In Genesis, Noah’s descendants built a high tower to glorify themselves. Insulted, God sowed confusion, instituting different languages so people couldn’t understand one another. The biblical Tower of Babel proves an apt metaphor for America today. The dominance of social media has politically and culturally fragmented the United States. Facebook and Twitter, for example, pit people against each other, undermine faith in institutions and threaten democracy. The situation is dire, says Jonathan Haidt – in this instantly classic article in The Atlantic – but not hopeless. Democratic institutions can evolve and strengthen, Haidt believes, and policy changes can make social media platforms less toxic.
In the 1990s, people thought history was moving toward greater human unity – and that the internet was helping.
Through the 1990s and into the 21st century, people thought history moved in a linear, positive direction toward greater human cooperation and coordination. This often involved technological advances, such as the invention of writing, the printing press, road systems and, later, the telephone.
In the early 1990s, the introduction of the internet, with all its communication channels, seemed a natural extension of this process. Early social media platforms made it simple for people to connect. People posted photographs of themselves and updates about their lives. By 2008, Facebook already boasted 100 million monthly users. People believed social media enabled and supported democracy.
In 2011, social media helped activists organize and spread both the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement. It promoted unity and inspired optimism about how technology could abet a better future. When Facebook went public in 2012, founder Mark Zuckerberg told investors he would transform the transmission and use of information and thereby ...