Jonathan Haidt Explains How Social Media Drives Polarization

In a time of heightened political tension, Jonathan Haidt has a good idea of what’s driving this polarized atmosphere around the world. He is a social psychologist who believes social media has transformed in recent years to become an “outrage machine,” spreading anger and toxicity. He sits down with Hari to discuss this difficult problem and what the possible solutions could be.

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: So in a time of heightened political tension, our next guest has an idea of what’s driving this polarized atmosphere around the world. Jonathan Haidt is a social psychologist and coauthor of the “Coddling of the American Mind,” and he believes that social media has so transformed in recent years, becoming an outrage machine spreading anger and toxicity. Our Hari Sreenivasan sat down with him to discuss how it all happens and what he thinks the solutions are.


HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Jonathan Haidt, thanks for joining us.

HAIDT: Thank you, Hari.

SREENIVASAN: You recently wrote an article that looked at kind of the intersection of technology and psychology and how social networks and social media are changing our both collective psychology and individual, so lay it out for us.

HAIDT: Sure. So I’m a social psychologist, and I study morality and how our politics is based in our ancient tribal us versus them circuits, and I’ve been studying political polarization since about 2004 and watching it get worse. In the last few years beginning before the 2016 election, it got so much worse, and weird stuff started happening on college campuses. And then weird stuff started happening in other institutions and in other countries. And I started thinking, what’s going on? Why does it seem like things are going haywire, at the same time different areas of life in different countries?

SREENIVASAN: So examples of the weird stuff?

HAIDT: Well, so on college campuses, beginning in 2015, we suddenly had students with these new ideas that we could not understand about fragility. Students asking for trigger warnings, safe spaces. This idea that speech is violence, words are dangerous. And at first, we thought it was something strange we were doing on campus. And my friend Greg Lukianoff and I wrote an article in “The Atlantic” called “The Coddling of the American Mind,” we thought it was something we were doing on campus. Well, years later, we realized, no, we were wrong. Gen Z arrived in 2015, and so then we started thinking, well, how did kids born in 1996 and later, how did they change? But in more recent years, we’ve realized it’s not even just Gen Z, it’s all of us, all of our institutions are malfunctioning.

HAIDT: Not all, but many are going haywire in a way that suggests some common cause. And the recent “Atlantic” article is about that common cause: The changes in social media that happened between 2009 and 2012 that most people don’t understand.

SREENIVASAN: Okay, what are some of those changes? How did they happen?

HAIDT: So, you’ve got to put yourself back in the early days of social media, 2003-2004, you get Friendster, and MySpace and The Facebook, and these were pretty nice places. It’s just, hey, look at me. Here are the bands I like. Here are the links to all my friends. Okay. That’s what it was for the first few years. There was no way to spread outrage. It was not destructive. It was not toxic. The big change happens in 2009, Facebook introduces the like button, and now for the first time, everything can be graded and ranked and now everybody is rewarding or punishing everyone else with a single click.

SREENIVASAN: It is a popularity contest.

HAIDT: A popularity contest. Exactly. So now speech isn’t just, you know, you and me talking, it’s you and me talking in a way that I can get the most likes for what I say, and you’re just a tool I’m using to get more likes. Twitter at the same time introduces the retweet button, and now the things I’m saying that you’re liking tend to be the things that are going to make people upset or angry or emotional, and then you or anyone can press retweet and spread that so now my anger can go to thousands or even millions of people within a day. And then the third big one is that Facebook takes the newsfeed and algorithmasizes it. It used to be just chronological. Now, it’s optimized for engagement. The things that make people engage are the things that go to the top of other people’s newsfeed. Put these three things together, what you get is a transformation of social media from hey, look at me and who I like, to I can’t believe he said that and I’m angry, too. And so we created this — we — the social media platforms got converted into an outrage machine we call it in this article that I wrote with Tobias Rose-Stockwell who really understands social media from the inside. Before I worked with him, I didn’t realize how everything changed between 2009 and 2012 and then the next step is that the news media, mainstream media has to adapt to this new world in which people aren’t getting — they’re not going to “The New York Times” site as much, let’s say. They’regetting links from Facebook. So once you get everything wrapped up together, we’re in a fundamentally different informational structure, a new structure than we were in 2008.

SREENIVASAN: So that the mainstream media is watching social media to see what’s bubbling up, and then all of a sudden, it’s on the news and then back on social media.

HAIDT: Exactly. A little fix. So it used to be the news would talk about big things that would happen. And you wouldn’t cover a fight between two kids in a school in Peoria. But now, maybe a video comes out of something that someone said somewhere in the country and people spin it, they manipulate what it was, they make it more outrageous and that spreads virally on social media. Now, all journalists are on Twitter — just about — and so they pick up things and oh, that that might get me — if I write an article about that. That might get me in the most e-mailed list. So the journalists are looking for interesting news stories. So then something can bubble up and be covered on the news, and then of course, there’s all kinds of social media about the news story. So we are now immersed in a cycle of conflicts about trivial things — trivial things — a word that somebody used, typically, things like that. And it’s filling our minds and distracting us from thinking about more important issues.

