Public ideas

Is social media undermining democracy?

Jonathan Haidt came to prominence with his 2012 book The righteous mind: why good people are divided by politics and religion, a work that attracted criticism from both the right and the left.

Now he has an article in The Atlantic: Yes, social media really is undermining democracy.

He acknowledges that there have been studies that have difficulty in finding evidence that social media plays a strong role in political polarization, in the construction of partisan echo chambers, or in the spread of misinformation.

But he points out that such studies have their methodological limitations, including a long time lag between exposure to ideas on social media and changes in beliefs and behaviour. He also notes that the ills we associate with social media pre-dated the internet.

Whatever they think of his methodology, few people, liberal or conservative, are likely to disagree with his recommendations (although the second is hard to implement):

  1. harden democratic institutions so that they can withstand chronic anger and mistrust;
  2. reform social media so that it becomes less socially corrosive;
  3. better prepare the next generation for democratic citizenship in this new age.

Have the Democrats passed peak progressive?

The Economist has a series of podcasts on US politics. Its podcast of July 19 addresses the question Have the Democrats passed peak progressive?. It explores a number of questions: has Trump’s success pushed the Democrats to the “left”; is America developing new class divisions – a “brahmin left” and a “merchant right”; how did the Democrats get associated with stupid causes such as “defund the police”?

The discussion looks at a number of Democrat shibboleths, such as a belief that “people of colour” (whatever that means), are progressive and left-leaning. It also touches on some of the Republican right’s shibboleths, such as their conviction that civic lawlessness and crime is attributable to a waning of religious belief: if so why does the US have such high rates of violence and high religious observance in comparison with similar countries?

One interpretation from this 45-minute podcast is that America’s “left” is particular to that country: it is hard to relate to our “left” movements. But it does address the general question of how the “left” and “progressives” (are they the same?) define themselves in a way that is appealing to electors in a democracy.

August 6

Today, 77 years ago, the US dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later, on August 9, 1945, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki.  

UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, in his opening remarks to the Conference of the Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, announced that he would be visiting Hiroshima. The occasion is marked in different ways by different parties: for example the Communist Party of Australia and the British Forces Broadcasting Service have different perspectives but even at these ends of the political spectrum there is a common theme of horror at the destructiveness of nuclear weapons.

The International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons has a live stream from Hiroshima.