Our societies are becoming more polarised, radicalised and dumb. We can thank social media for it.
I finished my latest post with some optimism about how the next few years could go. I expected this decade to have lights and shadows, but as we have progressed over the last few decades, I hoped this trend would continue. For this to happen, we need to tackle some of the big problems afflicting us globally. One of them is the polarisation, radicalisation, and lack of trust in institutions and between different groups accentuated by social media.
Cooperation and intelligence are two of the main capabilities that have made us humans succeed as a species and progress to the levels seen today. These are now at risk, thanks in great part to social media. Social media is making us less collaborative and pitting us against each other. It is also making us more stupid.
On our way to Idiocracy
Idiocracy is a fun movie. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend you watch it. It is supposed to be a sarcastic movie, a parody of where the world is going, but unfortunately, the parody might become true sooner than expected.
In the movie, a man in 2005 gets frozen and wakes up in the year 2505. As smart people have been focusing on their careers and not having many children, and stupid people have been having lots of kids, the human race has become stupider. Everybody is an idiot, and our protagonist is suddenly the most intelligent person on Earth. This creates many funny and absurd situations. However, the main value of the movie isn’t that it is funny, which it is, but that it is a cautionary tale of what might happen to us one day.
We shouldn’t take for granted our current levels of intelligence and cooperation or the relatively good functioning level of our institutions. True, our world today is far from perfect and is full of injustices, challenges, and problems, but it could be much worse.
Some people believe we are going backwards and becoming more stupid and dysfunctional as a society. Unlike in the film, this has nothing to do with the childbearing rates of different segments of the population, but with the proliferation of social media and its pernicious effects and erosion of the fabric of society.
The last ten years have been uniquely stupid
In an insightful article with the self-explanatory title Why the last 10 years of American life have been uniquely stupid, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt delves into this issue. He argues that American society is becoming increasingly stupid as a society and is more and more polarised and fragmented. He blames social media for it.
As he puts it:
“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.”Jonathan Haidt
Haidt argues that autocracies can survive through oppression and propaganda, but democracies depend on shared and accepted beliefs, norms and rules, and certain trust in institutions such as the government, the press, universities, and other organisations. He cites the Edelman Trust Barometer’s latest results, where stable and competent autocracies like China and the UAE top the list, while democracies such as the US, the UK, Spain and South Korea are near the bottom.
Democracies require trust to thrive, and social media constantly chips away at it. Post by post, like by like, share by share, social media are polarising, radicalising and stultifying our societies. Haidt talks us through the history of social media and how at the beginning of it, our Facebook and Twitter timelines were quite harmless and naïve.
All that changed from 2009, though, when shares, likes and similar functionalities became mainstream. Suddenly one of your posts could become viral, and you could become “internet famous”, giving you the brief 15 minutes we all should have.
Algorithms started filtering content and priming it based on their engagement potential. In Haidt’s words, “later research showed that posts that trigger emotions––especially anger at out-groups––are the most likely to be shared.” Outrage creates the most engagement, so it was promoted and boosted in the new quest for virality and views (that brought in ad revenues). The whole social media system is based on maximising engagement and virality, and you seem to do this by creating outrage, fear, and hatred against others.
Since then, radical and aggressive people on the political extremes have dominated the discourse on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Tik Tok and have swamped out the most moderate voices in the centre. The way social media are set up and incentivised has created the perfect environment for the proliferation of myriads of eco chambers, misinformation and disinformation.
Haidt argues that in the 20th century, the US built an unparalleled knowledge-generating institutional fabric that made it an example of growth and progress. Now, American society is broken and polarised. Many people don’t trust these institutions that have generated so much knowledge and wealth. Consequently, these institutions and society as a whole are becoming dumber.
In summary, we are on our way to Idiocracy.
Is everything falling apart?
Robert Wright, whose book Nonzero: The Logic Of Human Destiny is cited by Haidt, wrote a critique of Haidt’s article in his blog Nonzero Newsletter. He argues that Haidt has a point in some areas, notably in the risks and challenges social media brings, but he thinks these are not new, and we have been here before. So we will find a way to face those challenges successfully.
Every time there was a significant breakthrough in information technology, like when writing or the printing machine was invented, major upheavals and disruptions happened in society. Wright compares the impact the printing machine had on Martin Luther’s religious proclamations, the creation of Protestantism and the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe with our current situation with social media.
He believes new information systems create fragmentation within existing social groups but also create further integration and consolidation of other groups. This happened with the creation of the Protestant group, which was a scission of the Catholic church and generated its fragmentation. Still, it also created a strong integration within the new group formed.
