Detoxifying Social Media May Not Be As Hard As We Think

On Monday, The Atlantic published a piece called “Why The Past 10 Years Of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid,” in which writer Jonathan Haidt relates God’s destruction of Babel to the rise of social media in our country, in a scenario where humanity is left to sift through the rubble of what we’ve built.

A cheery scene (or read) it is not. “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth,” writes Haidt. “We are cut off from one another and from the past.”

As I worked my way through Haidt’s well-documented history of social media, it all seemed apt -- most notably when Facebook (now Meta) introduced the “Like” button in 2009, and then Twitter created the “Retweet” button, prioritizing performance and acceptance over beneficial human connection.

After 2012, sharing and liking became the norm for most social media platforms, as did “the intensification of viral dynamics” and a “new game” that “encourage dishonesty and mob dynamics.”

Hate-fueled Twitter brawls, the spread of harmful disinformation, and the deep-seated fear of challenging one’s prescribed moral and political factions, Haidt argues, have led to “a continual chipping away of trust.”

“By rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth—with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society—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,” writes Haidt.

Not to mention the disturbing effects we’re seeing social media use have on younger users, who are developing addictive behaviors, eating disorders, and rising signs of depression and anxiety.

Suicidal thoughts among teens, for example, rose from 13.8% to 18.8% between 2009 and 2019, and persistent feelings of sadness went from 26.1% to 36.7% in that time, according to a Centers for Disease Control study.

So what now?

Thankfully, amid our own Babel-hell, Haidt highlights some potential methods of reform for our social media problem. And, according to him, it’s not as complicated as we may believe.

Many social media users, Haidt suggests, are fearful of government -mandated content restrictions across platforms due to the chance of outright censorship. Elon Musk, for one, recently called out Twitter for “failing to adhere to free speech principles,” which “fundamentally undermines democracy.”

“But the main problem with social media is not that some people post fake or toxic stuff,” says Haidt. “It’s that fake and outrage-inducing content can now attain a level of reach and influence that was not possible before 2009.”

Musk, for example, has 81.4 million Twitter followers; that free-speech tweet was retweeted over 33,000 times and received 261,000 likes.

To help slow the spread of content, Haidt relays whistleblower Francis Haugen’s idea to make the “Share” function obsolete after two shares, forcing the third person to copy and paste the piece of content into a new post.

User verification is another option Haidt and Haugen recommend. Similar to a traditional bank, social platforms would have to take steps to verify users are real human beings before they create content. This would act as an age-checker, troll-deactivator, and killer of bots -- of which there are hundreds of millions.

Lastly, Haidt suggests that a regulatory body such as the Federal Communications Commission or Federal Trade Commission get more involved––a move President Joe Biden is also actively supporting––and that platforms voluntarily share their data and algorithms with academic researchers.

With these “do-able” changes, social media platforms, which are gearing up for an even less-regulated or understood virtual future with the looming metaverse, could reverse our era of American Stupidity and become a safer and more authentic place for users and advertisers alike.

1 comment about "Detoxifying Social Media May Not Be As Hard As We Think".
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  1. John MacLane from Private, April 13, 2022 at 11:02 a.m.

    I'd say that limiting shares would have a negative impact on visual and music artists that depend on social media for building fanbases, drawing attention to new pieces, and ultimately turn a livelihood. Goodness knows there is a massive problem with hate speech and unchecked rage on social media, but this doesn't strike me as a viable solution.

    Side note, I never understand why people raise so much noise about free speech on social media platforms - they are private entities, rather than something run by the government, so the 1st Amendment wouldn't take precedence over the Terms of Service for Twitter, Facebook, et al.

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