Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 17 April 2023


There’s another pandemic raging. It’s targeting the young and online.

Add to your saved stories

Mitch Daniels is a senior adviser to the Liberty Fund, president emeritus of Purdue University and a former governor of Indiana.

A pandemic rages uncontrolled, a damaging and even deadly plague sweeping across a wide swath of society. The scientific evidence of its dangers is massive and irrefutable. Its worst harm is inflicted on the young, who are the most vulnerable to its contagion, and whose injuries may well prove irreversible with time.

The last time the nation faced such a threat, leaders panicked and overreacted, understandably at first. But then they failed to course-correct even as the scientific data plainly guided them to do so. Consequently, enormous and tragic collateral damage occurred in the form of other health risks left untreated, more than a year of vital learning lost by schoolchildren, increases in mental illness, drug abuse and suicide, not to mention the destruction of countless businesses and economic livelihoods.

In the current pandemic, we are committing the opposite mistake. As social media — “antisocial media” would be more accurate — permeates society, wreaking proven, ruinous damage on the emotional health of children, the trust of Americans in their institutions, the ability of those institutions to act against daunting national challenges, even the ability to sort truth from often malicious fiction, we are doing … nothing.

Kathleen Parker: TikTok might be part of a plot to make us dumber

Surely one of the most important pieces of journalism in recent times is Jonathan Haidt’s essay in the Atlantic’s May 2022 issue, “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” Haidt spends little time cataloguing the multiple catastrophes listed above; they are all too visible and have been thoroughly documented elsewhere.

Observing that “something went terribly wrong, very suddenly,” he makes an essential contribution by pinning the blame on the eruption of a “new game” on social media platforms around 2013. Theretofore, they had been relatively benign vehicles for connecting people to those they already knew; now they became open arenas inviting users to engage in performative statements and actions that threw them into contact with total strangers, whose responses, whether supportive or condemnatory, reinforce impulses of aggression and hostility. Ingenious coders magnify this effect through what marketing expert Scott Galloway has labeled “enragement algorithms.”

Haidt writes, “The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves.” Obsessively used, the platforms, fostered by algorithms designed to maximize users’ addiction, are operating as “a universal solvent, breaking down bonds and weakening institutions.” Skepticism about monocausal explanations for large phenomena is generally wise, but here Haidt presents a convincing one — a universal field theory for the social sicknesses all around us.

If the plain evidence doesn’t suffice to impel action, the hand-wringing regrets of so many Drs. Frankenstein about the monsters they’ve created should. The must-watch 2020 documentary “The Social Dilemma” is full of candid mea culpas, first about the motives of the platforms’ business model: “How much of your life can we get you to give to us?” “We’ve put deceit and sneakiness at the absolute center of everything we do.”

Sen. Josh Hawley: Congress must act to keep kids off social media

Haidt quotes one Twitter engineer, appalled at the mob behavior and sheer nastiness of his customers after helping launch the retweet button: “We might have just handed a 4-year-old a loaded weapon.” Most telling is the testimony of those who understand these systems best about their special menace to young people. Alex Roetter, a former Twitter executive, says in the documentary, “My kids don’t use social media at all,” and Tim Kendall, Facebook’s former director of monetization, chimes in, “We are zealots … we don’t let our kids have really any screen time.”

Governments worldwide have often applied the “precautionary principle” when the risks of a new technology were uncertain and potentially irreversible. That the concept has been frequently abused in other contexts does not mean it is without applicability to a technology whose damage is not hypothetical and distant but indubitable and widespread. The regulatory agencies usually eager to raise alarms — about the hazards of vaping, video games or uninflated balloons — have been largely silent about the social media pandemic.

Haidt acknowledges that he has no definitive fixes for the fix we’re in, but he ventures some initial approaches, such as age limits, required verification that the user is a real person as well as of age, and modification of tools such as the “share” function. We seek to restrict young people’s access to tobacco, alcohol and gambling; we restrict the nature and amount of advertising on children’s television programming; we should at least be debating limits on a technology that is — right now — blighting their educational, social and emotional lives.

In the last pandemic, we blinded ourselves to collateral damage and caused much of it by tunnel-vision overreaction. In the rolling pandemic of addictive social media, we stand idly as the damage piles up all around us. Actions taken now, if later shown to be unnecessary or ineffective, could always be reversed with no harm except perhaps to the income statements of a couple of megacorporations. What are we waiting for?

No comments:

Post a Comment