Lex Fridman Podcast - #291 - Jonathan Haidt: The Case Against Social Media

The following is a conversation with Jonathan Haidt,

social psychologist at NYU

and critic of the negative effects of social media

on the human mind and human civilization.

He gives a respectful but hard hitting response

to my conversation with Mark Zuckerberg.

And together, him and I try to figure out

how we can do better,

how we can lessen the amount of depression

and division in the world.

He has brilliantly discussed these topics in his writing,

including in his book,

The Coddling of the American Mind

and in his recent long article in the Atlantic

titled, Why the Past 10 Years of American Life

Have Been Uniquely Stupid.

When Teddy Roosevelt said in his famous speech

that it is not the critic who counts,

he has not yet read

the brilliant writing of Jonathan Haidt.

I disagree with John on some of the details

of his analysis and ideas,

but both his criticism and our disagreement is essential

if we are to build better

and better technologies that connect us.

Social media has both the power to destroy our society

and to help it flourish.

It’s up to us to figure out how we take the latter path.

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And now, dear friends, here’s Jonathan Haidt.



So you have been thinking about the human mind

for quite a long time.

You wrote The Happiness Hypothesis,

The Righteous Mind, The Coddling of the American Mind.

And today you’re thinking,

you’re writing a lot about social media and about democracy.

So perhaps if it’s okay,

let’s go through the thread that connects all of that work.

How do we get from the very beginning to today

with the good, the bad, and the ugly of social media?

So I’m a social psychologist,

which means I study how we think about other people

and how people affect our thinking.

And in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania,

I picked the topic of moral psychology.

And I studied how morality varied across countries.

I studied in Brazil and India.

And in the 90s, I began, this was like,

I got my PhD in 1992.

And in that decade was really when the American culture war

kind of really began to blow up.

And I began to notice that left and right in this country

were becoming like separate countries.

And you could use the tools of cultural psychology

to study this split,

this moral battle between left and right.

So I started doing that.

And I began growing alarmed in the early 2000s

about how bad polarization was getting.

And I began studying the causes of polarization,

bringing moral psychology to bear on our political problems.

And I was originally gonna write a book

to basically help the Democrats stop screwing up

because I could see that some of my research showed

people on the right understand people on the left.

They know what they think.

You can’t grow up in America

without knowing what progressives think.

But here I grew up generally on the left

and I had no idea what conservatives thought

until I went and sought it out

and started reading conservative things

like National Review.

So originally I wanted to actually help the Democrats

to understand moral psychology

so they could stop losing to George W. Bush.

And I got a contract to write The Righteous Mind.

And once I started writing it,

I committed to understanding conservatives

by reading the best writings, not the worst.

And I discovered, you know what?

You don’t understand anything

until you look from multiple perspectives.

And I discovered there are a lot of great

social science ideas

in the conservative intellectual tradition.

And so, and I also began to see, you know what?

America’s actually in real trouble.

And this is like 2008, 2009.

Things are really, we’re coming apart here.

So I began to really focus my research

on helping left and right understand each other

and helping our democratic institutions to work better.

Okay, so all this is before I had any interest

in social media.

I was on Twitter, I guess like 2009 and not much.

Didn’t think about it much.

And then, so I’m going along

as a social psychologist studying this.

And then everything seems to kind of blow up

in 2014, 2015 at universities.

And that’s when Greg Lukianoff came to me in May of 2014

and said, John, weird stuff is happening.

Students are freaking out about a speaker coming to campus

that they don’t have to go see.

And they’re saying it’s dangerous, it’s violent.

It’s like, what is going on?

And so anyway, Greg’s ideas about how

we were teaching students to think in distorted ways

that led us to write the Coddling the American Mind,

which wasn’t primarily about social media either.

It was about this sort of a rise of depression, anxiety.

But after that, things got so much worse everywhere.

And that’s when I began to think like,

whoa, something systemically has changed.

Something has changed about the fabric

of the social universe.

And so ever since then, I’ve been focused on social media.

So we’re going to try to sneak up to the problems

and the solutions at hand from different directions.

I have a lot of questions whether it’s fundamentally

the nature of social media that’s the problem,

it’s the decisions of various human beings

that lead the social media companies that’s the problem.

Is there still some component that’s highlighted

in the Coddling of the American Mind

that’s the individual psychology at play

or the way parenting and education works

to make sort of emphasize anti-fragility of the human mind

as it interacts with the social media platforms

and the other humans through the social,

so all that beautiful mess.

That should take us an hour or two to cover.

Or maybe a couple of years, yes.

But, so let’s start, if it’s okay.

You said you wanted to challenge some of the things

that Mark Zuckerberg has said in a conversation with me.

What are some of the ideas he expressed

that you disagree with?

Okay, there are two major areas that I study.

One is what is happening with teen mental health?

It fell off a cliff in 2013.

It was very sudden.

And then the other is what is happening

to our democratic and epistemic institutions?

That means knowledge generating

like universities, journalism.

So my main areas of research

where I’m collecting the empirical research

and trying to make sense of it

is what’s happened to teen mental health

and what’s the evidence that social media is a contributor?

And then the other area is what’s happening to democracies,

not just America, and what’s the evidence

that social media is a contributor to the dysfunction?

So I’m sure we’ll get to that

because that’s what the Atlantic article is about.

But if we focus first on what’s happened

to teen mental health.

So before I read the quotes from Mark,

I’d like to just give the overview.

And it is this.

There’s a lot of data tracking adolescents.

There’s self-reports of how depressed, anxious, lonely.

There’s data on hospital admissions for self-harm.

There’s data on suicide.

And all of these things, they bounce around somewhat,

but they’re relatively level in the early 2000s.

And then all of a sudden, around 2010 to 2013,

depending on which statistic you’re looking at,

all of a sudden, they begin to shoot upwards.

More so for girls in some cases,

but on the whole, it’s like up for both sexes.

It’s just that boys have lower levels

of anxiety and depression,

so the curve is not quite as dramatic.

But what we see is not small increases.

It’s not like, oh, 10%, 20%.

No, the increases are between 50 and 150%,

depending on which group you’re looking at.

Suicide for preteen girls, thankfully, it’s not very common,

but it’s two to three times more common now.

Or by 2015, it had doubled.

Between 2010 and 2015, it doubled.

So something is going radically wrong

in the world of American preteens.

So as I’ve been studying it, I found, first of all,

it’s not just America.

It’s identical in Canada and the UK.

Australia and New Zealand are very similar.

They’re just after a little delay.

So whatever we’re looking for here,

but yet it’s not as clear in the Germanic countries.

In continental Europe, it’s a little different,

and we can get into that when we talk about childhood.

But something’s happening in many countries,

and it started right around 2012, 2013.

It wasn’t gradual.

It hit girls hardest, and it hit preteen girls the hardest.

So what could it be?

Nobody has come up with another explanation.


It wasn’t the financial crisis.

That wouldn’t have hit preteen girls the hardest.

There is no other explanation.

The complexity here in the data is, of course,

as everyone knows, correlation doesn’t prove causation.

The fact that television viewing was going up

in the 60s and 70s doesn’t mean

that that was the cause of the crime.

So what I’ve done, and this is work with Jean Twenge,

who wrote the book iGen, is because I was challenged,

when Greg and I put out the book,

The Coddling of the American Mind,

some researchers challenged us and said,

oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

The correlations between social media use and mental health,

they exist, but they’re tiny.

It’s like a correlation coefficient of 0.03

or a beta of 0.05, tiny little things.

And one famous article said it’s no bigger

than the correlation of bad mental health

and eating potatoes, which exists,

but it’s so tiny it’s zero, essentially.

And that claim, that social media’s no more harmful

than eating potatoes or wearing eyeglasses,

it was a very catchy claim, and it’s caught on,

and I keep hearing that.

But let me unpack why that’s not true,

and then we’ll get to what Mark said,

because what Mark basically said,

here, I’ll actually read it.

I might wanna read the quote.

And by the way, just to pause real quick,

is you implied, but just to make it explicit,

that the best explanation we have now,

as you’re proposing, is that a very particular aspect

of social media is the cause,

which is not just social media,

but the like button and the retweet,

a certain mechanism of virality that was invented,

or perhaps some aspect of social media is the cause.

Okay, good idea.

Let’s be clear.

Connecting people is good.

I mean, overall, the more you connect people, the better.

Giving people the telephone was an amazing step forward.

Giving them free telephone, free long distance,

is even better.

Video is, I mean, so connecting people is good.

I’m not a Luddite.

And social media, at least the idea of users posting things,

like that happens on LinkedIn, and it’s great.

It can serve all kinds of needs.

What I’m talking about here is not the internet.

It’s not technology.

It’s not smartphones.

And it’s not even all social media.

It’s a particular business model

in which people are incentivized to create content.

And that content is what brings other people on.

And the people on there are the product,

which is sold to advertisers.

It’s that particular business model,

which Facebook pioneered,

which seems to be incredibly harmful for teenagers,

especially for young girls, 10 to 14 years old

is where they’re most vulnerable.

And it seems to be particularly harmful

for democratic institutions

because it leads to all kinds of anger, conflict,

and the destruction of any shared narrative.

So that’s what we’re talking about.

We’re talking about Facebook, Twitter.

I don’t have any data on TikTok.

I suspect it’s gonna end up being,

having a lot of really bad effects

because the teens are on it so much.

And to be really clear,

since we’re doing the nuance now in this section,

lots of good stuff happens.

I, you know, a lot of,

there’s a lot of funny things on Twitter.

I use Twitter because it’s an amazing way to put out news,

to put out when I write something,

you know, you and I, you know, use it to promote things.

We learn things quickly.

Well, there’s could be,

now this is harder to measure

and we’ll probably,

I’ll try to mention it

because so much of our conversation

will be about rigorous criticism.

