How social media have stupefied the institutions
Loading player In the first half of the 2000s the first social media developed their own platforms taking as a model some tools already available on the Internet since the 1990s, such as chat rooms, forums and virtual “message boards”. The services provided by platforms such as Myspace, Friendster and Facebook allowed people to share interests and have more frequent remote social relationships, on a scale hitherto unimaginable but not too different from what was possible through postal services, the telephone, emails or text messages.
To radically change this context a few years later, according to Jonathan Haidt, an American professor of social psychology at the Stern School of Business at New York University (NYU), was the intensification of viral dynamics made technically possible by the introduction in the platforms of standard functionalities that allowed to re-share content.
In a long and detailed article on Atlantic, Haidt described the possibility of re-sharing content on social media and subsequent adaptations to the resulting dynamics – adaptations of both platform algorithms and people – as a turning point in recent American history and a of the most powerful factors of weakening institutions and fragmentation of communities, among those attributable to the action of social networks on societies.
The effects of this fragmentation would today be found not only in politics but also in universities, companies, professional orders and families. And they would be at the basis of a general loss of trust and a collective “stupidity” deriving from the predisposition to self-censorship in a context extraordinarily prone to blaming ideas and behaviors by invoking – and often obtaining – disproportionate and decontextualized punishments.
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It is a discourse that Haidt, one of the best known and most cited scholars on social media issues, develops by making frequent references to the political and social reality of the United States, but which in general concerns most of the countries concerned and conditioned by the exceptional diffusion of social networks and viral dynamics in the last ten years. This diffusion, according to Haidt, has weakened all three main forces that hold secular democracies together: trust in social networks, strong institutions and shared stories.
Compared to the typical dynamics of the early years of social media, towards the end of the 2000s users became progressively more inclined to share more intimate details of their lives with an ever-wider audience and with the companies that provided those services. As Haidt wrote in 2019, people became more adept at staging a particular version of themselves, developing some sort of personal brand through activities aimed at impressing others rather than deepening friendships as would happen, for example, through a private telephone conversation.
In the meantime Facebook had become the dominant platform in 2008, with over 100 million monthly users (today they are almost three billion). Until then, it had mainly provided users with a service that allowed them to scroll through a series of content shared by their contacts in chronological order. But the introduction of the “like” in 2009, a button to publicly express a judgment on certain contents, started a distortion of that initial context. And even more decisive was the introduction on Twitter, in that same year, of the “retweet” button, a content re-sharing function which was then immediately taken up by Facebook and many other platforms.
These capabilities allowed the platforms to accumulate a large amount of data on the most “engaging” content based on these criteria. Starting from that data, they were able to develop algorithms capable of increasing the visibility of content that more likely could have obtained other “likes” and shares. As subsequent research would show, the contents that aroused emotional reactions – especially those of anger towards groups other than one's own – were substantially the most widespread and shared.
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In 2013, writes Haidt, social media had become something else, a game with completely different rules from those prior to 2008. Each user's posts could gain great popularity and approval or arouse contempt and hatred “based on clicks from thousands of strangers », and each individual contributed through their clicks to reinforce mass dynamics. This fostered the spread of untruths, able to reach many more people because users were more likely to share them than the truths.
Guiding users in choosing the language and content of their posts was not just their tastes and preferences, but their past experiences of “gratification and punishment” with respect to previously published content and the prediction of what reactions they would arouse. new posts. “We may have just handed a weapon to a 4-year-old boy,” Chris Wetherell, one of the developers of the Twitter retweet button, thought at the time.
The technical interventions of optimization and adaptation to the new dynamics, Haidt writes, made the platforms a perfect place “to bring out our more moralistic and less reflective selves”, producing on the whole a “bewildering amount of indignation.” And these instinctive and unreflective reactions prevalent on social networks have much in common with the kind of feelings that the authors of the American Constitution – “excellent social psychologists,” according to Haidt – defined “unruly passions” and described as a risk of weakness. of democratic communities.
