Let’s rerun this thought experiment in the social and political world, rather than the physical one. The U.S. Constitution was an exercise in intelligent design. The Founding Fathers knew that most previous democracies had been unstable and short-lived. But they were excellent psychologists, and they strove to create institutions and procedures that would work with human nature to resist the forces that had torn apart so many other attempts at self-governance...James Madison wrote about his fear of the power of “faction,” by which he meant strong partisanship or group interest that “inflamed [men] with mutual animosity” and made them forget about the common good...The Constitution included mechanisms to slow things down, let passions cool, and encourage reflection and deliberation.
Madison’s design has proved durable. But what would happen to American democracy if, one day in the early 21st century, a technology appeared that—over the course of a decade—changed several fundamental parameters of social and political life? What if this technology greatly increased the amount of “mutual animosity” and the speed at which outrage spread? Might we witness the political equivalent of buildings collapsing, birds falling from the sky, and the Earth moving closer to the sun?
What Social Media Changed....The problem may not be connectivity itself but rather the way social media turns so much communication into a public performance...social psychologist Mark Leary coined the term sociometer to describe the inner mental gauge that tells us, moment by moment, how we’re doing in the eyes of others...Social media, with its displays of likes, friends, followers, and retweets, has pulled our sociometers out of our private thoughts and posted them for all to see...Human beings evolved to gossip, preen, manipulate, and ostracize. We are easily lured into this new gladiatorial circus, even when we know that it can make us cruel and shallow...In other words, social media turns many of our most politically engaged citizens into Madison’s nightmare: arsonists who compete to create the most inflammatory posts and images, which they can distribute across the country in an instant while their public sociometer displays how far their creations have traveled...Citizens are now more connected to one another, on platforms that have been designed to make outrage contagious.
Is There Any Way Back?...Social media has changed the lives of millions of Americans with a suddenness and force that few expected...citizens are now more connected to one another, in ways that increase public performance and foster moral grandstanding, on platforms that have been designed to make outrage contagious, all while focusing people’s minds on immediate conflicts and untested ideas, untethered from traditions, knowledge, and values that previously exerted a stabilizing effect. This, we believe, is why many Americans—and citizens of many other countries, too—experience democracy as a place where everything is going haywire...It doesn’t have to be this way...Many researchers, legislators, charitable foundations, and tech-industry insiders are now working together in search of ... improvements. We suggest three types of reform that might help:
(1) Reduce the frequency and intensity of public performance. If social media creates incentives for moral grandstanding rather than authentic communication, then we should look for ways to reduce those incentives. One such approach already being evaluated by some platforms is “demetrication,” the process of obscuring like and share counts so that individual pieces of content can be evaluated on their own merit, and so that social-media users are not subject to continual, public popularity contests.
(2) Reduce the reach of unverified accounts. Bad actors—trolls, foreign agents, and domestic provocateurs—benefit the most from the current system, where anyone can create hundreds of fake accounts and use them to manipulate millions of people. Social media would immediately become far less toxic, and democracies less hackable, if the major platforms required basic identity verification before anyone could open an account—or at least an account type that allowed the owner to reach large audiences. (Posting itself could remain anonymous, and registration would need to be done in a way that protected the information of users who live in countries where the government might punish dissent. For example, verification could be done in collaboration with an independent nonprofit organization.)
(3) Reduce the contagiousness of low-quality information. Social media has become more toxic as friction has been removed. Adding some friction back in has been shown to improve the quality of content. For example, just after a user submits a comment, AI can identify text that’s similar to comments previously flagged as toxic and ask, “Are you sure you want to post this?” This extra step has been shown to help Instagram users rethink hurtful messages. The quality of information that is spread by recommendation algorithms could likewise be improved by giving groups of experts the ability to audit the algorithms for harms and biases.
If we want our democracy to succeed—indeed, if we want the idea of democracy to regain respect in an age when dissatisfaction with democracies is rising—we’ll need to understand the many ways in which today’s social-media platforms create conditions that may be hostile to democracy’s success. And then we’ll have to take decisive action to improve social media.