I’ll try to sometimes mention

what are the possible positive effects

of social media in different ways.

So for example, in the way I’ve been using Twitter,

not the promotion or any of that kind of stuff,

it makes me feel less lonely

to connect with people,

to make me smile, a little bit of humor here and there.

And that at scale is a very interesting effect,

being connected across the globe,

especially during times of COVID and so on.

It’s very difficult to measure that.

So we kind of have to consider that

and be honest that there is a trade-off.

We have to be honest about the positive and the negative

and sometimes we’re not sufficiently positive

or in a rigorous scientific way about the,

we’re not rigorous in a scientific way about the negative

and that’s what we’re trying to do here.

And so that brings us to the Mark Zuckerberg email.

Okay, but wait,

let me just pick up on the issue of trade-offs

because people might think like,

well, like how much of this do we need?

If we have too much, it’s bad.

No, that’s a one-dimensional conceptualization.

This is a multi-dimensional issue.

And a lot of people seem to think like,

oh, what would we have done

without social media during COVID?

Like we would have been sitting there alone in our homes.

Yeah, if all we had was, you know,

texting, telephone, Zoom, Skype, multiplayer video games,

WhatsApp, all sorts of ways of communicating with each other.

And there’s blogs and the rest of the internet.

Yeah, we would have been fine.

Did we really need the hyper-viral platforms

of Facebook and Twitter?

Now those did help certain things get out faster

and that did help science Twitter sometimes,

but it also led to huge explosions of misinformation

and the polarization of our politics to such an extent

that a third of the country, you know,

didn’t believe what the medical establishment was saying.

And we’ll get into this.

The medical establishment sometimes

was playing political games that made them less credible.

So on net, it’s not clear to me

that if you’ve got the internet, smartphones, blogs,

all of that stuff, it’s not clear to me

that adding in this particular business model

of Facebook, Twitter, TikTok,

that that really adds a lot more.

And one interesting one we’ll also talk about is YouTube.

I think it’s easier to talk about Twitter and Facebook.

YouTube is another complex beast that’s very hard to,

because YouTube has many things.

It’s a content platform,

but it also has a recommendation system.

So let’s focus our discussion

on perhaps Twitter and Facebook,

but you do in this large document

that you’re putting together on social media

called Social Media and Political Dysfunction

Collaborative Review with Chris Bale.

That includes, I believe, papers on YouTube as well.

It does.

But yeah, again, just to finish up with the nuance,

yeah, YouTube is really complicated

because I can’t imagine life without YouTube.

It’s incredibly useful.

It does a lot of good things.

It also obviously helps to radicalize terrorist groups

and murderers.

So I think about YouTube

the way I think about the internet in general,

and I don’t know enough to really comment on YouTube.

So I have been focused, and it’s also interesting.

One thing we know is teen social life change radically

between about 2010 and 2012.

Before 2010, they weren’t mostly on every day

because they didn’t have smartphones yet.

By 2012 to 14, that’s the area

in which they almost all get smartphones

and they become daily users of the girls.

So the girls go to Instagram and Tumblr.

They go to the visual ones.

The boys go to YouTube and video games.

Those don’t seem to be as harmful to mental health

or even harmful at all.

It’s really Tumblr, Instagram particularly,

that seem to really have done in girls’ mental health.

So now, okay, so let’s look at the quote

from Mark Zuckerberg.

So at 64 minutes and 31 seconds on the video,

I time-coded this.

This is excellent.

This is the very helpful YouTube transcript.

YouTube’s an amazing program.

You ask him about Francis Haugen.

You give him a chance to respond.

And here’s the key thing.

So he talks about what Francis Haugen said.

He said, no, but that’s mischaracterized.

Actually, on most measures, the kids are doing better

when they’re on Instagram.

It’s just on one out of the 18.

And then he says, I think an accurate characterization

would have been that kids using Instagram,

or not kids, but teens,

is generally positive for their mental health.

That’s his claim, that Instagram is overall,

taken as a whole, Instagram is positive

for their mental health.

That’s what he says, okay?

Now, is it really, is it really?

So first, just the simple, okay, now here,

what I’d like to do is turn my attention

to another document that we’ll make available.

So I was invited to give testimony

before a Senate subcommittee two weeks ago,

where they were considering

the Platform Accountability Act.

Should we force the platforms to actually tell us

what our kids are doing?

Like, we have no idea, other than self-report.

We have no idea.

You know, they’re the only ones who know,

like, the kid does this, and then over the next hours,

the kid’s depressed or happy.

We can’t know that, but Facebook knows it.

So should they be compelled to reveal the data?

We need that.

So you raised just, to give people a little bit of context,

and this document is brilliantly structured

with questions, studies that indicate

that the answer to a question is yes

indicate that the answer to a question is no,

and then mixed results.

And questions include things like,

does social media make people more angry

or effectively polarized?

Right, so that’s the one that we’re gonna get to.

That’s the one for democracy.

Yes, that’s for democracy.

So I’ve got three different Google Docs here,

because I found this is an amazing way,

and thank God for Google Docs.

It’s an amazing way to organize the research literature,

and it’s a collaborator review,

so on this one, Gene Twenge and I put up the first draft,

and we say, please, comment, add studies,

tell us what we missed.

And it evolves in real time.

In any direction, the yes or the no.

Oh yeah, we specifically encourage,

because look, the center of my research

is that our gut feelings drive our reasoning.

That was my dissertation, that was my early research.

And so if Gene Twenge and I are committed to,

but we’re gonna obviously preferentially believe

that these platforms are bad for kids,

because we said so in our books.

So we have confirmation bias,

and I’m a devotee of John Stuart Mill.

The only cure for confirmation bias

is other people who have a different confirmation bias.

So these documents evolve,

because critics then say, no, you missed this,

or they say, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

It’s like, great, say so, tell us.

So I put together this document,

and I’m gonna put links to everything on my website.

If users, sorry, if listeners, viewers,

go to jonathanheit.com slash social media.

It’s a new page I just created.

I’ll put everything together in one place there,

and we’ll put those in the show notes.

Like links to this document,

and other things like it that we’re talking about.

That’s right, exactly.

So yeah, so the thing I wanna call attention to now

is this document here with the title,

Teen Mental Health is Plummeting,

and Social Media is a Major Contributing Cause.

So Ben Sass and Chris Coons are on the Judiciary Committee.

They had a subcommittee hearing

on Nate Priscilli’s bill,

Platform Accountability Transparency Act.

So they asked me to testify on what do we know,

what’s going on with teen mental health.

And so what I did was I put together everything I know

with plenty of graphs to make these points.

That first, what do we know about the crisis?

Well, that the crisis is specific to mood disorders,

not everything else.

It’s not just self-report, it’s also behavioral data,

because suicide and self-harm go skyrocketing after 2010.

The increases are very large,

and the crisis is gendered, and it’s hit many countries.

So I go through the data on that.

So we have a pretty clear characterization,

and nobody’s disputed me on this part.

So can we just pause real quick,

just so for people who are not aware.

So self-report, just how you kind of collect data

on this kind of thing.


You have a self-report, a survey, you ask people.

Yeah, how anxious are you these days?


How many hours a week do you use social media?

That kind of stuff.

And you do, it’s maybe,

you can collect large amounts of data that way,

because you can ask a large number of people

that kind of question.

But then there’s, I forget the term you use,

but more, so non-self-report data.

Behavioral data.

Behavioral data, that’s right.

Where you actually have self-harm and suicide numbers.


So there are a lot of graphs like this.

So this is from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

So the federal government, and also Pew and Gallup,

there are a lot of organizations

that have been collecting survey data for decades.

So this is a gold mine.

And what you see on these graphs over and over again

is relatively straight lines up until around 2010 or 2012.

And on the x-axis, we have time,

years going from 2004 to 2020.

On the y-axis is the percent of US teens

who had a major depression in the last year.

That’s right.

So when this data started coming out around,

so Jean Twain’s book, iGen, 2017,

a lot of people said, oh, she doesn’t know

what she’s talking about.

This is just self-report.

Like Gen Z, they’re just really comfortable

talking about this.

This is a good thing.

This isn’t a real epidemic.

And literally the day before my book with Greg was published,

the day before, there was a psychiatrist in New York Times

who had an op-ed saying, relax,

smartphones are not ruining your kid’s brain.

And he said, it’s just self-report.

It’s just that they’re giving higher rates,

there’s more diagnosis.

But underlying, there’s no change.

No, because it’s theoretically possible,

but all we have to do is look at the hospitalization data

for self-harm and suicide, and we see the exact same trends.

We see also a very sudden, big rise around,

between 2009 and 2012, you have an elbow,

and then it goes up, up, up.

So, and that is not self-report.

Those are actual kids admitted to hospitals

for cutting themselves.

So we have a catastrophe, and this was all true before COVID.

COVID made things worse, but we have to realize,

COVID’s going away, kids are back in school,

but we’re not gonna go back to where we were

because this problem is not caused by COVID.

What is it caused by?

Well, just again, to just go through the point,

then I’ll stop.

I just feel like I wanna get out the data

to show that Mark is wrong.

So first point, correlational studies

consistently show a link.

They almost all do, but it’s not big.

Equivalent to a correlation coefficient

around 0.1, typically.

That’s the first point.

The second point is that the correlation

is actually much larger than for eating potatoes.

So that famous line wasn’t about social media use.

That was about digital media use.

That included watching Netflix,

doing homework on everything.

And so what they did is they looked at all screen use,

and then they said, this is correlated

with self-reports of depression, anxiety,

like, you know, 0.03, it’s tiny.

And they said that clearly in the paper,

but the media has reported it as social media

is 0.03 or tiny, and that’s just not true.

What I found digging into it,

you don’t know this until you look at the,

there’s more than 100 studies in the Google Doc.

Once you dig in, what you see is,

okay, you see a tiny correlation.