At the time, to found a stable and efficient republic it was essential to put limits on the spread of these sentiments: useful mechanisms were needed to “slow things down, cool passions, request compromises,” writes Haidt, and give leaders the opportunity to isolate themselves. a little and not be subject to the “obsession of the moment”, while remaining periodically required to answer for the responsibilities assumed towards the people, on election day.
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The fourth president of the United States and one of the main “fathers of the Constitution” James Madison, in a document of 1787 often cited about the innate tendency of human beings to bias, wrote that in the absence of substantial opportunities, even “the most futile distinctions and imaginative “are sufficient to generate hostility and fuel conflicts. In this sense, Haidt writes, it is as if social networks have amplified the opportunities for futility and increased their ability to create divisions.
Contrary to a widespread notion that at the time of the Arab Springs and Occupy Wall Street, in 2011, associated the use of social media with a positive evolution of democratic systems, several current studies argue that social media have a corrosive effect on the confidence of people in governments, the media, institutions and other people in general. If we exclude some advantages, attested in particular in less developed democracies, social networks are mainly associated with an increase in political polarization, disinformation and populism, especially of the right, as suggested by one of the most recent and complete reviews of existing research on the subject. .
The loss of trust in institutions, continues Haidt, also extends to those in charge of the training and education of the new generations, as recalled by the increasingly frequent cases of school programs or other pedagogical issues subject to political controversies and protests by indignant parents about social. With the result of fragmenting the community into mutually hostile parts and weakening the narratives shared within it, essential to allow the younger generations in the country to get an idea of the history of the people of that country and share that idea even with those in that same country attended school at a different time or place.
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Like many US analysts, Haidt also traces the election of Donald Trump as president to the loss of confidence in institutions, which he considers the first politician to have been able to “master the new dynamics” in a context in which “indignation is the key. virality “and” stage performance “prevails over competence. He was also the first to exert his influence by relying on the assumption that on social media there is no truth – in the sense of a single story fairly shared by the community – but various stories shared by “adjacent fragments” of the community. An issue that obviously has to do with the widely debated theme of “bubbles” and “echo chambers” on social media, expressions used to describe contexts in which only similar opinions circulate and are amplified.
Another effect of the spread of social media on an ever-increasing scale over the past decade, according to Haidt, has been the empowerment of people who previously had no or very limited voice. Which in many ways has been a good thing: it has placed many individuals who were in positions of power, from politics to art to university, in the condition of having to publicly account for misdeeds committed by exploiting roles and relationships that existed before the evolution of dynamics of virality. But it also generated a distorted idea of responsibility which, writes Haidt, is today at the root of grave injustices and various inefficiencies in politics.
As some recent studies show, the exercise of power through the dynamics of virality is mainly distributed between provocateurs and extremists. Michael Bang Petersen and Alexander Bor, Danish political science researchers at Aarhus University, have studied the behaviors of people on social media and found that only a small subset is willing to verbally assault other users, insult them and even be blocked or reported. to achieve a certain purpose. Being online doesn't in itself make people more aggressive or hostile, according to Bor and Bang Petersen, but it does allow minority groups to attack a much larger set of people.
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Similar conclusions also came from a research on political polarization conducted in 2017 and 2018 on 8 thousand American people by the More in Common group, a non-profit association against xenophobia. According to the research, social media reduces the power of the moderate majority and increases the visibility of the behaviors and beliefs of the two most extreme groups, both conservatives and progressives, the most prolific in terms of sharing political content.
The research showed how similar the two groups were in many ways: they were largely made up of whites and rich people. And this suggests the hypothesis that to occupy the centrality of the political debate on social media is a clash between two subsets of elites not representative of American society in the broadest sense. Furthermore, the two most extreme groups were those that showed the greatest internal uniformity regarding political opinions and attitudes: a characteristic that, according to the authors of the research, would be the result of a form of control that leaves no room for compromise and is exercised on the social media against dissidents or even those who think in a slightly more nuanced way within the group.
