Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid: It’s not just a phase

Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid: It’s not just a phase. By Jonathon Haidt.

Because he is of the (moderate) left, Haidt does not notice that the left has simply created a bunch of political fantasies that favor the left, and used censorship and political correctness to ensure most people believe them. For example, all large groups of people have equal abilities in every respect, or the 2020 US election was fair. Nonetheless, above and beyond that he makes some astute observations.

It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. …

The early internet of the 1990s, with its chat rooms, message boards, and email, exemplified the Nonzero thesis [that history involves a series of transitions, driven by rising population density plus new technologies (writing, roads, the printing press) that created new possibilities for mutually beneficial trade and learning], as did the first wave of social-media platforms, which launched around 2003. Myspace, Friendster, and Facebook made it easy to connect with friends and strangers to talk about common interests, for free, and at a scale never before imaginable. …

In the first decade of the new century, social media was widely believed to be a boon to democracy. What dictator could impose his will on an interconnected citizenry? What regime could build a wall to keep out the internet? The high point of techno-democratic optimism was arguably 2011, a year that began with the Arab Spring and ended with the global Occupy movement. That is also when Google Translate became available on virtually all smartphones …

The left hijacks the new medium for political gain, using social media:

Historically, civilizations have relied on shared blood, gods, and enemies to counteract the tendency to split apart as they grow. But what is it that holds together large and diverse secular democracies such as the United States and India, or, for that matter, modern Britain and France?

Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three. …

Before 2009, Facebook had given users a simple timeline. … [Then] Facebook offered users a way to publicly “like” posts with the click of a button. That same year, Twitter introduced something even more powerful: the “Retweet” button, which allowed users to publicly endorse a post while also sharing it with all of their followers. Facebook soon copied that innovation with its own “Share” button, which became available to smartphone users in 2012. “Like” and “Share” buttons quickly became standard features of most other platforms.

Shortly after its “Like” button began to produce data about what best “engaged” its users, Facebook developed algorithms to bring each user the content most likely to generate a “like” or some other interaction, eventually including the “share” as well. Later research showed that posts that trigger emotions — especially anger at out-groups — are the most likely to be shared.

By 2013, social media had become a new game, with dynamics unlike those in 2008. If you were skillful or lucky, you might create a post that would “go viral” and make you “internet famous” for a few days. If you blundered, you could find yourself buried in hateful comments. Your posts rode to fame or ignominy based on the clicks of thousands of strangers, and you in turn contributed thousands of clicks to the game.

Trust and truth were replaced by lying and anger:

This new game encouraged dishonesty and mob dynamics: Users were guided not just by their true preferences but by their past experiences of reward and punishment, and their prediction of how others would react to each new action. One of the engineers at Twitter who had worked on the “Retweet” button later revealed that he regretted his contribution because it had made Twitter a nastier place. As he watched Twitter mobs forming through the use of the new tool, he thought to himself, “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.”

As a social psychologist who studies emotion, morality, and politics, I saw this happening too. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.

It was just this kind of twitchy and explosive spread of anger that James Madison had tried to protect us from as he was drafting the U.S. Constitution. The Framers of the Constitution were excellent social psychologists. They knew that democracy had an Achilles’ heel because it depended on the collective judgment of the people, and democratic communities are subject to “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions.” The key to designing a sustainable republic, therefore, was to build in mechanisms to slow things down, cool passions, require compromise, and give leaders some insulation from the mania of the moment while still holding them accountable to the people periodically, on Election Day.

The tech companies that enhanced virality from 2009 to 2012 brought us deep into Madison’s nightmare. … [and into] democracy’s vulnerability to triviality. Madison notes that people are so prone to factionalism that “where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts.”

Social media has both magnified and weaponized the frivolous. Is our democracy any healthier now that we’ve had Twitter brawls over Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Tax the Rich dress at the annual Met Gala, and Melania Trump’s dress at a 9/11 memorial event, which had stitching that kind of looked like a skyscraper? …

It’s not just the waste of time and scarce attention that matters; it’s the continual chipping-away of trust. …

A democracy depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions. … When citizens lose trust in elected leaders, health authorities, the courts, the police, universities, and the integrity of elections, then every decision becomes contested; every election becomes a life-and-death struggle to save the country from the other side.

The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer (an international measure of citizens’ trust in government, business, media, and nongovernmental organizations) showed stable and competent autocracies (China and the United Arab Emirates) at the top of the list, while contentious democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and South Korea scored near the bottom (albeit above Russia). …

When people lose trust in institutions, they lose trust in the stories told by those institutions. That’s particularly true of the institutions entrusted with the education of children. …

After the left’s march through the institutions, all the institutions are corrupt, their proper goals subordinated to assisting the left into power. No wonder we don’t trust them anymore.