What happens if we zoom in on just social media?

It always gets bigger, often a lot bigger,

two or three times bigger.

What happens if we zoom in on girls and social media?

It always gets bigger, often a lot bigger.

And so what I think we can conclude,

in fact, what one of the authors

of the potato studies herself concludes,

Amy Orban says, I think I have a quote from here.

She reviewed a lot of studies,

and she herself said that, quote,

the associations between social media use and wellbeing

therefore range from about R equals 0.15 to R equals 0.10.

So that’s the range we’re talking about.

And that’s for boys and girls together.

And a lot of research, including hers and mine,

show that girls, it’s higher.

So for girls, we’re talking about correlations

around 0.15 to 0.2, I believe.

Gene Twenge and I found it’s about 0.2 or 0.22.

Now this might sound like an arcane social science debate,

but people have to understand,

public health correlations are almost never above 0.2.

So the correlation of childhood exposure to lead

and adult IQ, very serious problem, that’s 0.09.

Like the world’s messy and our measurements are messy.

And so if you find a consistent correlation of 0.15,

like you would never let your kid do that thing.

That actually is dangerous.

And it can explain when you multiply it

over tens of millions of kids spending,

you know, years of their lives,

you actually can explain the mental health epidemic

just from social media use.

Well, and then there’s questions.

By the way, this is really good to learn

because I quit potatoes and it had no effect on me.

And as a Russian, that was a big sacrifice.

They’re quite literal actually,

because I’m mostly eating keto these days.

But that’s funny that they’re actually

literally called the potato studies.

Okay, but given this,

and there’s a lot of fascinating data here,

there’s also a discussion of how to fix it.

What are the aspects that if fixed

would start to reverse some of these trends?

So if we just linger on the set

of the Mark Zuckerberg statements.

So first of all, do you think Mark is aware

of some of these studies?

So if you put yourself in the shoes of Mark Zuckerberg

and the executives at Facebook and Twitter,

how can you try to understand the studies

like the Google Docs you put together

to try to make decisions that fix things?

Is there a stable science now

that you can start to investigate?

And also maybe if you can comment

on the depth of data that’s available,

because ultimately, and this is something you argue,

that the data should be more transparent,

it should be provided.

But currently, if it’s not,

all you have is maybe some leaks of internal data.

And we could talk about the potential.

You have to be very sort of objective

about the potential bias in those kinds of leaks.

You want to, it would be nice to have a non-leak data.

Yeah, it’d be nice to be able to actually

have academic researchers able to access

in de-individuated, de-identified form

the actual data on what kids are doing

and how their mood changes.

And when people commit suicide,

what was happening before,

and it’d be great to know that.

We have no idea.

So how do we begin to fix social media, would you say?

Okay, so here’s the most important thing to understand.

In the social sciences, we say,

is social media harmful to kids?

That’s a broad question.

You can’t answer that directly.

You have to have much more specific questions.

You have to operationalize it

and have a theory of how it’s harming kids.

And so almost all of the research

is done on what’s called the dose response model.

That is, everybody, including most of the researchers,

are thinking about this like,

let’s treat this like sugar.

You know, because the data usually shows

a little bit of social media use

isn’t correlated with harm, but a lot is.

So, you know, think of it like sugar.

And if kids have a lot of sugar, then it’s bad.

So how much is okay?

But social media is not like sugar at all.

It’s not a dose response thing.

It’s a complete rewiring of childhood.

So we evolved as a species in which kids play

in mixed age groups.

They learn the skills of adulthood.

They’re always playing and working

and learning and doing errands.

That’s normal childhood.

That’s how you develop your brain.

That’s how you become a mature adult until the 1990s.

In the 1990s, we dropped all that.

We said, it’s too dangerous.

If we let you outside, you’ll be kidnapped.

So we completely, we began rewiring childhood

in the 90s before social media.

And that’s a big part of the story.

I’m a big fan of Lenore Skenazy

who wrote the book, Free Range Kids.

If there are any parents listening to this,

please buy Lenore’s book, Free Range Kids,

and then go to letgrow.org.

It’s a nonprofit that Lenore and I started

with Peter Gray and Daniel Shookman

to help change the laws and the norms

around letting kids out to play.

They need free play.

So that’s the big picture.

They need free play.

And we started stopping that in the 90s

that we reduced it.

And then Gen Z, kids born in 1996,

they’re the first people in history

to get on social media before puberty.

Millennials didn’t get it until they were in college.

But Gen Z, they get it

because you can lie.

You just lie about your age.

So they really began to get on around 2009, 2010,

and boom, two years later, they’re depressed.

It’s not because they ate too much sugar necessarily.

It’s because even normal social interactions

that kids had in the early 2000s,

largely, well, they decline

because now everything’s through the phone.

And that’s what I’m trying to get across,

that it’s not just a dose response thing.

It’s imagine one middle school

where everyone has an Instagram account

and it’s constant drama.

Everyone’s constantly checking and posting and worrying.

And imagine going through puberty that way

versus imagine there was a policy,

no phones in school.

You have to check them in a locker.

No one can have an Instagram account.

All the parents are on board.

Parents only let their kids have Instagram

because the kid says everyone else has it.

And we’re stuck in a social dilemma.

We’re stuck in a trap.

So what’s the solution?

Keep kids off until they’re done with puberty.

There’s a new study actually by Amy Urban

and Andy Shabilsky showing that the damage is greatest

for girls between 11 and 13.

So there is no way to make it safe for preteens

or even 13, 14 year olds.

We’ve gotta, kids should simply not be allowed

on these business models where you’re the product.

They should not be allowed until you’re 16.

We need to raise the age and enforce it.

That’s the biggest thing.

So I think that’s a really powerful solution,

but it makes me wonder if there’s other solutions

like controlling the virality of bullying.

Sort of if there’s a way that’s more productive

to childhood to use social media.

So of course one thing is putting your phone down,

but first of all, from the perspective

of social media companies, it might be difficult

to convince them to do so.

And also for me as an adult who grew up

without social media, social media is a source of joy.

So I wonder if it’s possible to design the mechanisms

both challenge the ad-driven model,

but actually just technically the recommender system

and how virality works on these platforms.

If it’s possible to design a platform

that leads to growth and to fragility,

but does not lead to depression, self-harm and suicide.

Finding that balance and making that

as the objective function, not engagement or something else.

I don’t think that can be done for kids.

So I am very reluctant to tell adults what to do.

I have a lot of libertarian friends

and I would lose their friendship

if I started saying, oh, it’s bad for adults

and we should stop adults from using it.

But by the same token, I’m very reluctant

to have Facebook and Instagram tell my kids what to do

without me even knowing

or without me having any ability to control it.

As a parent, it’s very hard to stop your kid.

I have stopped my kids from getting on Instagram

and that’s caused some difficulties,

but they also have thanked me

because they see that it’s stupid.

They see that what the kids are really on it,

what they post, they see that the culture of it

is stupid as they say.

So I don’t think there’s a way to make it healthy for kids.

I think there’s one thing which is healthy for kids,

which is free play.

We already robbed them of most of it in the 90s.

The more time they spend on their devices,

the less they have free play.

Video games is a kind of play.

I’m not saying that these things are all bad,

but 12 hours of video game play

means you don’t get any physical play.

So anyway.

And ultimately, physical play is the way

to develop physical antifragility.

And especially social skills.

Kids need huge amounts of conflict

with no adult to supervise or mediate

and that’s what we robbed them of.

So anyway, we should move on

because I get really into the evidence here

because I think the story is actually quite clear now.

There was a lot of ambiguity.

There are conflicting studies,

but when you look at it all together,

the correlational studies are pretty clear

and the effect sizes are coming in around 0.1 to 0.15,

whether you call that a correlation coefficient or a beta.

It’s all standardized beta.

It’s all in that sort of range.

There’s also experimental evidence.

We collect true experiments with random assignment

and they mostly show an effect.

And there’s eyewitness testimony.

You know, the kids themselves,

you talk to girls and you poll them.

Do you think overall Instagram is good

for your mental health or bad for it?

You’re not gonna find a group saying,

oh, it’s wonderful.

Oh yeah, yeah, Mark, you’re right.

It’s mostly good.

No, the girls themselves say this is the major reason.

And I’ve got studies in the Google Doc

where there’ve been surveys.

What do you think is causing depression and anxiety?

And the number one thing they say is social media.

So there’s multiple strands of evidence.

Do you think the recommendation is as a parent

that teens should not use Instagram, Twitter?


That’s ultimately, maybe in the long term,

there’s a more nuanced solution.

There’s no way to make it safe there.

It’s unsafe at any speed.

I mean, it might be very difficult to make it safe.

And then the short term,

while we don’t know how to make it safe, put down the phone.

Well, hold on a second.

Play with other kids via a platform like Roblox

or multiplayer video games.

That’s great.

I have no beef with that.

You focus on bullying before.

That’s one of five or seven different avenues of harm.

The main one I think, which does in the girls,

is not being bullied.

It’s living a life where you’re thinking all the time

about posting.

Because once a girl starts posting,

so it’s bad enough that they’re scrolling through,

and this is, everyone comments on this.

You’re scrolling through

and everyone’s life looks better than yours

because it’s fake.

And all that you see are the ones the algorithm picked

that were the night, anyway.

So the scrolling, I think, is bad for the girls.

I can’t prove this, but what I’m beginning to see

from talking to girls, from seeing how it’s used,

is once you start posting, that takes over your mind.

And now you’re, basically, you’re no longer present.

Because even if you’re only spending five or six hours a day

on Instagram, you’re always thinking about it.

And when you’re in class,

you’re thinking about how are people responding

to the post that I made between classes.

I mean, I do it.

I try to stay off Twitter for a while,

but now I’ve got this big article, I’m tweeting about it.

