Jonathon Haidt compares what is happening to our political and social discourse today to the story of the Tower of Babble from the Bible.

“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,” he writes. Haidt is a social psychologist and professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University Stern School of Business.

Haidt says, “at least three major forces 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.”

We’ve lost the connections that bind us in our communities by dropping out of the social, community, and recreational groups that once bound us in common purpose and created mutual acceptance. We now barricade ourselves in political groups that only reward holding fast to narrow mindsets that exclude compassion for our fellow citizens.

We see opposing versions of what defines freedom. For Republicans, freedom means individual rights above all else, while Democrats weigh the responsibilities that freedom carries for the community’s good. At the extremes are the person whose anger causes him to fly a profane flag, tearing down his community in selfish outrage, and the liberal college students who refuse to let a conservative voice speak on campus.

Haidt attributes the decline of America’s social cohesion to “innovation” by social media giants designed to build traffic on their sites, and therefore, advertising revenues. In 2009, Facebook let its users “like” one another’s posts. In response, Twitter developed the “retweet” with Facebook then adding its “share” function.

Each of these enhancements to the algorithms channeling what people saw supercharged traffic to their sites. With each retweet, each share, the social media sites learned more about what captured our attention.

We would later find out, long after our civil conversations were deeply damaged, that those posts that triggered anger and resentment were the most likely to generate traffic, Haidt writes. Users of social media would seek a brief burst of fame with a post that would go “viral,” being shared hundreds of thousands or millions of times. 

But as much as social media sites could build fame they could destroy reputations. “If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments,” Haidt writes. Friendly conversations were replaced with outrage and a drive to score points in the game of retweets and shares. “This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics… experiences of reward and punishment,” he says.  The retweet made Twitter a” nastier place,” Haidt quotes one of Twitter’s engineers responsible for its development.

Now, rather than building a worldwide community in a modern-day Pen Pal exchange of what was uplifting or perhaps challenging in our lives that brought responses of compassion, now even family members are pitted against each other. The consequences go far beyond the tearing apart of friendships and family ties. They have eroded the very fabric of our democracy, threatening its future, Haidt writes.

“The Framers of the Constitution were excellent social psychologists,” Haidt says. “They knew that democracy had an Achilles’ heel because it depended on the collective judgment of the people, and democratic communities are subject to ‘the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions.’” 

For this very reason, the Founders built our system of government with checks and balances on power. With an executive branch, legislative branch, and a Supreme Court, each was given the power to “slow things down, cool passions, and require compromise.” Today, those mechanisms for checking government’s excesses are failing.

Eli Pariser, author of internet book The Filter Bubble, saw the dangers from a complimentary point of view that highlights the core dangers democracy faces. “News shapes our sense of the world, and of what’s important, of the scale and color, and character of our problems. More important, it provides the foundation of shared experience and shared knowledge on which democracy is built,” he wrote. “Democracy requires citizens see things from one another’s point of view.” 

We no longer see America’s needs and challenges from a shared perspective, nor one moderated by a common source of trusted information. Today, what the “common good” is for America is a matter of bitter debate that “kindles unfriendly passions and excites the most violent conflicts,” that Madison feared could unravel our democracy, Haidt fears.

Social media is the igniter and accelerant that fans the flames of passion that lead to threats and acts of violence that shake democracy’s foundation. 

Haidt sees three ways in which social media is undermining our democratic principles. First, with its algorithms favoring giving power to the nastier elements of social media, the “trolls and provocateurs (are) silencing good citizens. Social media gives more power and voice to the political extremes while reducing the power and voice of the moderate majority.”

Those in opposing political parties aren’t the only target of the social media battleground. Members of the same political party not sufficiently loyal are torn apart, pushing the parties to reward only those at the extremes. Compromise and civility are deadly to political ambition.

The state of today’s political discourse was illustrated last week in a fundraising email we received from Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Paul Gazelka. In saying why he was the best candidate, he ridiculed “the second-guessers who talk a good game but have never had to personally engage our enemies.” We are enemies, not fellow citizens with different political points of view.

Finally, Haidt writes, social media “deputizes everyone to administer justice with no due process. 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.”

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