Everybody knows that American politics and society are broken. In recent years they have become a giant cage match, a constant angry battle that everybody hates—almost as much as they hate the people they’re fighting. Moreover, everybody knows how and why we got here: social media. As Jonathan Haidt put it in an Atlantic cover story this spring,
Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous…. Social media amplifies political polarization [and] foments populism…. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.
The massive, evil impact of social media is repeatedly confirmed by daily experience. These days, our lives are soaked in slime, online and offline both. Every toxic tweet or comment we see captures the primal passions playing out in the real world as well. When rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, they made sure selfies were taken and the fun was livestreamed:
The connection between the rise of social media and the decline of American politics and society seems obvious because we have been watching both trends play out in synch for a decade.
But what if what everybody knows is wrong? What if the recent correlation we have all witnessed is spurious, and social media turns out not to be the driver of our discontents? The contemporaneous evidence Haidt drew on is more ambiguous than initially presented. And when looked at in historical and comparative perspective, the link between rising social media and declining democracy seems accidental. Important social and political indicators have been trending downward for several decades, starting long before Mark Zuckerberg was born. And the claims made for the massive and unprecedented impact of social media—Haidt’s piece is titled Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid—have been made about every new mode of communications technology since the spread of television in the 1950s. None of this suggests that we are not in a sinkhole, or that social media makes people better. It just means we must grapple with the even more troubling reality that the fault lies not in our algorithms but ourselves.
Just as eyewitness testimony seems credible but is often inaccurate, so the conclusions drawn from lived experience can be deceiving. One reason is something cognitive psychologists call recency bias—a built-in mental tendency to exaggerate the significance of recent events and experiences while slighting the significance of those further back in time. We remember things that just happened and forget things in the distant past. Social media have so dominated life in recent years that it is hard to think of the before times and what life was like then—especially for young people who grew up knowing nothing else. So, we attribute current circumstances to current causes, even when that may not be logical if looked at over a longer time frame.
Another factor complementing recency bias is the progressive impact of a constant force. Mariano Rivera was one of the greatest pitchers in the history of baseball—the first player ever to be elected unanimously to the Hall of Fame, the moment he was eligible. A big reason was his cut fastball, which came at batters in the mid-90s and seemed to break sharply just before it got to the plate, making it very hard to hit. The physical forces acting on the ball, however—gravity and spin—were constant, and a graphic trace of Rivera’s pitch’s trajectory shows that it curved continuously from the moment it left his hand. So why did batters think it fell off a cliff at the end? Because at first, the ball’s divergence from a straight-line path was so minimal it was almost invisible. Only by the last stretch of the pitch, when the ball had moved a few inches off true, did batters notice it wasn’t going straight—by which point it was too late to adjust their reflexes and hit it. The break accumulated constantly but not linearly; its effects were much more obvious later than earlier, for both physical and optical reasons.
Something similar has been happening with American politics. Its recent sharp downward turn has been caused not by a new force that only recently appeared, but by the accumulating impact of decades of constant decline. In their book The Upswing, Robert Putnam and Shailyn Romney Garrett document the steady deterioration in public life from the 1960s on: “Between the mid-1960s and today—by scores of hard measures along multiple dimensions—we have been experiencing declining economic equality, the deterioration of compromise in the public square, a fraying social fabric, and a descent into cultural narcissism.” As the trends continued, their effects gradually cumulated and became ever more pronounced and obvious. And so, looking backwards from our vantage point today, society seems to have broken sharply downward out of nowhere—just like Rivera’s cutter.
However misplaced, the hoopla over social media’s malign influence is hardly surprising, because every advance in modern communications technology has been greeted with a comparable storm of negative publicity and apocalyptic predictions. In 1964, Marshall McLuhan was writing this: “Our Western values, built on the written word, have already been considerably affected by the electric media of telephone, radio, and tv…. Electric speed mixes the cultures of history with the dregs of industrial marketeers, the nonliterate with the semiliterate and the postliterate. Mental breakdown of varying degrees is the very common result of uprooting and inundation with new information and endless new patterns of information.” He continued, “Archimedes once said, ‘Give me a place to stand and I will move the world.’ Today he would have pointed to our electric media and said, ‘I will stand on your eyes, your ears, your nerves, and your brain, and the world will move in any tempo or pattern I choose.’ We have leased these ‘places to stand’ to private corporations.”
Writing in 1980, George S. Trow analyzed how modern media stripped society of traditional context:
It’s television. A program on television. How does it work? It’s a little span of time made friendly by repetition. In a way, it doesn’t exist at all. Just what does, then? A certain ability to transmit and receive and then to apply layers of affection and longing and doubt. Two abilities: to do a very complex kind of work, involving electrons, and then to cover the coldness of that with a hateful familiarity. Why hateful? Because it hasn’t anything to do with a human being as a human being is strong. It has to do with a human being as a human being is weak and willing to be fooled.
The emergence of the Internet and its digital progeny in the final decades of the twentieth century seemed to be both the culmination of these earlier trends and an opportunity to transcend them. As a single, open communications framework, the Internet promised to tie the world together, allow us to collaborate frictionlessly, and bring forth our best selves. The digital Eden was quickly despoiled, however, as we ended up bringing all our traditional baggage with us on the journey, recreating the problems of meatspace in cyberspace. Security threats appeared and evolved constantly. Grifters and pickpockets dropped in to fleece the newcomers. Platforms that were supposed to expand and enrich the marketplace of ideas were hijacked by trolls and bots and flooded with disinformation. Power increasingly became concentrated in the hands of a few private tech giants, whose self-interested choices encouraged a race to the bottom in search of intense, continuous engagement. As Web 1.0 (read-only) gave way to Web 2.0 (social media), things only got worse—and Web 3.0 (crypto) has yet to proceed much beyond scam.
We are all bored apes now, trying to escape the consequences of a constant, perverse human nature that replicates itself in every circumstance and era. As Benjamin Franklin put it almost two and a half centuries ago, humans are “a sort of beings very badly constructed, as they are generally more easily provoked than reconciled, more disposed to do mischief to each other than to make reparation, much more easily deceived than undeceived, and having more pride and even pleasure in killing than in begetting one another.” Social media has not fundamentally changed us, only allowed us to be ourselves. It has given form and coloring to the latest eruption of our darker sides, which were always there, waiting to come to the fore once again as they have repeatedly every few generations, for reasons and on a schedule that remain obscure.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.
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