Like, I check 20 times a day, I’ll check.

Like, what are people saying?

What are people saying?

This is terrible.

And I’m a 58-year-old man.

Imagine being a 12-year-old girl going through puberty.

You’re self-conscious about how you look.

And I see some young women,

I see some professional young women,

women in their 20s and 30s,

who are putting up sexy photos of themselves.

Like, and this is so sad, so sad.

Don’t be doing this.

Yeah, see, the thing where I disagree a little bit

is I agree with you in the short term,

but in the long term,

I feel it’s the responsibility of social media,

not in some kind of ethical way,

not just in an ethical way,

but it’ll actually be good for the product

and for the company to maximize the long-term happiness

and well-being of the person.

So not just engagement.

So consider all.

But the person is not the customer.

So the thing is not to make them happy,

it’s to keep them on.

That’s the way it is currently, but that driven.

If we can get a business model, as you’re saying,

I’d be all for it.

And I think that’s the way to make much more money.

So like a subscription model

where the money comes from paying?

That would work, wouldn’t it?

That would help.

So subscription definitely would help,

but I’m not sure it’s so much,

I mean, a lot of people say it’s about the source of money,

but I just think it’s about

the fundamental mission of the product.

If you want people to really love a thing,

I think that thing should maximize

your long-term well-being.

It should.

In theory, in morality land, it should.

I don’t think it’s just morality land.

I think in business land, too.

But that may be a discussion for another day.

We’re studying the reality of the way things currently are,

and they are as they are, as the studies are highlighting.

So let us go then from the land of mental health

for young people to the land of democracy.

By the way, in these big umbrella areas,

is there a connection, is there a correlation

between the mental health of a human mind

and the division of our political discourse?

Oh, yes, oh, yes.

So our brains are structured to be really good

at approach and avoid.

So we have circuits, the front left circuit,

this is an oversimplification, but there’s some truth to it.

There’s what’s called the behavioral activation system,

front left cortex.

It’s all about approach, opportunity,

you know, kid in a candy store.

And then the front right cortex has circuits

that specialize for withdrawal, fear, threat.

And of course, students, you know, I’m a college professor,

and most of us think about our college days like,

you know, yeah, we were anxious at times, but it was fun.

And it was like, I can take all these courses,

I can do all these clubs, I know all these people.

Now imagine if in 2013, all of a sudden,

students are coming in with their front right cortex

hyperactivated, everything’s a threat.

Everything is dangerous, there’s not enough to go around.

So the front right cortex puts us into

what’s called defend mode, as opposed to discover mode.

Now let’s move up to adults.

Imagine a large, diverse, secular, liberal democracy

in which people are most of the time in discover mode.

And you know, we have a problem,

hmm, let’s think how to solve it.

And this is what de Tocqueville said about Americans,

like, there’s a problem, we get together,

we figure out how to solve it.

And he said, whereas in England and France,

people would wait for the king to do it.

But here, like, let’s roll up our sleeves, let’s do it.

That’s the can-do mindset.

That’s front left cortex discover mode.

If you have a national shift of people

spending more time in defend mode,

now you, so everything that comes up,

whatever anyone says, you’re not looking like,

oh, is there something good about it?

You’re thinking, you know, how is this dangerous?

How is this a threat?

How is this violence?

How can I attack this?

How can I, you know, so if you imagine, you know,

God up there with a little lever, like,

okay, let’s push everyone over into, you know,

more into discover mode.

And it’s like joy breaks out, age of Aquarius.

All right, let’s shift them back into,

let’s put everyone in defend mode.

And I can’t think of a better way

to put people in defend mode

than to have them spend some time

on partisan or political Twitter,

where it’s just a stream of horror stories,

including videos about how horrible the other side is.

And it’s not just that they’re bad people.

It’s that if they win this election,

then we lose our country, or then it’s catastrophe.

So Twitter, and again, we’re not saying all of Twitter,

you know, most people aren’t on Twitter

and people that are are mostly not talking about politics,

but the ones that are on talking about politics

are flooding us with stuff.

All the journalists see it.

All the major mainstream media

is hugely influenced by Twitter.

So if we put everyone,

if there’s more sort of anxiety, sense of threat,

this colors everything.

And then you’re not, you know,

the great thing about a democracy,

and especially, you know,

or a legislature that has some diversity in it,

is that the art of politics is

that you can grow the pie and then divide it.

You don’t just fight zero sum.

You find ways that we can all get 60% of what we want.

And that ends when everyone’s anxious and angry.

So let’s try to start to figure out who’s to blame here.

Is it the nature of social media?

Is it the decision of the people

at the heads of social media companies

that they’re making

and the detailed engineering designs of the algorithm?

Is it the users of social media

that drive narratives like, you mentioned journalists,

that want to maximize drama

in order to drive clicks to their off-site articles?

Is it just human nature that loves drama,

can’t look away from an accident when you’re driving by it?

Is there something to be said about,

the reason I ask these questions is to see,

can we start to figure out what the solution would be

to alleviate, to deescalate the-

Not yet, not yet.

Let’s first, we have to understand,

as we did on the teen mental health thing,

okay, now let’s lay out what is the problem?

What’s messing up our country?

And then we can talk about solutions.

So it’s all the things you said

interacting in an interesting way.

So human nature is tribal.

We evolved for intergroup conflict.

We love war.

The first time my buddies and I played paintball,

I was 29.

And we were divided into teams with strangers

to shoot guns at each other and kill each other.

And we all, afterwards, it was like,

oh my God, that was incredible.

Like it really felt like we’d opened a room in our hearts

that had never been opened.

But as men, testosterone changes our brains and our bodies

and activates the war stuff, like we’ve got more stuff.

And that’s why boys like certain team sports, it’s play war.

So that’s who we are.

It doesn’t mean we’re always tribal.

It doesn’t mean we’re always wanting to fight.

We’re also really good at making peace and cooperation

and finding deals.

We’re good at trade and exchange.

So you want your country to,

you want a society that has room for conflict,

ideally over sports, like that’s great.

That’s totally, it’s not just harmless, it’s actually good.

But otherwise you want cooperation

to generally prevail in the society.

That’s how you create prosperity and peace.

And if you’re gonna have a diverse democracy,

you really better focus on cooperation,

not on tribalism and division.

And there’s a wonderful book by Yasha Monk

called The Great Experiment

that talks about the difficulty of diversity and democracy

and what we need to do to get this right

and to get the benefits of diversity.

So that’s human nature.

Now let’s imagine that the technological environment

makes it really easy for us to cooperate.

Let’s give everyone telephones and the postal service.

Let’s give them email, like, wow,

we can do all these things together with people far away.

It’s amazing.

Now, instead of that, let’s give them a technology

that encourages them to fight.

So early Facebook and Twitter were generally lovely places.

People old enough to remember, they were fun.

There was a lot of humor.

You didn’t feel like you were gonna get your head blown off

no matter what you said.

2007, 2008, 2009, it was still fun.

These were nice places mostly.

And almost all the platforms start off as nice places.

But, and this is the key thing in the article,

in the Atlantic article on Babel, on after Babel.

The Atlantic article, by the way,

is why the past 10 years of American life

have been uniquely stupid.

Yeah, my title in the magazine was after Babel,

adapting to a world we can no longer share,

is what I proposed.

But they A, B tested, what’s the title

that gets the most clicks?

And it was why the past 10 years have been unique.

So Babel, the Tower of Babel is a driving metaphor

in the piece.

So first of all, what is it, what’s the Tower of Babel?

What’s Babel?

What are we talking about?

Okay, so the Tower of Babel is a story early in Genesis

where the descendants of Noah are spreading out

and repopulating the world.

And they’re on the plain of Shinar.

And they say, let us build us a city with a tower

to make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered again.

And so it’s a very short story.

There’s not a lot in it, but it looks like they’re saying,

you know, we don’t want God to flood us again.

Let’s build a city and a tower and to reach the heavens.

And God is offended by the hubris of these people

acting again like gods.

And he says, here’s the key line.

He says, let us go down and confuse their language

so that they may not understand one another.

So in the story, he doesn’t literally knock the tower over,

but, you know, many of us have seen images

or, you know, movie dramatizations

where a great wind comes and the tower is knocked over

and the people are left wandering amid the rubble,

unable to talk to each other.

So I’ve been grappling, I’ve been trying to say,

what the hell happened to our society?

You know, beginning in 2014,

what the hell is happening to universities?

And then it spread out from universities,

it hit journalism, the arts,

and now it’s all over companies.

What the hell happened to us?

And it wasn’t until I reread the Babel story

a couple of years ago that I thought,

whoa, this is it, this is the metaphor.

Because, you know, I’d been thinking about tribalism

and left-right battles and war,

and that’s easy to think about.

But Babel isn’t like, you know,

and God said, let half of the people hate the other half.

No, it wasn’t that.

It’s God said, let us confuse their language

that they, none of them can understand each other ever again

for at least for a while.

So it’s a story about fragmentation.

And that’s what’s unique about our time.

So Meta or Facebook wrote a rebuttal to my article.

They disputed what I said,

and one of their arguments was,

oh, but, you know, polarization goes back

way before social media,

and, you know, it was happening in the 90s.

And they’re right, it does.

And I did say that,

but I should have said it more clearly with more examples.

But here’s the new thing.

Even though left and right

were beginning to hate each other more,

we weren’t afraid of the person next to us.

We weren’t afraid of each other.

Cable TV, you know, Fox News,

whatever you want to point to about increasing polarization,

it didn’t make me afraid of my students.

And that was new in around 2014, 2015.

We started hearing, getting articles,

you know, I’m a liberal professor

and my liberal students frightened me.

It was in Vox in 2015.

And that was after Greg and I had turned in

the draft of our first draft of our coddling article.

And surveys show over and over again,

students are not as afraid of their professors.