SREENIVASAN: I can hear activists behind my head saying, hey, what about the actual moments of transparency that social media has enabled? You know, outrageous behavior by authorities in different places and different ways and were captured on and now it’s actually getting the light of day that it should have, right?

HAIDT: No, that’s all true. So with each new revolution of technology you get, you get a lot of good things happening, you get a lot of bad things happening. And especially with sexual harassment, just low — especially low level stuff that we’d accepted or even high level, even rape that was covered up. So it’s great that that’s now being exposed, and of course, part of those changes will be painful for some people. That’s all to the good. But to the extent that democracies are now, I think much more likely to fail — fail. That is a very serious downside. And so we’ve got to optimize. We’ve got to figure out how do you let — how do you — how do you encourage what we call — I study business ethics — how do you encourage a speak-up culture that people don’t paper over real moral offenses? How do you encourage a speak- up culture without moving all the way to what’s called a call-out culture in which we’re all afraid of each other because anything we say can be taken, distorted and made to shame us?

SREENIVASAN: How do we connect what’s happening on social media to this other idea that you’re talking about democracies failing?

HAIDT: Get me past that.


HAIDT: So you’ve got to go back to the very beginning of this country when the Founding Fathers were thinking what kind of system should we have? And they were very good historians, but there were limited libraries and they were excellent psychologists.

HAIDT: And they wanted something like democracy, but they knew that democracy is inherently unstable. They read Plato. They read Greek political theorists. And they knew that the Greeks thought that democracy inevitably decays into tyranny because a demagogue comes along, inflames the passions. The people, especially if there’s instability or war, want a strong leader, in sweeps the tyrant. And so the Founding Fathers were thinking, how do we stop that from happening? And their big fear was faction. So in the Federalist Papers, James Madison writes about faction or division and a fascinating passage, which really is the crux of our article. Madison is musing on the fact that faction has destroyed almost all previous — most previous democracies, somebody will inflame passions and then they don’t care about the common good. They just want to fight the enemy. But he says, in a very big country such as ours, you know, the 13 colonies with vast distance, someone could start a fire in one place, but the country is so big, so big that it couldn’t spread to all the other states. By the time news got there, passions would have cooled. Well, fine, but what if we get this new technology that allows passion to spread instantly? Completely instantly? And it goes through an almost Darwinian evolution set, the most outrageous versions of the story are the ones that spread. And so the Founding Fathers fears about democracy are all coming true, and the mechanisms they devised to cool things off, to give us more time to reflect, to use reason a bit more, those are being bowled over by the passions and powers and mob mentality of social media.

SREENIVASAN: So is the mob online so to speak? Is it representative of the will of the general body politic?

HAIDT: Not at all. Not at all. And so there is in fact — it’s very hard to know what people think. One thing I’ve learned from traveling around, talking a lot of schools, a lot of industries, is that the great majority of people, the great majority of Americans are really reasonable. But the dynamic has changed, so that saying reasonable things can get you in big trouble, and so if you have extremists on both sides politically are the ones with the megaphone and they have this new ability to shame you, to call you out, to call you terrible names, people just silence themselves. As one college student said to Deb Mashek, who runs Heterodox Academy, a site that argues for more viewpoint diversity at universities, this student said to her, my motto is silence is safer. And this is a terrible model for college students.

SREENIVASAN: This is a college student?

HAIDT: A college student said just don’t say anything, you won’t get in trouble.

SREENIVASAN: And you won’t learn anything either.

HAIDT: And you won’t learn anything and your friends won’t learn anything because if they say something that’s politically appealing and wrong, people are afraid to say, well, wait a second, what’s the evidence for that?

SREENIVASAN: In parallel or combined with that, it seems that we are losing the ability to disagree agreeably, whether it’s in that workplace setting, in that academic setting in college, how does that influence the policy debates that actually need all of these different points of view?

HAIDT: It’s devastating to that process. So if you think about humans in any society, we’re really good at competing and conflicting, but also making up, forgiving, coming back together. We do this in our families all the time. If you have a long future with someone, if we’re tied together, we live next door, whatever it is, we might fight and argue, but there’s a lot of pressure on us to keep it within bounds, because we’re going to be together for a long time. That’s normal human relationships. On social media, it’s lots and lots of interactions with people that you may never see again, some of them don’t even exist. A lot of them are using fake names. There is no future. There are no bounds and most dangerously, it’s not real communication. On Twitter, you see people having these discussions, sometimes good things happen. I don’t want to overstate it. But mostly it’s what’s called moral grandstanding. Each of us are just using the other as a platform to show off how committed we are to our sides of politics. And so if we’re not actually —

SREENIVASAN: Just given an example of that.

