Did the Internet Break Democracy?
No, and Jonathan Haidt’s big new Atlantic essay about social media’s damaging effects couldn’t be more wrong about what ails us
Jonathan Haidt, the New York University social psychologist and author of the bestselling book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, has been on a tear for a while about the negative effects of online social media. Three years ago in The Atlantic, he and co-author Tobias Rose-Stockwell wrote an essay arguing that the public discourse was getting more coarse and less civil because of how social media “turns so much communication into a public performance.” Being outrageous, which might make a person tiresome in a private setting, gets rewarded in the online arena. Instead of dialogue, we get grandstanding. And so social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, attuned to foster continuous engagement, foment more division as they go about attracting and holding their users’ attention. Haidt and Rose-Stockwell had a point, though it was hardly an original one. But they also seemed incline to exaggerate the effect that social media was having on our society, writing, “This, we believe, is why many Americans — and citizens of many other countries, too — experience democracy as a place where everything is going haywire.”
Curiously, their 2019 essay made no mention of any of the other reasons people might be anxious about the health of their democracies, such as the rise in economic inequality, unresolved racial inequity, the failure to stave off climate change, the rejection of democratic norms by authoritarian populists, the exposure of rampant misogyny and harassment of women by men in power, the decades-long undermining of workers’ rights to organize at their workplaces, or efforts to restrict voting rights. Bipartisan institutional failures like the 2003 invasion of Iraq or the 2008 banking collapse, and the Republican-led brinksmanship that almost led the US government to default on its debt in 2011 also went unmentioned by Haidt and Rose-Stockwell. Even bigger reasons for the crises afflicting the western democracies, like the unraveling of their empires, were nowhere to be seen. No, to Haidt and Rose-Stockwell, the fall from grace is mostly if not entirely the fault of toxic social…