When social media exploded in the mid-2000s, retweeting, sharing and liking posts appeared to give average citizens the power to share their opinions far and wide. The problem, according to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is that online social networks didn’t really end up giving everyone the voice that many thought it would.
“It empowered four groups who take advantage of the viral dynamics of social media. That is the far right, the far left, trolls and Russian intelligence,” says Haidt, a professor at New York University's Stern School of Business.
“So, these four groups have had a great time since 2009, using the new viral dynamics of Twitter, Facebook and other platforms. At the same time, the middle 80% of the country feels intimidated and attacked and discouraged and disgusted. And so, they speak up less.”
Successful democracies are generally bound together by strong institutions, shared stories, and wide social networks with “high levels of trust,” but social media weakens all three, according to Haidt.
“You go from having a merely polarized democracy, which we had in the early 2010s, to one in which the norms change to be all-out war everywhere, all the time,” he says.
“You can't have a deliberative democracy when there is no room for deliberation. And you can't have a liberal democracy when the illiberal left and the illiberal right dominate their respective factions.”
Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics and social sciences at Sarah Lawrence College in New York and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, agrees that social media has been bad for democracy.
“This stuff has been as dangerous as can be. It's been incredibly bad for the country, and incredibly bad for free speech and dissemination of ideas and real discourse and democratic norms and civility. It's been a disaster,” says Abrams. “It's absolutely contributing to our polarization because you're not getting multiple views. You're not getting viewpoint diversity. It's very hard to hear the other side.”
If he had to venture a guess, Haidt envisions a future America that looks a lot like a Latin American democracy — that is, “an unstable democracy built with flawed institutions that command little popular respect.”
“I think we'll have many more constitutional crises, declining trust and increases in political violence and political ineffectiveness,” he says, “unless we make these major changes.”
The changes he’d like to see include replacing traditional partisan primaries, which tend to reward politicians who cater to the extremists in their party, with single contests that are open to all candidates regardless of political affiliation. The top four finishers advance to the general election. It’s already happening in Alaska, where residents voted in November 2020 to adopt open primaries and ranked elections.
The second step is to make social media less toxic to democracy, he says, by requiring identity verification. People could still post anonymously or with a fake name, but they’d have to show that they are a real person in a particular country.
“Right now, anyone in the world, including Russia, could just create hundreds of thousands of accounts every day, and many of them will not be taken down and they can do what they want. That's insane,” Haidt says. “It's insane that we allow our public square to be so full of fake people with bad motives.”
Twitter says it is working to combat fake accounts and misinformation. Last month, CEO Parag Agrawal posted that the social media platform suspends a half-million spam accounts daily and locks millions of suspected fake accounts each week. He said Twitter constantly updates its systems and rules to remove as much spam as possible and that fake accounts make up less than 5% of its users. Meanwhile, the company’s head of safety and integrity announced Twitter’s new crisis misinformation policy aimed at elevating credible information, and slowing the spread of misleading content, during crises.
Facebook removed 1.6 billion fake accounts in the first three months of 2022, according to the quarterly transparency report the company released in May. The social media company has said its goal is to remove as many fake accounts as it can, prioritizing accounts that seek to cause harm through spam or financial motivations. In its quarterly report, Facebook said it continues to refine its oversight processes.
In the meantime, Abrams has some hope for the future. Fifteen years ago, he used to see a lot of political polarization among his students in classroom discussions, he says, but noticed that started to fade away a few years ago.
“They don't like these competing narratives. They recognize they're there. They recognize they're dangerous or are unhappy with them. Data shows this is true on the left and the right,” Abrams says, referring to members of Generation Z — people born between 1997 and 2012, the oldest of whom are 25 in 2022.
“They're also the least politically partisan of any cohort we have right now in the nation. They're overwhelmingly centrist. They're overwhelmingly pragmatic, and they are not as interested in identity politics. So what they're trying to do is find common ground … I think this group has come of age and woken up during [the Donald] Trump [era] and they're like, ‘This is crazy.’ They don't like it.”
Haidt holds a different view of Gen Z, characterizing them as “depressed, anxious and fragile.” Either way, he says that as long as the system remains the same, it doesn’t matter if young people are increasingly interested in building consensus.
“As long as a small number of people can intimidate the majority, as long as a small number of people can intimidate the moderates on their side, things will not moderate, even if the average person gets more moderate,” Haidt says. “As long as social media is the way it is, our country is going to fail.”