12 Jun 2022

The reason why America has become 'uniquely stupid'

From Sunday Morning, 11:18 am on 12 June 2022

The last 10 years in America have been "uniquely stupid," social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says.

And Haidt is laying the blame squarely on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Haidt wrote that it was not Americans who were getting stupid as individuals; rather USA’s institutions.

Haidt, who is professor of ethical leadership at NYU-Stern, argues that social media is allowing people to intimidate others and make them afraid of public consequences for anything they say. And that makes institutions structurally stupid, because people have stopped dissenting, questioning and challenging.

All seemed well until about 2014, he says.

American social psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt

American social psychologist Professor Jonathan Haidt Photo: Supplied/Jonathan Haidt

“We re-elected our first black president, we legalised gay marriage in many states, and were about to legalise it nationally.

“Democracy is going to take over everything, including the Arab world, we thought, and then almost out of nowhere, everything went to hell around 2014.”

Democracy without strong institutions is enfeebled, he says.

“There is this simplistic, naive view of democracy that most of us in America have, which is democracy is great. The founding fathers wanted us to have democracy, it's the best system.

“No; democracy is a really difficult and a fairly bad system, Plato said it's the second worst system because it always decays into tyranny.

“And so, the American founding fathers read a lot of the ancient Greeks, they knew this and they gave us a Republic with democratic features, you can call it a democratic republic.

“They were very wise about the nature of humans. James Madison, the architect of the Constitution, has lovely quotes, brilliant quotes about the human tendency toward faction, we’re more inclined to vex and oppress each other than to work together for the common good.”

The founding fathers put constitutional safeguards in place to “slow things down, to prevent people from getting carried away by their passions.”

“But of course, social media is just brilliant at making people outraged over nothing within 60 seconds.”

Originally a useful tool, social media is now inimical to democracy, he says, because it allows no place for considered debate.

“To have a deliberative democracy, there has to be some space for people to deliberate, to talk about the issues of the day. That doesn't mean it's going to be friendly or civil. It can have anger, while there can be anger, there should not be intimidation, there should not be threats of violence, people should not have to worry that they're going to be fired or attacked physically for stating their opinion on an ordinary issue.”

The utopian vision of an interconnected and informed world has turned into a nightmare, Haidt says.

“We, the users, are not the customers, we’re the product. And so, the platforms are designed to keep us on, to extract as much of our attention as possible and the best way to keep our attention is to make us angry.”

Haidt believes a lack of informed debate is making America’s institutions stupid.

“The miracle of British institutions to me, the British gave us our institutions, which we modified, are that they are pretty good at channelling dissent, managing conflict and turning it into something better than people could have created as individuals. That's what a jury does. That's what a legislature does. That's what an academic community is supposed to do.”

America’s institutions were once strong, he says.

“By the mid to late 20th century, America had the best epistemic institutions in the world, epistemic meaning institutions that generate knowledge, like universities, research institutes, intelligence agencies.

“Social media comes in and makes us afraid of dissent. Because if you tell a joke, if you raise a question, if you even so much as tweet, a link to a study, an academic study, that questions an orthodoxy about race, or gender, you can be fired for that.

“When critics go silent, the institution gets stupid.”

He has co-founded an organisation called the Heterodox Academy, which aims to foster free institutional debate.

“We're scientists and social scientists, and we know how hard it is to find the truth. When you have a bunch of people with PhDs and expertise in an area trying to study something, especially complex social policy, half the time we're going to get it wrong, it's really hard to find the truth.

“And if people are afraid to dissent, then you're guaranteed to not find it, you're going to be wrong about almost everything.”

He believes we are on a downward trajectory currently, but we may well bounce back.

“I'm reading a lot of cyclical theories of history. The ancient Greeks knew, and Muslim scholars in the 14th or 15th century, a variety of people in history have noticed that history goes in cycles of 80 to 100 years sort of four generations.

“Generally, you have a generation that builds and builds strong things and their kids kind of get a little lazy and soft and don't take care of them. And then the grandkids really don't know how to work them, and the things collapse, but the collapse causes hardship that creates a stronger generation, and then they build.

“So, there are cycles to history.”

He believes social media should be reined in, in particular anonymity should not be allowed.

“I'm focused on two problems. One is the decline of democracy. And the other is the skyrocketing rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide of teenagers, especially teenage girls.”

Those are two separate problems but some overlap, he says.

“On the democracy front, that one of the simplest things we can do is require identity authentication in order to post.

“What I mean by that is let's say anyone can sign up for a Facebook or Instagram or Twitter account, if they want to see what's going on, that's fine. But if you want to post content that takes advantage of this incredible viral amplification given to you by a company that has a special legal protection, where it can't be sued for what happens on the platform … you should be required to at least show that you're a human being, and you're old enough to be using the platform.”

That would go some way to ending industrial-scale trolling, he says.

“The Russians would have a much harder time opening hundreds or thousands of accounts and running them through bots.”

Children have been canaries in the mine with social media, he says.  

“They were the first ones to switch their lives over to virtual.

"In 2009, they still often went over each other's homes, they saw each other face-to-face, they had flip phones, they could text each other.

“But by 2012, they were mostly on smartphones, mostly on social media. They didn't go over each other's homes, you come home from school, you sit on your bed, and everything happens through the phone.

“And at the time, we thought well maybe this will be good, maybe this will be a lot of social stimulation, maybe it'll be okay and it turns out the next year, the rates of depression, anxiety skyrocketed.

“So, this has to stop with kids, the kids need to be playing, they need to be playing physically, they need to see each other.”

There is no way to make these platforms safe for 11 to 13 year olds, he says.

“New data shows that it's especially during puberty, that the girls are damaged.

“So, we've got to let kids get through puberty before we let them be posting on social media and living their lives on social media.”