The bitter fruit of censorship and indoctrination:

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 ideologues drive out the moderates, the bad drive out the good:

First, the dart guns of social media give more power to trolls and provocateurs while silencing good citizens. … Being online did not make most people more aggressive or hostile; rather, it allowed a small number of aggressive people to attack a much larger set of victims. Even a small number of jerks were able to dominate discussion forums … because nonjerks are easily turned off from online discussions of politics. …

The group furthest to the left, the “progressive activists,” comprised 8 percent of the population. The progressive activists were by far the most prolific group on social media: 70 percent had shared political content over the previous year. The devoted conservatives followed, at 56 percent.

These two extreme groups are similar in surprising ways. They are the whitest and richest of the seven groups, which suggests that America is being torn apart by a battle between two subsets of the elite who are not representative of the broader society. What’s more, they are the two groups that show the greatest homogeneity in their moral and political attitudes. This uniformity of opinion, the study’s authors speculate, is likely a result of thought-policing on social media: “Those who express sympathy for the views of opposing groups may experience backlash from their own cohort.” In other words, political extremists don’t just shoot darts at their enemies; they spend a lot of their ammunition targeting dissenters or nuanced thinkers on their own team. In this way, social media makes a political system based on compromise grind to a halt.

Oh so stupid! The left do not listen or argue, they just cancel and name-call:

The most reliable cure for confirmation bias is interaction with people who don’t share your beliefs. They confront you with counterevidence and counterargument. John Stuart Mill said, “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that,” and he urged us to seek out conflicting views “from persons who actually believe them.”

People who think differently and are willing to speak up if they disagree with you make you smarter, almost as if they are extensions of your own brain. People who try to silence or intimidate their critics make themselves stupider, almost as if they are shooting darts into their own brain.

English law developed the adversarial system so that biased advocates could present both sides of a case to an impartial jury. Newspapers full of lies evolved into professional journalistic enterprises, with norms that required seeking out multiple sides of a story, followed by editorial review, followed by fact-checking. Universities evolved from cloistered medieval institutions into research powerhouses, creating a structure in which scholars put forth evidence-backed claims with the knowledge that other scholars around the world would be motivated to gain prestige by finding contrary evidence. …

What happens when an institution is not well maintained and internal disagreement ceases, either because its people have become ideologically uniform or because they have become afraid to dissent? This, I believe, is what happened to many of America’s key institutions in the mid-to-late 2010s. They got stupider en masse because social media instilled in their members a chronic fear of getting darted. …

When an institution punishes internal dissent, it shoots darts into its own brain. …

Tragically, we see stupefaction playing out on both sides in the COVID wars. The right has been so committed to minimizing the risks of COVID that it has turned the disease into one that preferentially kills Republicans. The progressive left is so committed to maximizing the dangers of COVID that it often embraces an equally maximalist, one-size-fits-all strategy for vaccines, masks, and social distancing — even as they pertain to children. …

It’s going to get much worse, soon:

Artificial intelligence is close to enabling the limitless spread of highly believable disinformation. The AI program GPT-3 is already so good that you can give it a topic and a tone and it will spit out as many essays as you like, typically with perfect grammar and a surprising level of coherence. …

Renée DiResta, the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory, explained that spreading falsehoods — whether through text, images, or deep-fake videos — will quickly become inconceivably easy. …

The Soviets used to have to send over agents or cultivate Americans willing to do their bidding. But social media made it cheap and easy for Russia’s Internet Research Agency to invent fake events or distort real ones to stoke rage on both the left and the right, often over race. Later research showed that an intensive campaign began on Twitter in 2013 but soon spread to Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, among other platforms. One of the major goals was to polarize the American public and spread distrust — to split us apart at the exact weak point that Madison had identified.

We now know that it’s not just the Russians attacking American democracy. Before the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, China had mostly focused on domestic platforms such as WeChat. But now China is discovering how much it can do with Twitter and Facebook, for so little money, in its escalating conflict with the U.S. Given China’s own advances in AI, we can expect it to become more skillful over the next few years at further dividing America and further uniting China.

The left have won a temporary, Pyrrhic victory. They may have taken over our institutions, paid themselves big government salaries, and cheated sufficiently to “elect” the most left wing US government ever, but we still don’t like them or their ideas. En route, they have wrecked US institutions and made them corrupt and stupid. Chinese communists applaud.