They’re actually afraid of other students.

Most students are lovely.

It’s not like the whole generation has lost their minds.

What happens is a small number,

a small number are adept at using social media

to destroy anyone that they think

they can get credit for destroying.

And the bizarre thing is it’s never,

it’s rarely about what ideas you express.

It’s usually about a word, like he used this word,

or this was insensitive,

or I can link this word to that word.

So it’s, they don’t even engage with ideas and arguments.

It’s a real sort of gotcha, prosecute,

almost more like a, you know,

it’s like a witch trial mindset.


So the unique thing here,

there’s something about social media in those years

that a small number of people

can sort of be catalysts for this division.

They can start the viral wave

that leads to a division that’s different

than the kind of division we saw before.

It’s a little different than a viral wave.

Once you get some people

who can use social media to intimidate,

you get a sudden phase shift.

You get a big change in the dynamics of groups.

And that’s the heart of the article.

This isn’t just another article

about how social media is polarizing us

and destroying democracy.

The heart of the article is an analysis

of what makes groups smart and what makes them stupid.

And so because, as we said earlier, you know,

my own research is on post-hoc reasoning,

just post-hoc justification, rationalization.

The only cure for that is other people

who don’t share your biases.

And so if you have an academic debate,

as like the one I’m having with, you know,

with these other researchers over social media,

you know, I write something, they write something,

I have to take account of their arguments

and they have to take account of mine.

When the academic world works,

it’s because it puts us together

in ways that things cancel out.

That’s what makes universities smart.

It’s what makes them generators of knowledge.

Unless we stop dissent,

what if we say on these topics, there can be no dissent.

And if anyone says otherwise,

if any academic comes up with research that says otherwise,

we’re going to destroy them.

And if any academic even tweets a study

contradicting what is the official word,

we’re going to destroy them.

And that was the famous case of David Shore,

who in the days after George Floyd was killed

and there were protests,

and the question is, are these protests

going to be productive?

Are they going to backfire?

Now, most of them were peaceful, but some were violent.

And he tweeted a study.

He just simply tweeted a study

done by an African-American,

I think sociologist at Princeton, Omar Wasow.

And Wasow’s study showed

that when you look back at the 60s,

you see that where there were violent protests,

it tended to backfire.

Peaceful protests tend to work.

And so he simply tweeted that study.

And there was a Twitter mob after him.

This was insensitive.

This was anti-black, I think he was accused of.

And he was fired within a day or two.

So this is the kind of dynamic.

This is not caused by cable TV.

This is not caused.

This is something new.

Can I, just on a small tangent there,

in that situation, because it happens time and time again,

you highlight in your current work,

but also in the coddling of the American mind,

is the blame on the mob,

the mechanisms that enables the mob,

or the people that do the firing?

The administration does the firing.

Yeah, it’s all of them.

It’s all of them.

I sometimes feel that we don’t put enough blame

on the people that do the firing.

Which is, that feels like,

in the long arc of human history,

that is the place for courage and for ideals, right?

That’s where it stops.

That’s where the book stops.

So there’s going to be new mechanisms for mobs

and all that kind of stuff.

There’s going to be tribalism.

But at the end of the day,

that’s what it means to be a leader,

is to stop the mob at the door.

But I’m a social psychologist,

which means I look at the social forces that work on people.

And if you show me a situation

in which 95% of the people behave one way,

and it’s a way that we find surprising and shameful,

I’m not going to say,

wow, 95% of the people are shameful.

I’m going to say, wow, what a powerful situation.

We’ve got to change that situation.

So that’s what I think is happening here,

because there are hardly any, in the first few years,

it begins around 2018, 2019,

it really enters the corporate world.

There are hardly any leaders who stood up against it.

But I’ve talked to a lot, and it’s always the same thing.

You have these people in their,

usually in their 50s or 60s.

Generally, they’re progressive or on the left.

They’re accused of things by their young employees.

They don’t have the vocabulary to stand up to it.

And they give in very quickly.

And because it happens over and over again,

and there’s only a few examples of university presidents

who said like, no, we’re not going to stop this talk

just because you’re freaking out.

No, we’re not going to fire this professor

because he wrote a paper that you don’t like.

There are so few examples,

I have to include that the situational forces are so strong.

Now, I think we are seeing,

we are seeing a reversal in the last few weeks or months.

A clear sign of that is that the New York Times

actually came out with an editorial

from the editorial board

saying that free speech is important.

Now, that’s amazing that the Times had the guts

to stand up for free speech,

because the people, well,

what’s been happening with the Times

is that they’ve allowed Twitter

to become the editorial board.

Twitter has control over the New York Times,

and the New York Times literally will change papers.

I have an essay in Politico with Nadine Strossen,

Steve Pinker, and Pamela Peresky

on how the New York Times

retracted and changed an editorial by Bret Stephens.

And they did it in a sneaky way,

and they lied about it.

And they did this out of fear,

because he mentioned IQ.

He mentioned IQ and Jews.

And then he went on to say,

it probably isn’t a genetic thing,

it’s probably cultural, he mentioned it.

And the New York Times,

I mean, they were really cowardly.

Now, I think they, from what I hear,

they know that they were cowardly.

They know that they should not have fired James Bennett.

They know that they gave in to the mob.

And that’s why they’re now poking their head up

above the parapet, and they’re saying,

oh, we think that free speech is important.

And then, of course, they got their heads blown off,

because Twitter reacted like, how dare you say this?

Are you saying racist speech is okay?

But they didn’t back down.

They didn’t retract it.

They didn’t apologize for defending free speech.

So I think the Times might be coming back.

Can I ask you an opinion on something here?

What, in terms of the Times coming back,

in terms of Twitter being the editorial board

for the prestigious journalistic organizations,

what’s the importance of the role

of Mr. Elon Musk in this?

So, you know, it’s all fun and games,

but here’s a human who tweets about the importance

of freedom of speech and buys Twitter.

What are your thoughts on the influence,

the positive and the negative possible consequences

of this particular action?

So, you know, if he is gonna succeed,

and if he’s gonna be one of the major reasons

why we decarbonize quickly and why we get to Mars,

then I’m willing to cut him a lot of slack.

So I have an overall positive view of him.

Now, where I’m concerned and where I’m critical

is we’re in the middle of a raging culture war,

and this culture war is making our institutions stupid.

It’s making them fail.

This culture war, I think, could destroy our country,

and by destroy, I mean we could descend

into constant constitutional crises, a lot more violence.

You know, not that we’re gonna disappear,

not that we’re gonna kill each other,

but I think there will be a lot more violence.

So we’re in the middle of this raging culture war.

It’s possibly turning to violence.

You need to not add fuel to the fire,

and the fact that he declared

that he’s gonna be a Republican

and the Democrats are the bad party,

and, you know, as an individual citizen,

he’s entitled to his opinion, of course,

but as an influential citizen,

he should at least be thoughtful,

and more importantly,

companies need, and I think would benefit

from a Geneva Convention for the culture war in which,

because they’re all being damaged

by the culture war coming to the companies.

What we need to get to, I hope,

is a place where companies do,

they have strong ethical obligations

about the effects that they cause,

about how they treat their employees,

about their supply chain.

They have strong ethical obligations,

but they should not be weighing in on culture war issues.

Well, if I can read the exact tweet,

because part of the tweet I like,

he said, in the past, I voted Democrat

because they were mostly the kindness party,

but they have become the party of division and hate,

so I can no longer support them and will vote Republican.

And then he finishes with,

now watch their dirty tricks campaign against me unfold.


What do you make of that?

What do you think he was thinking

that he came out so blatantly as a partisan?

Because he’s probably communicating with the board,

with the people inside Twitter,

and he’s clearly seeing the lean,

and he’s responding to that lean.

He’s also opening the door to the potential

bringing back the former president onto the platform,

and also bringing back,

which he’s probably looking at the numbers

of the people who are behind Truth Social,

saying that, okay,

it seems that there’s a strong lean in Twitter

in terms of the left.

And in fact, from what I see,

it seems like the current operation of Twitter

is the extremes of the left get outraged by something,

and the extremes of the right

point out how the left is ridiculous.

Like, that seems to be the mechanism.

And that’s the source of the drama,

and then the left gets very mad at the right

that points out the ridiculousness,

and there’s this vicious kind of cycle.

That’s the polarization cycle.

That’s what we’re in.

There’s something that happened here.

There’s a shift where,

there’s a decline, I would say,

in both parties towards being shitty.

Look, everything with the parties,

that’s not the issue.

The issue is, should the most important CEO in America,

the CEO of some of our biggest and most important companies,

so let’s imagine five years from now,

two different worlds.

In one world, the CEO of every Fortune 500 company has said,

I’m a Republican because I hate those douchebags,

or I’m a Democrat because I hate those Nazi racists.

That’s one world where everybody declares,

everybody puts up a thing in their window,

everybody, it’s culture war everywhere, all the time,

24 hours a day.

You pick a doctor based on whether he’s red or blue.

Everything is culture war.

That’s one possible future, which we’re headed towards.

The other is, we say, you know what?

Political conflict should be confined to political spaces.

There is a room for protest,

but you don’t go protesting at people’s private homes.

You don’t go threatening their children.

You don’t go doxing them.

We have to have channels

that are not culture war all the time.

When you go shopping, when you go to a restaurant,

you shouldn’t be yelled at and screamed at.

When you buy a product, you should be able to buy products

from an excellent company.

You shouldn’t have to always think, what’s the CEO?

I mean, what an insane world, but that’s where we’re heading.

So I think that Elon did a really bad thing

in launching that tweet.

That was, I think, really throwing fuel on a fire

and setting a norm in which businesses

are gonna get even more politicized than they are.

And you’re saying, specifically,

the problem was that he picked a side.

As the head of, yes, as the CEO,

as the head of several major companies,

of course, we can find out what his views are.

