Have the dangers of social media been overstated?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On April 11, The Atlantic published an essay by Jonathan Haidt entitled Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid. In the piece, Haidt—a social psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business, and the co-author of a book called The Coddling of the American Mind—argued that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have constructed a modern-day tower of Babel. The societal chaos that these kinds of services have unleashed, Haidt wrote, have “dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.” The arguments made in the piece were similar to an earlier Atlantic essay by Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, about the “dark psychology” of social networks, and how they have created a world in which “networks of partisans co-create worldviews that can become more and more extreme, disinformation campaigns flourish [and] violent ideologies lure recruits.”

Haidt’s essay was the latest in a long series of research papers and articles on the ills of social media, and specifically the idea that services such as Facebook and Twitter have fractured, polarized, and enraged Americans, because of the way recommendation and targeting algorithms work. Concepts such as the “filter bubble,” the “echo chamber,” and the idea that social networks can “radicalize” otherwise normal users—turning them into right-wing conspiracy theorists—have become commonplace. “Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly,” when services such as Facebook and Twitter became widespread, Haidt argued in his most recent essay. “We are disoriented, unable to speak the same language or recognize the same truth. We are cut off from one another and from the past. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.”

As repetitive as some of Haidt’s arguments about social media were, his Atlantic essay did introduce something relatively new to the field. After some criticism of his conclusions, and some of the research he relied on for his piece, Haidt and Chris Bail—a professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Polarization Lab—created a collaborative Google document they titled Social Media and Political Dysfunction: A Collaborative Review. The idea behind it, the two men explained in a preface, was to collect research that might help to shed light on the question: “Is social media a major contributor to the rise of political dysfunction seen in the USA and some other democracies?” (This is the third such collaborative document Haidt has created to track research on related topics; he created two with Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology from San Diego State University—one that collects research related to adolescent mood disorders, and one that does so for social media and mental health.)

Taken as a whole, what Haidt and Bail’s document suggests is that there is a lot less scientific consensus on the positive or negative impact of social media than many people might think. In a section of the Haidt/Bail document looking at the question of whether social media makes people more polarized, for example, eleven studies suggest the answer is yes, and fourteen studies either suggest it is no, or have results that were inconclusive. In a section that looks at whether social media creates echo chambers, ten studies suggest the answer is yes, and twenty-five either suggest the answer is no, or found results that were inconclusive. One overview of research into the existence of echo chambers and filter bubbles on social media in Europe notes that “studies of news use on social media have failed to find evidence of echo chambers and/or filter bubbles [and] some studies even find evidence that it increases the likelihood of exposure to opposing views.”

As a New Yorker piece by Gideon Lewis-Kraus points out, Haidt and Bail’s document suggests that, when it comes to social media, “there’s a general sense that it’s bad for society—which may be right. But studies offer surprisingly few easy answers.” Haidt told the magazine he liked the idea of collecting research in a Google document even if it didn’t support his thesis, because “I decided that if I was going to be writing about this, I’d better be confident I’m right. I can’t just go off my feelings and my readings of the biased literature. We all suffer from confirmation bias.” Bail said that his conclusions about social media’s impact on society are somewhat different from Haidt’s. “Yes, the platforms play a role,” he told the New Yorker, “but we are greatly exaggerating what it’s possible for them to do, and we’re profoundly underestimating the human element.” For example, the idea of a political echo chamber “has been massively overstated,” he said. “Maybe it’s three to five per cent of people who are properly in an echo chamber.”

Some social researchers believe the same is true of the concept of algorithmic “rabbit holes” that radicalize social media users and turn them into conspiracy theorists. The New Yorker reported that Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth, found in a new working paper that almost all extremist content is consumed by subscribers to the relevant channels, “a sign of actual demand rather than manipulation or preference falsification.” The most credible research in the field “is way out of line with the takes,” Nyhan told the magazine. For example, research into the role of social media in the spread of extremist content and misinformation, Nyhan said, “finds that the people consuming this content are small minorities who have extreme views already.” If nothing else, the research outlined in the Haidt/Bail document suggests that at least some fear-mongering theories about the evils of social media ought to be taken with a grain of salt.

Here’s more on social media and society:

It’s the data: Researchers note that any discussion of the impact of social media on society is constrained by a lack of available data from social-media services and platforms. “The lack of good data is a huge problem insofar as it lets people project their own fears into this area,” Nyhan told the New Yorker. Over the past several years, Facebook has repeatedly promised to provide researchers with data from its network, and even set up a highly-touted partnership called Social Science One to do so, but has failed so far to come up with much usable data. Nathaniel Persily, a law professor at Stanford who cofounded Social Science One and later quit in frustration, said he thinks new legislation called the Platform Accountability and Transparency Act may help.

