The Broken World Under Social Media04-24-2022
Political judgment, writes Hannah Arendt, takes place within a political community, or what she following Immanuel Kant calls a sensus communis. There is no judgment possible absent an appeal to approbation by a community of persons. The politician, for Arendt, is someone who speaks and acts in such a way as to reaffirm or reconstitute the political community around a common and healthy sense of what is right and wrong. The challenge of appealing to the sensus communis today is that all the political incentives are to split the community, to appeal to a part of the whole, a faction, or a polarized movement.
Jonathan Haidt argues that the rampant polarization of our political world has been exacerbated by social media. In the last decade, Facebook and other social media platforms have rewired the way we spread and consume information and transformed our institutions. “Social scientists have identified at least three major forces that collectively bind together successful democracies: social capital (extensive social networks with high levels of trust), strong institutions, and shared stories. Social media has weakened all three.” Haidt writes:
The story of Babel is the best metaphor I have found for what happened to America in the 2010s, and for the fractured country we now inhabit. Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly. 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.
It’s been clear for quite a while now that red America and blue America are becoming like two different countries claiming the same territory, with two different versions of the Constitution, economics, and American history. But Babel is not a story about tribalism; it’s a story about the fragmentation of everything. It’s about the shattering of all that had seemed solid, the scattering of people who had been a community. It’s a metaphor for what is happening not only between red and blue, but within the left and within the right, as well as within universities, companies, professional associations, museums, and even families.
Babel is a metaphor for what some forms of social media have done to nearly all of the groups and institutions most important to the country’s future—and to us as a people. How did this happen? And what does it portend for American life?
The 2022 Hannah Arendt Center Fall Conference “Rage and Reason: Democracy Under the Tyranny of Social Media” explores this particular danger of social media. Learn more here.