You know, it’s not like it’s a,

I mean, actually, with him, it’s maybe hard to know,

but it’s not that a CEO can’t be a partisan or have views,

but to publicly declare it in that way,

really insulting way, this is throwing fuel on the fire

and it’s setting a precedent that corporations

are major players in the culture war.

And I’m trying to reverse that.

We’ve gotta pull back from that.

Let me play devil’s advocate here.

So, because I’ve gotten a chance

to interact with quite a few CEOs,

there is also a value for authenticity.

So I’m guessing this was written while sitting

on the toilet and I could see in a day from now

saying, LOL, just kidding, there’s a humor,

there’s a lightness, there’s a chaos element.

And that’s, chaos is not-

Yeah, that’s not what we need right now.

We don’t need more chaos.

Well, so, yes, there’s a balance here.

The chaos isn’t engineered chaos.

It’s really authentically who he is.

And I would like to say that there’s-

I agree with that.

That’s a trade-off because if you become a politician,

so there’s a trade-off between, in this case,

maybe authenticity and civility, maybe,

like being calculating about the impact you have

with your words versus just being yourself.

And I’m not sure calculating is also a slippery slope.

Both are slippery slopes.

You have to be careful.

So when we have conversations in a vacuum

and we just say like, what should a person do?

Those are very hard.

But our world is actually structured

into domains and institutions.

And if it’s just like, oh, you know,

talking here among our friends,

like we should be authentic, sure.

But the CEO of a company has fiduciary duties,

legal fiduciary duties to the company.

He owes loyalty to the company.

And if he is using the company for his own political gain

or other purposes or social standing,

that’s a violation of his fiduciary duty to the company.

Now, there’s debate among scholars

whether your fiduciary duties to the shareholders.

I don’t think it’s the shareholders.

I think many legal experts say

it’s the company’s a legal person.

You have duties to the company.

Employees owe a duty to the company.

So he’s got those duties.

And I think he, you can say he’s being authentic,

but he’s also violating those duties.

So it’s not necessarily he’s violating a law by doing it,

but he certainly is shredding any notion

of professional ethics around leadership

of a company in the modern age.

I think you have to take it in the full context

because you see that he’s not being a political player.

He’s just saying, quit being douchey.

Suppose the CEO of Ford says, you know what?

Let’s pick a group.

Well, I shouldn’t do a racial group

because that would be different.

Let’s just say, you know what?

Left-handed people are douchebags.

I hate them.

Like, why would you say that?

Like, why would you drag away left-handed people?

What you said now is not either funny or lighthearted

because I hate them.

It wasn’t funny.

I’m not picking on you.

I’m saying that statement.

Words matter.

There’s a lightness to the statement in the full context.

If you look at the timeline of the man,

there’s ridiculous memes and there’s nonstop jokes

that my big problem with the CEO of Ford

is there’s never any of that.

Not only is there any of that,

there’s not a celebration of the beauty of the engineering

of the different products.

It’s all political speak channeled

through multiple meetings of PR.

There’s levels upon levels upon levels

where you think that it’s really not authentic.

And there, you’re actually, by being polite,

by being civil, you’re actually playing politics

because all of your actual political decision-making

is done in the back channels.

That’s obvious.

Here, here’s a human being authentic

and actually struggling with some of the ideas

and having fun with it.

I think this lightness represents the kind of positivity

that we should be striving for.

It’s funny to say that

because you’re looking at these statements

and they seem negative,

but in the full context of social media,

I don’t know if they are.

But look at what you just said, in the full context.

You’re taking his tweets in context.

You know who doesn’t do that?


Like, that’s the Twitter.

Well, that’s the fundamental problem you highlight.

The rule of Twitter is there is no context.

Everything is taken in the maximum possible way.

There is no context.

So this is not like,

yes, I wish we did take people in context.

I wish we lived in that world.

But now that we have Twitter and Facebook,

we don’t live in that world anymore.

So you’re saying it is a bit of responsibility

for people with a large platform

to consider the fact that

there is the fundamental mechanism of Twitter

where people don’t give you the benefit of the doubt.

Well, I don’t wanna hang it on large platform

because then that’s what a lot of people say.

Like, well, you know, she shouldn’t say that

because she has a large platform

and she should say things that agree with my politics.

I don’t wanna hang it on large platform.

I wanna hang it on CEO of a company.

CEOs of a company have duties and responsibilities.

And, you know, Scott Galloway,

I think is very clear about this.

You know, he criticized Elon a lot

as being a really bad role model for young men.

Young men need role models

and he is a very appealing, attractive role model.

So I agree with you,

but in terms of being a role model,

I think I don’t wanna put a responsibility on people,

but yes, he could be a much, much better role model.


You can’t insult sitting senators by calling them old.

I mean, that’s, you know.

Yeah, I won’t do a both-side-ism of like,

well, those senators can be assholes too.

Yeah, yes, yes.

But that’s fair enough.

Respond intelligently, as I tweeted,

to unintelligent treatment, yes.


So the reason I like, and he’s now a friend,

the reason I like Elon is because of the engineering,

because of the work he does.

No, I admire him enormously for that.

But what I admire on the Twitter side is the authenticity

because I’ve been a little bit jaded and worn out

by people who have built up walls,

people in the position of power,

the CEOs and the politicians who built up walls

and you don’t see the real person.

That’s one of the reasons I love long-form podcasting,

especially if you talk more than 10 minutes,

it’s hard to have a wall up.

It all kind of crumbles away.

So I don’t know, but yes, yes, you’re right.

That is a step backwards to say,

at least to me, the biggest problem is the pick sides

to say, I’m not going to vote this way or that way.

That’s, like leave that to the politicians.

You have much, like the importance of social media

is far bigger than the bickering,

the short-term bickering of any one political party.

It’s a platform where we make progress,

where we develop ideas through sort of rigorous discourse,

all those kinds of things.

So, okay, so here’s an idea about social media

developed through social media from Elon,

which is, you know, everyone freaks out

because they think either, you know,

oh, he’s going to do less content moderations.

The left is freaking out

because they want more content moderation.

The right is celebrating

because they think the people

doing the content moderation are on the left.

But there was a one, I think it was a tweet,

where he said like three things

that he was going to do to make it better

and was, you know, defeat the bots or something.

But he said, authenticate all humans.

And this is a hugely important statement.

And it’s pretty powerful

that this guy can put three words in a tweet.

And actually, I think this could change the world.

Even if the bid fails, the fact that Elon said that,

that he thinks we need to authenticate all humans is huge.

Because now, you know, we’re talking about solutions here.

What can we do to make social media

a better place for democracy,

a place that actually makes democracy better?

As Tristan Harris has pointed out,

social media and digital technology,

the Chinese are using it really skillfully

to make a better authoritarian nation.

And by better, I don’t mean morally better.

I mean like more stable, successful.

Whereas we’re using it to make ourselves weaker,

more fragmented, and more insane.

So we’re on the way down.

We’re in big trouble.

And all the argument is about content moderation.

And what we learned from Francis Haugen

is that what, five or 10% of what they might call

hate speech gets caught, 1% of violence and intimidation.

Content moderation, even if we do a lot more of it,

isn’t gonna make a big difference.

All the powers and the dynamics changes to the architecture.

And as I said in my Atlantic article,

what are the reforms that would matter for social media?

And the number one thing I said,

the number one thing I believe is user authentication

or user verification.

And people freak out and they say like,

oh, but we need anonymous.

Like, yeah, fine, you can be anonymous.

But what I think needs to be done is

anyone can open an account on Twitter, Facebook, whatever,

as long as you’re over 16, and that’s another piece.

Once you’re 16 or 18, at a certain age,

you can be treated like an adult.

You can open an account and you can look, you can read,

and you can make up whatever fake name you want.

But if you want to post,

if you want the viral amplification on a company

that has section 230 protection from lawsuits,

which is a very special privilege,

I understand the need for it,

but it’s an incredibly powerful privilege

to protect them from lawsuits.

If you want to be able to post on platforms

that as we’ll get to in the Google Doc,

there’s a lot of evidence that they are undermining

and damaging democracy.

Then the company has this minimal responsibility

it has to meet.

Banks have know your customer laws.

You can’t just walk up to a bank with a bag of money

that you stole and say, here, deposit this for me.

My name’s John Smith.

You have to actually show who you are.

And the bank isn’t gonna announce who you are publicly,

but you have to, if they’re gonna do business with you,

they need to know you’re a real person, not a criminal.

And so there’s a lot of schemes for how to do this.

There’s multiple levels.

People don’t seem to understand this.

Level zero of authentication is nothing.

That’s what we have now.

Level one, this might be what Elon meant.

Authenticate all humans,

meaning you have to at least pass a CAPTCHA

or some test to show you’re not a bot.

There’s no identity, there’s nothing.

It’s something that, you know,

it’s a constant cat and mouse struggle between bots.

So we try to just filter out pure bots.

The next level up, there are a variety of schemes

that allow you to authenticate identity

in ways that are not traceable or kept.

So some, whether you show an ID, whether you use biometric,

whether you have something on the blockchain

that establishes identity, whether it’s linked to a phone,

whatever it is, there are multiple schemes now

that companies have figured out for how to do this.

And so if you did that, then in order to get an account

where you have posting privileges on Facebook or Twitter

or TikTok or whatever, you have to at least do that.

And if you do that, you know,

now the other people are real humans too.

And suddenly our public square’s a lot nicer

because you don’t have bots swarming around.

This would also cut down on trolls.

You still have trolls who use their real name,

but this would just make it a little scarier for trolls.

Some men turn into complete assholes.

They can be very polite in real life,

but some men, as soon as they have the anonymity,

they start using racial slurs.

They’re horrible.

One troll can ruin thousands of people’s day.

You know, I’m somebody who believes in free speech.