Social media is doing something similar now. It is making the world smaller and facilitating communication between people geographically apart, creating new global groups and fragmenting other groups that were previously aligned along national lines. For example, the US coastal elites feel closer to other elites in the UK, France and Germany than to their own compatriots inland, fracturing the US and other societies. Social media is just a tool accelerating these processes.
The main problem is our own evolutive setup. We have lived in small tribal groups for hundreds of thousands of years, so we have evolved to show and feel in-group altruism and solidarity and out-group hostility. We are comfortable within our trusted groups but feel threatened, and we distrust and hate people different to us. We placed these feelings into sports teams, nationalism, and political rivalries in modern times.
Add into the mix several biases, such as the confirmation bias both Haidt and Wright mention in their articles, or others like the Dunning-Kruger I wrote about recently, and we aren’t the rational beings that we are cracked up to be. Social media isn’t necessarily the problem. It’s just an accelerant of our natural impulses and biases. It plays on our weaknesses and amplifies them.
Barack Obama himself also sees social media as one of the main threats to democracy and gave a speech on this very topic last week at Stanford University.
In a fine speech, Obama agreed with some of Haidt’s main points. He thinks the internet is a great tool that has helped transform our societies. He admits it even helped him become president as it allowed thousands of eager volunteers to get together, boost his fundraising and promote his message across the US. Obama was the first candidate for the US presidency who understood the power of social media and used it to maximise his chances.
However, he also believes that “our current communications ecosystem is turbocharging some of the worst human impulses”, and he cites several examples of misinformation and disinformation enabled by social media, trolling and foreign agents: vaccine hesitancy, the “big steal” of the US elections, the growth of the far-right in Europe, genocide in Myanmar and Ethiopia… all these have happened in great measure thanks to the dark arts of social media.
Obama defines himself as close to being a First Amendment (free speech) absolutist. He believes you usually beat bad speech with good speech, but free speech rules only apply to government and public institutions, not private companies such as social media platforms. These platforms are already promoting some content and silencing some others via their algorithms and policies, with no democratic oversight or transparency. They have become very powerful. They can sway public opinion, sharpen our most tribal instincts and polarise society, so it is about time that they are put under closer scrutiny.
He then makes some suggestions on what we can do to improve the situation with social media, including measures on the supply side (basically more oversight of platforms) and the demand side (it is our responsibility as citizens to broaden our horizons, exit our eco chambers and apply more critical thinking when consuming media).
The most important point of the speech is that social media is not good or bad per se. As Obama explains,
“The internet is a tool. Social media is a tool. At the end of the day, tools don’t control us, we control them, and we can remake them”.
I agree. Like all technology, social media or the internet are not inherently good or bad. It all depends on what use we make of them. We can admit that the use we have made so far wasn’t the best, and find ways to improve it. We can remake social media, so it helps us progress and grow as a society instead of hampering us.
Let’s toast for a better future (but not with Brawndo!)
Haidt’s, Wright’s and Obama’s reflections focused on the US, but social media-induced polarisation and idiocratisation is not an American phenomenon only. It is a global issue afflicting us all.
It is not new either. The Social Dilemma documentary raised the alarm about the harms of social media already a couple of years ago. Some argue that social media is the new smoking and needs to be dealt with accordingly.
Elon Musk, probably the richest man on Earth, is about to purchase Twitter to guarantee it respects free speech, or so he says. I wish him good luck finding the right balance between respecting free speech and not allowing the platform getting poisoned with hate speech, violent threats and child pornography.
Free speech is laudable and something all democratic societies should aspire to, but disinformation and misinformation are also harmful phenomena that are making us more scared of each other, less trusting of functioning institutions and more stupid as a society. Nobody has found the right balance yet, but for our own sake and the sake of our way of life, we better find it fast.
Maybe Wright is right, and this is just another historical blip, like many others we had in the past. There will be some upheaval and disruptions for some years, decades or a couple of centuries, but the resulting societal model will be better than the current one. Maybe it’s me, but I don’t want to wait for two hundred years, or even decades, for this situation to get better. We need to act now so we tackle this problem; the sooner, the better. I am not sure what the exact measures should be, but the first step has to be to admit we have a huge problem and need to do something about it. Then, and only then, we can start fixing it.
Let’s toast for a better future, a future free of disinformation, misinformation, radicalisation and polarisation. Let’s toast for a normalised future where we have more harmonious relations with our fellow citizens, regardless of their political leanings, religion, nationality, class or whatever makes them different to us.
Let’s toast for a better future, but let’s hope in a few hundred years we are still toasting with champagne, wine, or whatever your favourite drink is, and not with Brawndo, the ubiquitous disgusting electrolyte drink everybody is so fond of in the Idiocracy world.