Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the New York University’s School of Business, argues in the Atlantic that social-media platforms “trained users to spend more time performing and less time connecting.” But that was just the beginning.

He now believes this ultimately fueled a viral dynamic leading to “the continual chipping-away of trust” in a democracy which “depends on widely internalized acceptance of the legitimacy of rules, norms, and institutions.”
The most recent Edelman Trust Barometer (an international measure of citizens’ trust in government, business, media, and nongovernmental organizations) showed stable and competent autocracies (China and the United Arab Emirates) at the top of the list, while contentious democracies such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Spain, and South Korea scored near the bottom (albeit above Russia)…. Mark Zuckerberg may not have wished for any of that. But by rewiring everything in a headlong rush for growth — with a naive conception of human psychology, little understanding of the intricacy of institutions, and no concern for external costs imposed on society — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and a few other large platforms unwittingly dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.

In the last 10 years, the article argues, the general public — at least in America — became “uniquely stupid.” And he’s not just speaking about the political right and left, but within both factions, “as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.” The article quotes former CIA analyst Martin Gurri’s comment in 2019 that the digital revolution has highly fragmented the public into hostile shards that are “mostly people yelling at each other and living in bubbles of one sort or another.”

The article concludes that by now U.S. politics has entered a phase where truth “cannot achieve widespread adherence” and thus “nothing really means anything anymore–at least not in a way that is durable and on which people widely agree.” It even contemplates the idea of “highly believable” disinformation generated by AI, possibly by geopolitical adversaries, ultimately evolving into what the research manager at the Stanford Internet Observatory has described as “an Information World War in which state actors, terrorists, and ideological extremists leverage the social infrastructure underpinning everyday life to sow discord and erode shared reality.”