And so there’s been a lot of discussions about this.

And we’ll ask you some questions about this too.

But there is, the tension there is the power of a troll

to ruin the party.

Yeah, that’s right.

So like this idea of free speech,

boy, do you have to also consider,

if you want to have a private party and enjoy your time,

challenging, lots of disagreement, debate,

all that kind of stuff, but fun.

No like annoying person screaming, just not disagreeing,

but just like spilling the drinks all over the place.

Yeah, all that kind of stuff.

So see, you’re saying it’s a step in the right direction

to at least verify the humanness of a person

while maintaining anonymity.

So that’s one step, but the further step,

that’s maybe doesn’t go all the way

because you can still figure out ways

to create multiple accounts and you can-

But it’s a lot harder.

There’s a lot of ways to do this.

There’s a lot of creativity out there

about solving this problem.

So if you go to the Social Media and Political Dysfunction

Google Doc that I created with Chris Bale,

and then you go to section 11,

Proposals for Improving Social Media.

So we’re collecting there now some of the ideas

for how to do user authentication.

And so one is WorldCoin, there’s one human-id.org.

This is a new organization created by an NYU Stern student

who just came into my office last week,

working with some other people.

And what they do here is they have a method

of identity verification that is keyed to your phone.

So you do have to have a phone number.

And of course you can buy seven different phone numbers

if you want, but it’s gonna be about $20 or $30 a month.

So nobody’s gonna buy a thousand phones.

So yeah, you don’t have just one unique ID,

but most people do, and nobody has a thousand.

So just things like this

that would make an enormous difference.

So here’s the way that I think about it.

Imagine a public square in which the incentives

are to be an asshole,

that the more you kick people in the shins

and spit on them and throw things at them,

the more people applaud you.

Okay, so that’s the public square we have now.

Not for most people, but as you said,

just one troll can ruin it for everybody.

If there’s a thousand of us in the public square

and 10 are incentivized to kick us and throw shit at us,

it’s no fun to be in that public square.

So right now, I think Twitter in particular

is making our public square much worse.

It’s making our democracy much weaker,

much more divided, it’s bringing us down.

Imagine if we changed the incentives.

Imagine if the incentive was to be constructive.

And so this is an idea that I’ve been kicking around.

I talked about it with Reid Hoffman last week

and he seemed to think it’s a good idea.

And it would be very easy to,

rather than trying to focus on posts,

what post is fake or whatever,

focus on users, what users are incredibly aggressive.

And so people just use a lot of obscenity

and exclamation points.

AI could easily code nastiness or just aggression, hostility.

And imagine if every user is rated

on a one to five scale for that.

And the default, when you open an account

on Twitter or Facebook, the default is four.

You will see everybody who’s a four and below,

but you won’t even see the people who are fives

and they don’t get to see you.

So they can say what they want, free speech.

We’re not censoring them, they can say what they want.

But now there’s actually an incentive to not be an asshole

because the more of an asshole you are,

the more people block you out.

So imagine our country goes in two directions.

In one, things continue to deteriorate

and we have no way to have a public square

in which we could actually talk about things.

And in the other, we actually try

to disincentivize being an asshole

and encourage being constructive.

What do you think?

Well, this is because I’m an AI person

and I very much, ever since I talked to Jack

about the health of conversation,

I’ve been looking at a lot

of the machine learning models involved.

And I believe that the nastiness classification

is a difficult problem automatically.

I’m sure it is.

So I personally believe

in crowdsourced nastiness labeling.

But in an objective way,

where it doesn’t become viral mob cancellation

type of dynamics, but more sort of objectively,

is this a shady, almost out of context,

with only local context,

is this a shady thing to say at this moment?

Because here’s the thing.

Well, wait, no, but we don’t care about individual posts.

No, no, but-

All that matters is the average.

The posts make the man.

They do, but the point is,

as long as we’re talking about averages here,

one person has a misclassified post, it doesn’t matter.

Right, right, right.

Yeah, yeah, but you need to classify posts

in order to build up the average.

That’s what I mean.

And so I really like that idea,

the high-level idea of incentivizing people

to be less shitty.

Because that’s what, we have that incentive in real life.

Yeah, that’s right.

It’s actually really painful to be a full-time asshole,

I think, in physical reality.

That’s right, you’d be cut off.

It should be also pain to be an asshole on the internet.

There could be different mechanisms for that.

I wish AI was there, machine learning models were there.

They just aren’t yet.

But how about, how about we have,

so one track is we have AI machine learning models,

and they render a verdict.

Another class is crowdsourcing.

You get, and then whenever the two disagree,

you have staff at Twitter or whatever,

they look at it and they say, well, what’s going on here?

And that way you can refine both the AI,

and you can refine whatever the algorithms are

for the crowdsourcing,

because of course that can be gamed,

and people can only, hey, let’s all rate this guy

as really aggressive.

So you wouldn’t want just to rely on one single track,

but if you have two tracks, I think you could do it.

What do you think about this word misinformation

that maybe connects to our two discussions now?

So one is the discussion of social media and democracy,

and then the other is the coddling of the American mind.

I’ve seen the word misinformation misused,

or used as a bullying word, like racism and so on,

which are important concepts to identify,

but they’re nevertheless instead overused.

Does that worry you?

Because that seems to be the mechanism

from inside Twitter, from inside Facebook,

to label information you don’t like

versus information that’s actually

fundamentally harmful to society.

Yeah, so I think there is a meaning of disinformation

that is very useful and helpful,

which is when you have a concerted campaign

by Russian agents to plant a story and spread it,

and they’ve been doing that since the 50s or 40s even.

That’s what this podcast actually is.

Is what?


It’s a disinformation campaign by the Russians.

Yeah, you seem really Soviet to me, buddy.

It’s subtle.

It’s between the lines.

Okay, I’m sorry.

So I think to the extent that there are campaigns

by either foreign agents,

or just by the Republican or Democratic parties,

there have been examples of that,

there are all kinds of concerted campaigns

that are intending to confuse or spread lies.

This is the Soviet, the firehose of falsehood tactic.

So it’s very useful for that.

All the companies need to have pretty large staffs,

I think, to deal with that,

because that will always be there.

And that is really bad for our country.

So Renee Duresta is just brilliant on this.

Reading her work has really frightened me

and opened my eyes about how easy it is

to manipulate and spread misinformation,

and especially polarization.

The Russians have been trying since the 50s,

they would come to America and they would do hate crimes.

They would spray swastikas in synagogues

to make, and they spray anti-black slurs.

They try to make Americans feel

that they’re as divided as possible.

Most of the debate nowadays, however, is not that.

It seems to be people are talking about

what the other side is saying.

So if you’re on the right,

then you’re very conscious of the times when,

well, the left wouldn’t let us even say,

could COVID be from a lab?

They would, you literally would get shut down

for saying that.

Well, we don’t know if it’s true,

but there’s at least a real likelihood that it isn’t.

It certainly is something that should have been talked about.

So I tend to stay away from any such discussions.

And the reason is twofold.

One is because they’re almost entirely partisan.

It generally is each side thinks

what the other side is saying is misinformation

or disinformation, and they can prove certain examples.

So we’re not gonna get anywhere on that.

We certainly are never gonna get 60 votes in the Senate

for anything about that.

I don’t think content moderation

is nearly as important as people think.

It has to be done and it can be improved.

Almost all the action is in the dynamics,

the architecture, the virality,

and then the nature of who is on the platform,

unverified people, and how much amplification they get.

That’s what we should be looking at

rather than wasting so much of our breath

on whether we’re gonna do a little more

or a little less content moderation.

So the true harm to society on average

and over the long term is in the dynamics,

is fundamentally in the dynamics of social media,

not in the subtle choices of content moderation,

AKA censorship.


There’ve always been conspiracy theories.

You know, the Turner Diaries is this book written in 1978.

It introduced the replacement theory to a lot of people.

Timothy McVeigh had it on him when he was captured in 1995

after the Oklahoma City bombing.

It’s a kind of a Bible of that fringe violent,

racist, white supremacist group.

And that, so, you know, the killer in Buffalo

was well acquainted with these ideas.

They’ve, you know, they’ve been around,

but, you know, this guy’s from a small town.

I forget where he’s from.

You know, but he was, and he says in a manifesto,

he was entirely influenced by things he found online.

He was not influenced by anyone he met in person.

Ideas spread and communities can form,

these like micro communities can form

with bizarre and twisted beliefs.

And this is, again, back to the Atlantic article.

I’ve got this amazing quote from Martin Goury.

I mean, just find it.

But he, Martin Goury, he was a former CIA analyst,

wrote this brilliant book called

The Revolt of the Public.

And he has this great quote.

He says, he talks about how in the age of mass media,

we were all, in a sense, looking at a mirror,

looking back at us.

And it might’ve been a distorted mirror,

but we had stories in common.

We had facts in common.

It was mass media.

And he describes how the flood of information

with the internet is like a tsunami washing over us.

It has all kinds of effects.

And he says, this isn’t a comment in an interview on Vox.

He says, the digital revolution has shattered that mirror.

And now the public inhabits those broken pieces of glass.

So the public isn’t one thing.

It’s highly fragmented,

and it’s basically mutually hostile.

It’s mostly people yelling at each other

and living in bubbles of one sort or another.

And so, we now see clearly,

there’s this little bubble of just bizarre nastiness,

in which the killer in Christchurch

and the killer in Norway and now in Buffalo,

they’re all put into a community

and posts flow up within that community

by a certain dynamic.

So we can never stamp those words or ideas out.

The question is not, can we stop them from existing?

The question is, what platforms,

what are the platforms by which they spread

all over the world and into every little town

so that the 1% of whatever,

whatever percentage of young men are vulnerable to this,

that they get exposed to it?

It’s in the dynamics and the architecture.

