If you want to know when the United States really began to decline, the answer, according to Jonathan Haidt, is 2009 – the same year that Facebook published its Like button and Twitter introduced the Retweet. Americans were no match for the advancements (and dangers) of social media, and instead of listening to one another and seeking compromise, and rather than going out in public to meet real people who might disagree with us, we started to care more about building our personal brands and performing for our audiences because that’s what neoliberalism and Mark Zuckerberg told us to do.
The results? Stupefaction and dysfunction. An emphasis on emotion and outrage over reason and consideration. A greater visibility of extreme (i.e., white and rich) and hostile viewpoints. An online mob policing divergent perspectives. And most important: a deep decline of trust in our relationships and our institutions.
Really, has social media caused all this? Prof. Haidt thinks so. I’m not so sure. Are we really beholden to our phones and newsfeeds? Can’t we all decide to sign off of Twitter (and Elon Musk) for a while? Couldn’t our politicians become less petty if they wanted to? Or are we too far gone?
“If we do not make major changes soon,” Prof. Haidt warns, “then our institutions, our political system, and our society may collapse during the next major war, pandemic, financial meltdown, or constitutional crisis.” Good thing he proposes three solutions (one good, one unlikely, and one that will infuriate teenagers). But of course the questions remains – as it does with climate change and other existential crises – will we do anything about it?