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Rebroadcast: Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt on democracy, social media and how to fix America's

The American flag flies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP)
The American flag flies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. (Susan Walsh/AP)

This rebroadcast originally aired on April 25, 2022.

Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt says America is in trouble.

He sees it on college campuses and through social media.

And it’s getting worse. Affecting not only our kids, but also our democratic institutions.

Social media is incredibly powerful for tearing things down,” Haidt says. “In an ailing democracy like ours where our institutions need to be improved — not ripped apart — it generally has made things worse.”

Haidt says we have to wake up, make changes. Or else.

“We have a huge problem. The ship is sinking. We have to stop fighting each other off the deck. We have to start fixing the ship.”

Today, On Point: Social media, democracy and how we get out of this.


Jonathan Haidt, social psychologist at New York University Stern School of Business. (@JonHaidt)

Jack Beatty, On Point news analyst. (@JackBeattyNPR)

Interview Highlights

What can you describe to me about why America feels ‘stupid’ right now?

Jonathan Haidt: “The key distinction, which many media outlets don’t seem to get, is that I’m not saying people are stupid. People are not stupid. Americans are smart and we’re getting smarter. We’re getting better educated. My whole argument is that we’re becoming structurally stupid. And what I mean by that is our amazing civilization is not built on the fact that many smart people made smart things. It’s built on the fact that over time, we evolved institutions that let us rise way above our limited and incredibly biased mental processing.

“And so here I’m drawing a lot on this amazing book by Jonathan Rauch called the Constitution of Knowledge, where he points out that … the U.S. Constitution was this very carefully contrived mechanism for taking difference and turning it into good policy of having managed conflict, which leads to better thinking and better policy.

“That’s what the U.S. Constitution is. Rauch argues that over time, journalism, universities, government agencies, government research agencies, these are all evolved to have managed conflict. You have to have viewpoint diversity. You have to have procedures by which flawed individuals who put forth their theory, and they’re certain they’re right and they have evidence for it. You can always find evidence, but you have to have other people willing to stand up and say, Well, wait a sec, you missed something here. Or, wait a sec, even if you say that’s the stupidest thing I ever heard, and here’s why. That’s fine, too. You have to have managed conflict.

“And so my argument in the essay is that we had managed conflict in many of … what Rauch calls epistemic institutions. That is the institutions that generate knowledge. But when social media changed between 2009 and 2012, it really changed in ways that made it much better for intimidation and harassment. You get likes and retweets, algorithmic citation. It’s that petty intimidation of even a nobody tweeting a nasty slur at you. That seems to really affect people. It makes them go silent. And when dissenters go silent, the institution gets stupid. That’s what I mean by stupid.”

On how social media has accelerated the stupidity of American civic life

Jonathan Haidt: “This first really hit me in 2014, 2015 that something had changed radically in the universe. I’m a college professor and something changed on campus. There were new ideas about fragility, victimhood, safe spaces. All the stuff that hit us that I wrote up in an article with my friend Greg Lukianoff called The Coddling of the American Mind, in 2015. So something had changed and we didn’t know what. Now, many of us who are on social media or Twitter, you know, when they first came out, they were actually quite nice places.

“And if you go further back, those old enough to remember the 1990s, the internet, I mean, there were nasty corners, sure, but there was an incredible sense of possibility of connecting people. There was a real period of techno-optimism. And then the major platforms come out in 2003, 2004. That’s MySpace and Facebook and Friendster, and they’re also nice places. You post things about your children or what you had for lunch. Whatever it is, they’re nice places. It’s not about slandering attack. … But I had a feeling something changed, and it was only when I teamed up with someone who really knew about the technology, Tobias Rose-Stockwell, who is a technology writer. And we’d met through mutual friend.

“And as we talked about, I was trying to figure out, Tobias, what the hell happened? And he walked me through how some decisions made in 2009 changed everything. And so those two decisions are that Facebook added the like button across all its platforms. So now … it wasn’t just engagement, wasn’t just measured by whether you clicked on something. It was now you could click, click, click all day long to say what you liked.

“And that gives a much more engagement data. And then Twitter copied that, other platforms copied that. Twitter in the same year added the retweet button. And this is huge. … By making it possible to do with one button, and then by adding the quote tweet function where you can retweet something, and add your nasty commentary or whatever commentary you want, that makes everything go much, much more viral, much more quickly.

“As you said, you quoted before from Hofstetter, and it might seem like there’s all this invective and things speed up in the mass media age. But the cycle was like a day. You know, someone says something. Someone else says something the next day in the next day’s paper, maybe. But when the cycle is measured in minutes or even seconds, it’s just a fundamental change. And the key quote here comes from one of the engineers at Twitter who worked on the retweet button.

