Is social media to blame for everything?
Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and popular author, has a longread in the Atlantic has been getting a lot of attention. If you can’t access the piece I’ll summarise it for you: everything is shit and social media is to blame.
Haidt’s message isn’t new of course, but he’s done a good job of pulling together a lot of evidence and arguments into one master-narrative. Here are the social ills he blames on Facebook and Twitter and the others: political polarisation, a culture of moralistic bullying, the trivialisation of political debate, a decline in trust in government and other institutions, the spread of populism, the rise of misinformation, Donald Trump, cancel culture, conspiracy theories, identity politics, depression among teenagers.
Whoa. It’s hard to know what to make of the piece because it makes so many different claims; before you’ve had time to reflect critically on one of them, another has grabbed you by the arm. They all seem to be true and yet not true at the same time. True, because social media obviously does play a significant role in these phenomena. Not true, because most of them are trends which pre-date the advent of likes and retweets, and because of what the piece doesn’t say, which is that social media has significant upsides too.
The polarisation of American politics has been increasing steadily since the early 1970s. America’s “political stress” has been increasing since the 1980s. Talk radio and TV cable news has probably done more to degrade American politics than Facebook has; in 2016 Trump did better (vs Romney in 2012) with non-internet users than he did with internet users. It’s very hard to disentangle correlation from causation, particularly when recent history offers some big confounding variables; any recent increase in cynicism about institutions and elites surely has a lot more to do with the 2008 financial crisis than with media use. The misinformation problem is probably not as big as it appears (a position held by one of the academics cited by Haidt). Some of the supposed maladies are also remedies: social media may be helping teenagers cope with anxiety rather than just spreading it. As mentally punishing as the pandemic was for people young and old it would have been significantly worse without social media.
It’s easy to assume that the most recent change is the most important. If I had to name a mega-trend responsible for the deterioration of the social fabric in Western societies, I would pick the long-term decline of organised religion, over the rise of social media. I’m not a believer myself but it’s clear to me that religion is a major source of social solidarity and happiness and its retreat from the public realm is bad for everyone, including atheists. The evidence for that is much stronger than the evidence for social media harms. I thought I’d have to track down some of it to make this point but conveniently, a recent research project has done a pretty comprehensive job on it. 120 different teams were asked to analyse the connection between religious belief and well-being using different methodologies - and 117 of them found that higher religiosity predicted higher well-being. (Of course, there’s interaction between the decline of religion and online communication but the shrinking place of religion in society has deep roots.)
We’ve been talking about America a lot, and that’s OK because Haidt is writing for an American magazine and at least some of what he’s talking about applies globally. But a drawback of Haidt’s approach is that he doesn’t compare social media use across borders and track it to some of the outcomes he identifies (if anyone can locate such studies I’d be interested to see them, do post in comments). Much about America’s malaise may be peculiarly American.
In summary I don’t think the Haidt narrative is necessarily wrong but I do think the real story is more complicated than he makes out. A lot of social media’s effects are indirect, filtered through institutions like universities and news organizations which are subject to other, more transformative forces, social and economic. I see it more as an intensifier and accelerator rather than a game changer - although I’d be cautious of drawing any confident conclusions at all. Remember, this is a very new phenomenon we’re discussing. Imagine trying to work out what the social ramifications of TV would be from data gathered in 1960.
Making Mark Zuckerberg the bogeyman is a nice distraction for some commentators from other causes of turmoil, some of them closer to home for those concerned. Social media has certainly changed incentives for journalists and politicians and business leaders, all of whom are still grappling with how best to deploy it, some more successfully than others (my favourite passages in the piece were on its stupefying effect on elites).
But then everyone, from teenagers to parents to teachers to single daters, is figuring out how to get the most out of this technology while minimising the self-harms. The answers to the problems created by social media don’t necessarily lie with changing Facebook functionality but with teaching ourselves to use it more intelligently and productively. Most of us have quite a long way to go on that front.
Finally: there is an imbalance in the research on this topic. If academics look for negative effects, they’ll find them, simply because social media use is so pervasive, and there’s so much bad stuff going on in society. Dots have no trouble joining to dots. And it seems like most researchers want to find links to bad stuff. As the authors of this more sceptical paper put it, in their conclusion, there is a “glaring gap” in the literature on social media when it comes to beneficial effects. Most academics in the field seem to have herded towards a prior belief that social media is terrible for us. I would guess that’s partly because negative effects are more likely to get covered, liked and shared - so maybe we can blame Twitter for this too.
This post is free for all so do feel free to share on social media which, as I say, is good for some things. And please check out CONFLICTED, my book on productive argument, on or offline.
Periodic reminder that I am available for talks and workshops. I’ve been enjoying the return of in-person conferences/meetings. It’s easier to sense when I’ve lost my audience’s attention. Which never happens, I hasten to add.
Another shout for my FLASHPOINTS conversation with the excellent Sahar Akhtar. I’ve been delighted that so many of you enjoyed it. Paid subscribers get full access to the FLASHPOINTS series.
Behind the paywall this week, links and brief thoughts on:
The real problem of American politics.
Science vs pseudo-science.
Why that book you liked was all wrong but that’s all right.
George Harrison with his hero.