It’s the media: One of the books cited by Haidt and Bail is Network propaganda: Manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in American politics, written by Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School, along with Robert Faris, a researcher and the Shorenstein Center, and Hal Roberts, a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. Haidt and Bail say the book “argues that the current problems of media and democracy are not the result of Russian interference, behavioral microtargeting and algorithms on social media, political clickbait, hackers, sockpuppets, or trolls, but of asymmetric media structures decades in the making.”

It’s television: Micah Sifry, co-founder of New York’s nonprofit Civic Hall project, argued in a response to Haidt’s piece in the Atlantic that his focus on social media as the source of society’s problems “doesn’t hold up.” For one thing, Sifry argues, Facebook and Twitter are not dominating everyone’s attention. “Of the 5.5 hours Americans spend on all forms of leisure per day in 2020, the average American spent 3 hours a day watching TV, compared to 36 minutes on their computers playing games and about 32 minutes socializing and communicating with others,” Sifry says, quoting the American Bureau of Labor Statistics. That suggests traditional television is a much larger force in accelerating social ills, along with the deterioration of various other institutions, including government.

It’s evil: According to a Bloomberg report, “eight complaints filed in courthouses across the US over the last week allege that excessive exposure to platforms including Facebook and Instagram has led to attempted or actual suicides, eating disorders and sleeplessness, among other issues.” One of the lawsuits was filed by Naomi Charles, a 22-year-old woman who says she started using Meta platforms when she was a minor and that her addiction led to her to attempt suicide and other suffering, Bloomberg writes. Meta “misrepresented the safety, utility, and non-addictive properties of their products,” according to the complaint in Miami federal court.

Other notable stories:

David Folkenflik of NPR interviewed Joe Kahn, the new executive editor of the New York Times, the former managing editor who starts his new job on June 14. Among other things, they spoke about the Times‘ approach to Twitter. “It had begun to occupy a little bit too much of a share of mind of some of the people in our newsroom,” Kahn said. “They might have felt like they actually were under a bit of pressure to define themselves and be participants in the Twitter ecosystem. Wallowing too much in that feedback sometimes could distort your sense of what the wider audience out there was thinking.”

Twitter’s board “plans to comply with Elon Musk’s demands for internal data by offering access to its full firehose,” a massive stream of data made up of over 500 million tweets a day, according to a report from the Wall Street Journal that was based on an interview with an anonymous source. Musk made a $45 billion takeover offer for Twitter in April, but has since complained that the company’s estimate of the number of accounts that are spam or bots is inaccurate, and therefore he shouldn’t have to complete the deal.

A Vanity Fair article on the Washington Post argues that “A flurry of Twitter flare-ups and Slack spats involving Post journalists, along with a controversial suspension, have upended the newsroom and are presenting a major test for executive editor Sally Buzbee, who urged staff Tuesday to be constructive and collegial.” The flare-ups include interactions between Felicia Sonmez, a reporter who was suspended from her beat after making sexual harassment allegations against a Post editor, and Jose Del Real, a different Post editor, as well as criticism of Taylor Lorenz, a technology writer, over an article she wrote that had to be updated after publication.

Archivists and librarians at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the country’s public broadcaster, are “in shock after management unveiled plans to abolish 58 positions and make journalists research and archive their own stories,” the Guardian reported. Sources told the newspaper that there are a further 17 contract positions in the archive department that will be abolished.

The Gannett newspaper chain “has decided that the time for a traditional editorial page has come and gone,” writes Rick Edmonds, business columnist for Poynter. “Beginning in the spring and accelerating this month, the 250-title chain is cutting back opinion pages to a few days a week while refocusing what opinion is still published to community dialogue,” Edmonds wrote. A chain executive told the Poynter columnist that reader surveys showed that “readers do not want to be lectured at or told what to think,” and “routine editorials, point-of-view syndicated columns and many commissioned guest essays consistently turn up as the most poorly read articles online.”

The News Movement, a social media-first news start-up based in the UK and founded by Kamal Ahmed, the former editorial director of BBC News, has almost doubled the size of its editorial staff to 16, Press Gazette reports. Ahmed said that the new hires will create original investigative work, and that the venture hopes to announced some US hires soon. “The News Movement began publishing in beta in November last year and Ahmed cautiously predicted that the business might be able to launch fully in the autumn,” according to the Press Gazette report.

In a memo to staffers on Wednesday, Chris Licht, the CEO of CNN, said that Alex MacCallum is planning to leave the company at the end of this month, according to a report in Variety. MacCallum had been named interim chief of CNN’s digital operations, but Licht said that Wendy Brundige, senior vice president of global digital video, will take over that role. “Robyn Peterson, CNN Digital’s chief technology officer, is also leaving the company,” Variety wrote. “MacCallum had been general manager of CNN+, which launched just weeks prior to the merger of Discovery and WarnerMedia.” The streaming service was shut down not long after the two companies merged.

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