Surviving Social Media

The febrile pitch of digital voices on all sides of Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter the past few weeks seemed timed to confirm Jonathan Haidt’s recent thesis that social media is designed to deeply fracture us. Haidt’s widely-read essay in The Atlantic describes how social media has “magnified and weaponized the frivolous,” wrecking trust in institutions along the way. Haidt’s critique, similar to other recent studies, helps us understand how social media is designed to amplify passions and ideological extremes in an era in which “outrage is the key to virality.”

Part of the reason passionate tribalism and ideological hyperbole drive fragmentation is because of another factor that gets less attention: the absence of moral sentiments in social media. Moral sentiments – the affections and inclinations that prompt us to do good – keep our passions from overwhelming us and our minds from misleading us. They are the product of inculcation over time. They steer us in the right direction without being taskmasters. They develop through repetition as we emulate and admire good behavior around us. Our hearts warm when we see someone pick up the groceries an elderly shopper dropped in the store or help a lost child find her parents. When we emulate that behavior, the rewarding nature of the experience prompts us to do it again, and so on. When we speak of our conscience or a “sense of duty” or say “I was compelled” to do this or that, we are usually talking about our moral sentiments.

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