“He was interviewed in Wired magazine in 2017, and he said when we saw the first Twitter mobs forming using the retweet button, he said he thought to himself, We’ve just handed a loaded gun to a four-year-old. So that is the biggest change right there in 2009. Now it takes a little while for people to change the way they use things, and I’m still discovering more features, as I mentioned before. Threaded tweets, that doesn’t come out until 2013, 2014.

“So a variety of changes take social media from a place where you post things about your life and other people say, Hey, you know, great photo. To a place where most of the action is you retweet something, or you forward something and you make a nasty comment about it. Or if you praise it, someone else makes a nasty comment about it. So this is a qualitative change in what life is like on the screen.”

On our ailing democratic institutions

Jonathan Haidt: “The Republican Party, I believe has become the stupid party. What I mean by that is that they silence their dissenters more thoroughly and efficiently. … Going back to the 90s, the Republican Party suddenly begins to shift to the right, driven by cable TV and Fox News and the audience. There they develop an angrier, more punitive style, and moderates get either weeded out or voted out or called conservatives. So people in the left correctly see the Republican Party getting more radical.

“The fact that they then went for Trump, the fact that then Republican politicians, even when they know that their lives were threatened on January 6th, and even when a few of them actually wanted to do something about it. Too bad you can’t do it, because you know the punishment is just too strong. So the Republican Party, I think, really has become a stupid party. Because it shoots its moderates and is dangerous in many, many ways.

“And people on the left are correct and they point to this. And therefore, they think, Well, we’re right, we’re right. It’s their fault. It’s all their fault. And what is so hard to see, and this goes back to Jesus pointing out how good we are at seeing the speck in our neighbor’s eye.

“What people can’t see is that there’s a different problem on the left. It’s not symmetrical. It’s not parallel. The Democratic Party is not the stupid party. The moderates actually generally win. They don’t shoot their dissenters in Congress and in the party. So it’s not a stupid party, whatever you think about their policies. It’s not structurally stupid. The problem comes from the fact that most of our epistemic institutions, it’s those that generate knowledge, including journalism and universities, are epistemic and cultural institutions. You know, Hollywood, most of the media, NPR, for example, is almost entirely staffed by progressives, and that’s not necessarily a problem.

“If you were to have a good environment in which dissent is welcomed and encouraged, you know, even the Catholic Church saw fit to have a devil’s advocate. So it’s not necessarily a problem, but in our hyper-polarized social media era, anybody who’s even a centrist or a libertarian or a moderate leftist who dissents is going to be called all kinds of horrible names and slurs and are going to be called out, going to be shamed, maybe fired. And so it’s in these Orthodox, or these thoroughly left leaning institutions where they’ve limited their viewpoint diversity and they silence dissent. Those have become structurally stupid. And that includes universities and many journalistic and media outlets.”

On how to strengthen our democracy

Jonathan Haidt: “The argument I make in the essay is that we are now in the post-babble era and very few people understand that, and they’re using their pre-babble intuitions in which they collapse into terror and fear about what they think is happening. Because we have this optical illusion, you know, like it says on the mirror. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. Or whatever it is, the point is on Twitter everything looks more terrifying and frightening, but actually just represents a few people.

“And I am hopeful now that elites, those tasked with managing epistemic and democratic institutions, will start standing up for the … purpose or goal of their institution. Journalists must do good journalism. They can’t be sidetracked by activists saying, We can’t give the other side a platform. Universities must be platforms on which people present evidence argument and try to persuade each other.

“We can’t shut people out because some activists say, We can’t allow a platform for that person. So, yes, this is a failure of the elites. I do not blame the massive people that most of us who are made quiet by this. But I think we have to start poking our head up above the trench wall and say, even though there’s little darts coming in, actually, almost everyone has our back.

“Almost everybody hates what’s going on. Almost everybody is reasonable. And of course, that comes out on Election Day. On Election Day, people do vote against some of the things happening that they hate. But we need to start having people stand up, as you said, and support their colleagues, support their institutions against these unjust attacks.”

Final thoughts on how to properly use social media

Jonathan Haidt: “We all have a lot of power in that we can all go easier on each other. Don’t engage in comment threads, don’t attack. People don’t just understand that we’re all being driven crazy. And this doesn’t end until we start going easier on each other.”

Related Reading

The Atlantic: “Why The Past 10 Years Of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid” — “What would it have been like to live in Babel in the days after its destruction? In the Book of Genesis, we are told that the descendants of Noah built a great city in the land of Shinar.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.