Have the dangers of social media been overstated?

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On April 11, The Atlantic published an essay by Jonathan Haidt entitled Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid. In the piece, Haidt—a social psychologist at the New York University Stern School of Business, and the co-author of a book called The Coddling of the American Mind—argued that social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube have constructed a modern-day tower of Babel. The societal chaos that these kinds of services have unleashed, Haidt wrote, have “dissolved the mortar of trust, belief in institutions, and shared stories that had held a large and diverse secular democracy together.” The arguments made in the piece were similar to an earlier Atlantic essay by Haidt and Tobias Rose-Stockwell, about the “dark psychology” of social networks, and how they have created a world in which “networks of partisans co-create worldviews that can become more and more extreme, disinformation campaigns flourish [and] violent ideologies lure recruits.”

Haidt’s essay was the latest in a long series of research papers and articles on the ills of social media, and specifically the idea that services such as Facebook and Twitter have fractured, polarized, and enraged Americans, because of the way recommendation and targeting algorithms work. Concepts such as the “filter bubble,” the “echo chamber,” and the idea that social networks can “radicalize” otherwise normal users—turning them into right-wing conspiracy theorists—have become commonplace. “Something went terribly wrong, very suddenly,” when services such as Facebook and Twitter became widespread, Haidt argued in his most recent essay. “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. The newly tweaked platforms were almost perfectly designed to bring out our most moralistic and least reflective selves. The volume of outrage was shocking.”

As repetitive as some of Haidt’s arguments about social media were, his Atlantic essay did introduce something relatively new to the field. After some criticism of his conclusions, and some of the research he relied on for his piece, Haidt and Chris Bail—a professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, where he directs the Polarization Lab—created a collaborative Google document they titled Social Media and Political Dysfunction: A Collaborative Review. The idea behind it, the two men explained in a preface, was to collect research that might help to shed light on the question: “Is social media a major contributor to the rise of political dysfunction seen in the USA and some other democracies?” (This is the third such collaborative document Haidt has created to track research on related topics; he created two with Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology from San Diego State University—one that collects research related to adolescent mood disorders, and one that does so for social media and mental health.)

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I worship at the temple of everything

From Heather Havrilesky’s excellent newsletter:

“I’m not stooping to lick mud puddles anymore. I worship at the temple of everything now, updrafts of wet oak tree and bruised lip and salty oyster shell, hints of sheer rock cliff and band director and broken typewriter and my dad’s sad stories about the Great Flood, the one that swept everything away, the one that took everything, the kitchen table and the chicken coop and the tattered books, the crocheted blankets and the boxes of love letters, the pickled cabbage, the black rosary beads, the love worn chair, the long exhale of smoke across the garden at twilight, the years of waiting, of saying too little, of backing away slowly, of disappearing for good, everything.”

The Estemere Manion in Palmer Lake, Colorado

This fascinating estate was right across the street from our Airbnb in the tiny mountain town of Palmer Lake, Colorado. According to what I’ve been able to find out online, it’s called the Estemere Mansion, and it was built in 1887 by a dentist from Baltimore named William Finley Thompson. He was hoping that the Palmer Lake area would become a tourist destination, and that people would be looking for luxurious estates, so he built a 7.000 square-foot mansion with 18 rooms — including eleven bedrooms — and six fireplaces, on an estate that includes a large garden, a carriage house and a chapel. He eventually went bankrupt and moved back to the Baltimore area.

In 1898, Eben Smith, who made his fortune in gold milling, bought the estate for $5,000. It was primarily a residence, though during the 1920s and ’30s it was also the site of a number of schools, including one for the underprivileged students and one for children with special needs. Roger and Kim Ward bought the property in 1998, and it underwent significant renovations, including the addition of structural support, new carpeting and flooring, a new gas furnace, and an entrance into the tower. The Wards put the estate up for sale in 2020 for $2.5 million, after Kim started suffering from dementia, but I haven’t been able to find out whether it sold or not, and if so to whom.

The courts, the platforms, and regulating speech

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court issued an order blocking a Texas law that would prevent large social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube from removing content, except in extreme cases (content that involves the sexual exploitation of children, criminal activity, or threats of violence.) The order was brief, because it was triggered by an emergency application from two organizations opposed to the law. NetChoice, a coalition of online service companies, and the Computer & Communications Industry Association—a group whose members include Google, Facebook, and Twitter—asked the Supreme Court for an emergency decision because they argued that the law is “an unprecedented assault on the editorial discretion of private websites” and also a breach of the platforms’ First Amendment rights.

Even as it issued the order, however, the Supreme Court noted that the case is still before an appeals court in Texas, and that the issues at the center of the case are so critical that they will likely need to be considered at length by the Supreme Court at some point. “This application concerns issues of great importance that will plainly merit this Court’s review,” the decision states. In a dissenting opinion issued as part of the Supreme Court’s decision, Justice Alito said social media platforms have “transformed the way people communicate with each other,” but that “it is not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply.” To some, this seemed to open the door to a challenge to the platforms’ First Amendment rights.

Last week, meanwhile, an appeals court in Florida blocked most of the provisions in a similar state law that would have prevented the platforms from removing accounts belonging to politicians. In its decision, the court stated that “it is substantially likely that social-media companies—even the biggest ones—are private actors whose rights the First Amendment protects [and] that their so-called content-moderation decisions constitute protected exercises of editorial judgment.” Specifically, the court said that prohibiting companies from removing content was not allowed, but provisions in the law that require the platforms to provide clear standards for content and allow users to access their data likely don’t violate the First Amendment and can be implemented.

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