Thursday, August 04, 2022

Social Media - Come to the Coliseum


                                            (Fireworks at Monroe County Fairgrounds)

Johnathan Haidt is one of my favorite culture-analysts. His Coddling of the American Mind remains one of the most helpful books I've read in the past few years.

I collect Haidt's essays. I am looking forward to his coming book Life After Babel: Adapting to a World We Can No Longer Share. Haidt previews the book in this interview, and in his recent essay "Yes, Social Media Really Is Undermining Democracy (despite what Meta has to say)."

In America we are in a post-Babel world, a world where we no longer understand one another. We are numerous tribes, with different narratives (mostly non-reflexive). This is a world of "“toxic polarization”—signaled by declining “respect for counter-arguments and associated aspects of the deliberative component of democracy.”" 

Our social media platforms are mostly "echo chambers," where we only hear the sound of our own voices. "Researchers who measure echo chambers by looking at social relationships and networks usually find evidence of “homophily”—that is, people tend to engage with others who are similar to themselves. One study of politically engaged Twitter users, for example, found that they “are disproportionately exposed to like-minded information and that information reaches like-minded users more quickly.”"

"A major feature of the post-Babel world is that the extremes are now far louder and more influential than before. They may also become more violent. Recent research by Morteza Dehghani and his colleagues at the University of Southern California shows that people are more willing to commit violence when they are immersed in a community they perceive to be morally homogeneous."

I find Haidt's analogy of a coliseum spot-on. Social media platforms are Roman coliseums, to which we are all invited to both engage in and behold the human carnage. Sadly, as I see it, Christians accept the invitation as well. 

Haidt writes:

"The fear and cruelty of the post-Babel era are a result of its tendency to reward public displays of aggression. Social media has put us all in the middle of a Roman coliseum, and many in the audience want to see conflict and blood. But once we realize that we are the gladiators—tricked into combat so that we might generate “content,” “engagement,” and revenue—we can refuse to fight. We can be more understanding toward our fellow citizens, seeing that we are all being driven mad by companies that use largely the same set of psychological tricks. We can forswear public conflict and use social media to serve our own purposes, which for most people will mean more private communication and fewer public performances."

Which is why I discourage Jesus-followers to reject slaughtering those with whom they disagree, for a bloodthirsty audience to behold. But will this happen? As for now, it looks like... not.