One of the main consequences of this situation, according to Haidt, is the administration of justice on social media by the masses, without any trial for the defendants and “without responsibility for the executioners.” By enhancing t ecnically the dynamics of virality, platforms have fostered a tendency to inflict disproportionate collective punishments for minor or often wholly imaginary crimes but which end up having serious consequences on the real world, as evidenced by numerous cases of people fired or forced to commit suicide out of shame public.
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This has led over time to a kind of collective “structural stupidity,” writes Haidt: the way in which social media has been developed has favored the spread of confirmatory bias and made it more unlikely to interact with people who do not share our own. beliefs. The “stupidity” to which Haidt refers would be the historical result of the consequent end of disagreement within the institutions, due to the fact that people think too uniformly within their respective groups or, while thinking differently , have a “chronic fear” of the consequences of dissent on their lives, and thus end up censoring themselves.
It is a “structural” problem because it derives not from people's intelligence – “it is not that Americans have become less intelligent,” writes Haidt – but from the dynamics of virality enhanced by social media. Through those dynamics, dissent is punished within institutions leading to a situation where bad ideas end up prevailing. And it is a problem that also affects the cultural institutions controlled by the country's left: universities, newspapers, schools and much of Silicon Valley, places where “dissent has been stifled”.
Haidt describes those institutions as environments in which younger activists and progressives have used the dynamics of virality to attack older leaders, reinforcing a narrative that within each institution “the people at the top came by harassing those at the bottom.” . A “rigidly egalitarian narrative, focused on equality of results, not on rights or opportunities” and “indifferent to individual rights”, supported by the most active progressives on social networks and to which older leaders would not have the courage to oppose for fear of be accused of racism, transphobia or any other “scarlet letter marking the perpetrator as one who hates or harms a marginalized group”.
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Clearly, Haidt concludes, it is not possible to go back to the way things were before the digital age: but in different parts of political, social and cultural life there is sufficient scope for taking the actions and changes necessary to strengthen democracies.
The first step is to reform institutions to make them more resistant to chronic anger, disinformation and distrust. It would be necessary to reduce the influence of the extreme groups on the legislators and increase that of the average voter. And an effective way – suggested by Haidt and other thinkers – could be to stop holding party primary elections and promote forms of general elections that require the electorate to express an order of preference among multiple candidates rather than a single name.
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The second proposal is to reform social media so as to reduce their technical ability to propagate structural stupidity and distrust. One of the main fears expressed by people opposed to social regulation is that this type of restriction could amount to substantial censorship. But the problem with social media, Haidt points out, is not the publication itself of falsehoods and content that arouse outrage: it is that these contents “can now have a reach and reach a level of influence that were impossible before 2009”.
As suggested by former Facebook employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen, responsible for publishing a series of controversial internal documents in the company in 2021, even simple changes to the architecture of the platforms could have very significant effects. First of all, it would be necessary to integrate or improve the procedures that make it possible to ascertain that each account belongs to a single real person and is not the product of a bot or a fake account. Which would also likely reduce the frequency of death and rape threats, racist offenses and provocations.
Furthermore, it could be very useful to slow down the diffusion of viral contents, ie those that on average are less likely to be true, by modifying the “Share” function so as not to make it available after the second re-sharing. This would force a third person possibly interested in sharing that content to take the time to copy and paste it into a new post.
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The last important intervention reported by Haidt concerns the younger generations, who “have no blame for the mess we are in but will inherit it.” Citing an essay by American economist Steven Horwitz in which group child play is described as a fundamental practice for social cooperation between humans, Haidt argues that the reduced opportunities for outdoor, unsupervised play by adults – reduction associated with more time spent at home online – could hinder the development of skills needed by new generations for their future political participation.
These are skills that have to do with cooperation, respect for the rules and the need to make compromises, evaluate situations and accept defeats. And not allowing them to develop, Haidt concludes, could make it more difficult for people to build “peaceful and productive liberal orders” in the future.
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