Should We Blame Social Media for Society’s Divisions?

Readers respond to stories in our May 2022 issue.

photo of May issue open to story "After Babel" with image of disintegrating digital tower
Katie Martin

After Babel

In May, Jonathan Haidt wrote about how social media dissolved the mortar of society.

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For the past several years I’ve racked my brain trying to pinpoint exactly what has brought our country to the brink of civil war, knowing the causes were many, multilayered, and complicated. Jonathan Haidt’s thoughtful step-by-step summation of the “who, what, when, where, why” has given my taxed brain some level of peace and understanding.

Patti Kapp
St. Joseph, Mich.

Mr. Haidt’s conclusion is too alarmist. The republic has survived much greater stresses than social media, such as the Civil War, the Great Depression, and the Vietnam War, and it will continue on its bumpy way into the 22nd century.

Great cacophony is the nature of democracy. Dictators take it for vulnerability when it is in fact the key to perpetuity.

J. R. Campbell
Odessa, Texas

The antipathy toward experts and institutions that Haidt describes is not simply “the turbulency and weakness of unruly passions,” as James Madison called it. Rather, it is the inevitable retaliation against a system that disenfranchises its constituents and perpetuates inequality.

Alex Milgroom
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Jonathan Haidt believes that over the past decade, social media has broken America into irreconcilable factions. Yet what is Twitter but the digital descendant of radio call-in shows, minus the host? Isn’t Facebook the modern version of gossip around the watercooler? Vile people use social media to amplify their bigotries and conspiracies without facing consequences; Father Coughlin and Joseph McCarthy effectively used radio and early television, respectively, to spread hatred and divide Americans. Our societal conflicts arise more from the messengers than from the medium.

Eliot Brenowitz
Seattle, Wash.

Professor Haidt presents an accurate, and somewhat horrifying, take on the impact of social media on the “mortar of society.” Allow me to offer a counterpoint.

Social media exhibits our worst behaviors, with polarization fueled by politicians and propagandists. But in many areas, we have learned to do better. The answer is not, as Haidt suggests, to regulate social media. Rather, I suggest that what’s called for is a change in mindset, a return to an attitude of finding ways to collaborate, rather than things to take offense at. Clarity of thinking, critical analysis, seeking intent rather than taking offense at imprecise language—these are a lot harder to accomplish than imposing regulations, but ultimately more productive.

Miles Richard Fidelman
Acton, Mass.

Jonathan Haidt has it right in his concern for the development of today’s generation of children. They need the space to get outside and negotiate interactions with peers, in the process developing the collaborative social skills and sense of agency and autonomy they will need in social interactions as adults. But social skills by themselves are not enough. Kids also need to develop and practice the intellectual skills entailed in reasoned discourse about important ideas. This doesn’t happen by itself. This is where educators come in, creating the contexts and reinforcing the values needed to pave the way for engaged citizenship in a democracy.

Deanna Kuhn
Research Professor of Psychology and Education
Teachers College, Columbia University

Bronxville, N.Y.

Jonathan Haidt asks the right questions about the current era of stupidity in America: How did this happen? What does this portend? But where Haidt—and many authors, academics, and activists—comes up short is in offering ideas for how to prepare the next generation.

As a mother of two who could hardly send her kids to the local 7-Eleven for a Slurpee without inviting well-meaning criticism, I appreciate Haidt’s calls for unsupervised play. But the challenges ahead of the next generation—challenges largely created by the current cohort of middle-aged and Boomer adults—require much more proactive problem-solving.

Nan Noble
Seattle, Wash.

Jonathan Haidt’s urgent analysis of the havoc unleashed by social media has prompted some serious soul-searching on my part about my attitude toward the First Amendment.

Like many staunch liberals, I have always been a free-speech absolutist. That is, I would rather defend the right of repugnant ideas to be heard than to accept the slightest censorship.

But armies of bots and trolls now flood the internet with disinformation. Campaigns designed by foreign intelligence services stir up hatred and violence. This stuff no longer deserves the protection of the First Amendment. This is not free expression; these are weapons of destruction.

Mick Stern
New York, N.Y.

Jonathan Haidt’s article completely mischaracterized the left and failed to describe the real-world effects of the right’s side of things. On the right, the dart-throwing on social media has bolstered actual policy change at the local, state, and national levels, with new laws restricting individual rights (abortion, voting), censoring speech, and hurting working people (lowering corporate taxes, lifting environmental regulations, undermining unions). The left has plenty of dart throwers of its own, and some examples of individuals being “canceled” on social media. But the left has barely gotten anywhere with actual policy change. Haidt admits that “often the moderates win.” In fact, on the left, the moderates always win.

Josette Akresh-Gonzales
Waltham, Mass.

Behind the Cover

This issue’s cover story by Ed Yong includes photographs of 10 different animals that are variously affected by noise or light pollution. The photographer Shayan Asgharnia is known for his celebrity portraiture—his previous subjects include Kristen Stewart and Lin-Manuel Miranda, among others. He approaches animals the same way he would a human being. His cover portrait of Mowgli, an eight-inch-tall eastern screech owl (animal No. 11), draws our attention to the owl’s eyes, prompting us to consider what it’s like to experience the world from another creature’s perspective.

Christine Walsh, Senior Photo Editor

Q & A

Unless democracies defend themselves, Anne Applebaum argued in May, the forces of autocracy will destroy them (“There Is No Liberal World Order”). Here, Applebaum answers a reader’s question about her article.

Q: Anne Applebaum’s article succinctly yet passionately presents the historic realities of the West’s global ignorance around autocratic states, and provides ideas for how we may evolve our foreign policy to combat corruption and tyranny. However, one part of Applebaum’s article that remains unclear to me comes when she claims that “the billions of dollars we have sent to Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia have promoted some of the worst and most corrupt dictators in the world.” Is this statement not self-contradicting, in the sense that the United States not participating in trade with smaller autocracies (such as Saudi Arabia) will only lead to those states further associating with larger threats like China and Russia? I agree that if we are to oppose the autocratic threat, then we ought to remain consistent. Nevertheless, would there be value in engaging such autocracies so as to not inadvertently support larger threats? — Norman Grunder, Phoenix, Ariz.

A: I don’t imagine the world dividing into blocs, “autocracy versus democracy,” and I wasn’t suggesting that we not conduct diplomacy or trade with smaller dictatorships. We need to have a wide range of relationships with a lot of countries. My point was rather about the oil and gas that make possible petro-dictatorships, societies in which one tiny group of people controls all of the resources and everything else. A dramatic shift away from carbon fuels would put an end to those monopolies and perhaps help millions of people transition to something better.

This article appears in the July/August 2022 print edition with the headline “The Commons.”