HAIDT: Suppose somebody on the left were to say something nice about someone on the right, to say, you know, I disagree with him on almost everything. But, you know, I think he’s brave on this point, or I think he is — I think they’re right about this. You know, it’s always — that’s always been a little hazardous to do, but that’s almost a definition of courage to be able to say something like that. Well, now you will be called the worst sins by people on your side so fast, so there’s a lot of pressure to not say anything good about the other side. That means there’s no nuance. There’s not much room for compromise to say, well, you know, we can give on this and you give on that. Partisans have to be more set in their ways and more focused on the script of battle. In negotiation, compromise politics should be a positive sum game. But if it’s all conducted in the glare of social media and instant negative reactions, people are going to dig in their heels and the benefits we expect from politicians working things out, those are harder to realize.

SREENIVASAN: Is the solution then getting off of social media or what — how do you — how do we go about, at least on an individual basis playing our part in trying to repair this?

HAIDT: Well, I think the heavy lifting is going to be done from systemic changes, and so in our article, we lay out just very briefly, for one thing, we’ve got to reduce the pressures, the systemic pressures to display and grandstand. And so when Instagram is hiding the like counter, things like that, those are steps in the right direction. So things that can be done to the systems, the platforms to make it that engagement is a little more authentic, and not so much moral grandstanding. That’s one. Two is we’ve got to make it harder for people to reach large audiences when they haven’t even shown any evidence that they were real person. We should not allow people to just create fake accounts and then make death threats and rape threats and say terrible things. I’m not saying you have to post with your real name always. But to get an account, you should have to show — you should have to prove something about your identity, not to Facebook, I don’t want it having my driver’s license, but to some third party that at least validate yes, this is a real person. So if I make death threats, there is a way I could be found. That would knock out most of the accounts that exist. A lot of them are fake, and the platforms would lose money. So they’re going to resist this. But I think the dangers to democracy from allowing fake accounts that are just a gift to the Russians and the North Koreans and the Chinese who are our enemies, the risks of electro-manipulation, and the fact that kids can just make up any — you know, any kid can get on any platform just by lying. This has to stop.

SREENIVASAN: You said you’re not asking for people to be having to use their real names. But even third parties, I mean, there are people who are able to dissent politically in countries, partly by having a pseudonym. Lots of restrictive countries where social media is the only valves that can relieve that pressure.

HAIDT: Yes, that’s right. And so that’s why I think it’s important that you still have the option of not using your name or using an avatar. And it would be nice if we could say, anyone can open any account without any identification at all. And that’s the way things started. But it may be the case that we can’t all be on one platform in this world, that what is necessary in restricted countries, a level of secrecy and just let anyone open an account with no proof of anything, maybe they need to be on separate platforms. That approach in America, I believe, is incredibly damaging to our democracy. Of course, if you had to prove you were a real person to some nonprofit entity or somebody that just vetted, that yes, you are a real person. You know, so if you had to do that, plenty of people would still post poisonous stuff. But at least it would be highly — it would just it would just cut down on the ease of doing that.

SREENIVASAN: As you’ve been looking at this generationally and how kids are being impacted by social media, how colleges are being impacted, how now society is, what concerns you most?

HAIDT: What concerns me most is that we have a very, very sudden and very big increase in rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm, and suicide that hits American teens right around 2012, 2013 is when the graphs all started going up, especially for girls. Boys go up, but girls go way up on almost every measure. The same in Canada, same in Britain. So this is not a uniquely American story. I think there’s a lot of evidence pointing to the arrival of social media just before then, so what was happening in 2006 and 2007 isn’t very important because it wasn’t so toxic, but in this exact window, 2009 to 2012 when it changes, it becomes more toxic. Right after that is when the teen depression and fragility rates go skyrocketing. I’m very concerned about that in and of itself. My own children are 10 and 13 years old. It’s a national catastrophe that we have so much suffering and fragility and suicide. But it feeds into these problems about democracy because part of the fragility is, you said something I don’t like, I shouldn’t have to just ignore it and I shouldn’t have to ask you or engage with you to make you stop. That could be very upsetting to me. That could be very traumatizing to me. So if you said something I don’t like, I’ve been told since I was young, tell somebody and so I report you to the authorities. That attitude is completely incompatible with democracy. Alexis de Tocqueville when he traveled in America in the 1830s, he praised our art of association. He said Americans are really good at coming together. Let’s build a bridge. Okay, how are we going to do it? They’re very good at functioning without appeals to power.

HAIDT: Unlike in the old country where you’d ask an aristocrat or a king to do something, no Americans did it themselves. And what I see happening in Gen Z is — we’ve overprotected them, we’ve always been there to protect them from things. We’ve blocked them from developing the art of association, working out problems for themselves. And if you can’t work in a business with somebody who voted for the other party, if you find that person’s mere presence threatening to you, how are we going to have a functioning democracy?

SREENIVASAN: Jonathan Haidt, thanks so much.

HAIDT: Thank you, Hari.

About This Episode EXPAND

Kay Bailey Hutchison, President Trump’s Ambassador to NATO, joins Christiane Amanpour to discuss this week’s summit and the 70 year old alliance, Michael Lewis talks about his book “The Fifth Risk” and Jonathan Haidt sits down with Hari Sreenivasan to explain how social media is driving polarization across the world.