It’s a fascinating point to think about,

because we often debate and think about

the content moderation, the censorship,

the ideas of free speech,

but you’re saying, yes, that’s important to talk about,

but much more important is fixing the dynamics.

That’s right, because everyone thinks,

if there’s regulation, it means censorship.

At least people on the right think,

regulation equals censorship.

And I’m trying to say, no, no,

that’s only if all we talk about is content moderation.

Well, then yes, that is the framework.

How much or how little do we, you know?

But I don’t even want to talk about that,

because all the action is in the dynamics.

That’s the point of my article.

It’s the architecture changed

and our social world went insane.

So can you try to steel man the other side?

So the people that might say that social media

is good for society overall,

both in the dimension of mental health,

as Mark said, for teenagers, teenage girls,

and for our democracy.

Yes, there’s a lot of negative things,

but that’s slices of data.

If you look at the whole, which is difficult to measure,

it’s actually good for society.

And to the degree that it’s not good,

it’s getting better and better.

Is it possible to steel man their point?

Yeah, it’s hard, but I should be able to do it.

I need to put my money where my mouth is,

and that’s a good question.

So on the mental health front,

you know, the argument is usually what they say is,

well, you know, for communities that are cut off,

especially LGBTQ kids, they can find each other.

So it connects kids,

especially kids who wouldn’t find connection otherwise.

It exposes you to a range of ideas and content,

and it’s fun.

Is there, in the studies you looked at,

is there inklings of data that’s maybe early data

that shows that there’s positive effects

in terms of self-report data,

or how would you measure behavioral positive?

It’s difficult.

Right, so if you look at how do you feel

when you’re on the platform,

you get a mix of positive and negative,

and people say they feel supported,

and this is what Mark was referring to when he said,

you know, there was like 18 criteria,

and on most it was positive, and on some it was negative.

So if you look at how do you feel

while you’re using the platform,

you know, look, most kids enjoy it, they’re having fun,

but some kids are feeling inferior, cut off, bullied.

So if we’re saying what’s the average experience

on the platform, that might actually be positive.

If we just measured the hedonics,

like how much fun versus fear is there,

it could well be positive.

But what I’m trying to, okay,

so is that enough steel manning?

Can I?

That’s pretty good.


You held your breath.


But what I’m trying to point out is

this isn’t a dose response sugar thing,

like how do you feel while you’re consuming heroin?

Like while I’m consuming heroin, I feel great,

but am I glad that heroin came into my life?

Am I glad that everyone in my seventh grade class

is on heroin?

Like, no, I’m not.

Like, I wish that people weren’t on heroin

and they could play on the playground,

but instead they’re just, you know,

sitting on the bench shooting up during recess.

So when you look at it as an emergent phenomenon

that changed childhood, now it doesn’t matter

what are the feelings while you’re actually using it.

We need to zoom out and say, how has this changed childhood?

Can you try to do the same for democracy?


So we can go back to, you know, what Mark said in 2012.

When he was taking Facebook public,

and you know, this is the wake of the Arab Spring.

I think people really have to remember

what an extraordinary year 2011 was.

It starts with the Arab Spring.

Dictators are pulled down.

Now people say, you know, Facebook took them down.

I mean, of course it was the citizen,

the people themselves took down dictators,

aided by Facebook and Twitter and,

I don’t know if it was, or texting,

or there were some other platforms they used.

So the argument that Mark makes

in this letter to potential shareholders, investors,

is, you know, we’re at a turning point in history.

And, you know, social media is rewiring.

We’re giving people the tools to rewire their institutions.

So this all sounds great.

Like this is the democratic dream.

And what I write about in the essay

is the period of techno-democratic optimism,

which began in the early 90s

with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union.

And then the internet comes in and, you know,

I mean, people my age remember how extraordinary it was,

how much fun it was.

I mean, the sense that this was the dawning of a new age

and there was so much optimism.

And so this optimism runs all the way from the early 90s,

all the way through 2011 with the Arab Spring.

And of course that year ends with Occupy Wall Street.

And there were also big protest movements in Israel

and Spain and in a lot of areas.

Martin Goury talks about this.

So there certainly was a case to be made

that Facebook in particular, but all these platforms,

these were God’s gift to democracy.

What dictator could possibly keep out the internet?

What dictator could stand up to people

connected on these digital media platforms?

So that’s the strong case

that this is gonna be good for democracy.

And then we can see what happened in the years after.

Now, first of all, so in Mark’s response to you,

so here, let me read from what he said

when you interviewed him.

He says, I think it’s worth grounding this conversation

in the actual research that has been done on this,

which by and large finds that social media

is not a large driver of polarization.

He says that.

Then he says, most academic studies that I’ve seen

actually show that social media use

is correlated with lower polarization.

That’s a factual claim that he makes, which is not true.

But he asserts that study, well, actually wait,

it’s tricky because he says the studies he has seen.

So I can’t, so it might be that studies he has seen

say that, but if you go to the Google Doc with Chris Bale,

you see there are seven different questions

that can be addressed.

And on one of them, which is filter bubbles,

the evidence is very mixed.

And he might be right that Facebook overall

doesn’t contribute to filter bubbles.

But on the other six, the evidence is pretty strongly

on the yes side, it is a cause.

And he also draws a line between the United States

versus the rest of the world.

Right, and there’s one thing true about that,

which is that polarization has been rising

much faster in the US than in any other major country.

So he’s right about that.

So we’re talking about an article by Matt,

Matthew Genskow, and a few other researchers.

A very important article, we’ve got it

in the political dysfunction database.

And we should say that in this study,

there’s, like I started to say,

there’s a lot of fascinating questions

that are, it’s organized by whether studies

indicate yes or no.

Question one is, does social media make people

more angry or effectively polarized?

Question two is, does social media create echo chambers?

These are fascinating, really important questions.

Question three is, does social media amplify posts

that are more emotional, inflammatory, or false?

Question four is, does social media increase

the probability of violence?

Question five is, does social media enable

foreign governments to increase political dysfunction

in the US and other democracies?

Question six, does social media decrease trust?

Seven is, does social media strengthen populist movements?

And then there’s other sections, as you mentioned.

That’s right, but once you operationalize it

as seven different questions,

so one is about polarization,

and there are measures of that,

the degree to which people say they hate the other side.

And so in this study by Boxell, Genskow, and Shapiro, 2021,

they looked at all the measures of polarization

they could find going back to the 1970s

for about 20 different countries.

And they show plots, you have these nice plots

with red lines showing that in some countries

it’s going up, like the United States especially,

in some countries it’s going down,

and in some countries it’s pretty flat.

And so Marx says, well, you know,

if polarization’s going up a lot in the US

but not in most other countries,

well, maybe Facebook isn’t responsible.

But so much depends on how you operationalize things.

Are we interested in the straight line regression line

going back to the 70s?

And if so, well, then he’s right in what he says.

But that’s not the argument.

The argument isn’t that it’s been rising

or falling since the 70s.

The argument is it’s been rising and falling

since 2012 or so.

And for that, now I just spoke with,

I’ve been emailing with the authors of the study

and they say there’s not really enough data

to do it statistically reliably

because there’s only a few observations after 2012.

But if you look at the graphs in their study,

and they actually do provide, as they pointed out to me,

they do provide a statistical test

if you break the data at the year 2000.

So actually a polarization is going up pretty widely

if you just look after 2000,

which is when the internet would be influential.

And if you look just after 2012,

you have to just do it by eye.

But if you do it on their graphs by eye,

you see that actually a number of countries

do see a sudden sharp upturn.

Not all, not all by any means.

But my point is, Mark asserts,

he points to one study and he points to this

over and over again.

I have had two conversations with him.

He pointed to this study both times.

He asserts that this study shows

that polarization is up some places,

down other places, there’s no association.

But actually, we have another section in the Google Doc

where we review all the data on the decline of democracy.

And the high point of democracy,

of course, it was rising in the 90s.

But if you look around the world,

by some measures it begins to drop in the late 2000s,

around 2007, 2008.

By others, it’s in the early to mid 2010s.

The point is, there is a, by many measures,

there’s a drop in the quality and the number of democracies

on this planet that began in the 2010s.

And so, yes, Mark can point to one study.

But if you look in the Google Doc,

there are a lot of other studies that point the other way.

And especially about whether things

are getting more polarized or less, more polarized.

Not in all countries, but in a lot.

So you’ve provided the problem,

several proposals for solutions.

Do you think Mark, do you think Elon or whoever

is at the head of Twitter

would be able to implement these changes?

Or does there need to be a competitor social network system

to step up?

If you were to predict the future,

no, this is you giving sort of financial advice to me.


If you’re able to.

Definitely not financial advice.

I can give you advice.

Do the opposite of whatever I’ve done.

Okay, excellent.

But what do you think, when we talk again in 10 years,

what do you think we’d be looking at if it’s a better world?

Yeah, so you have to look at each,

the dynamics of each change that needs to be made.

And you have to look at it systemically.

And so the biggest change for teen mental health,

I think, is to raise the age from 13,

it was set to 13 in COPPA in like 1997 or six or whatever,

that was eight, whatever it was.

It was set to 13 with no enforcement.

I think it needs to go to 16 or 18 with enforcement.

Now, there’s no way that Facebook can say,

actually, so look, Instagram, the age is 13,

but they don’t enforce it.

And they’re under pressure to not enforce it

because if they did enforce it,

then all the kids would just go to TikTok,

which they’re doing anyway.

But if we go back a couple of years,

when they were talking about rolling out Facebook for kids,

because they need to get those kids,

they need to get kids under 13.

There’s a business imperative to hook them early

and keep them.

So I don’t expect Facebook to act on its own accord

and do the right thing because then they-

So regulation is the only way.


When you have a social dilemma,

what economists call like a prisoner’s dilemma

or a social dilemma is generalized to multiple people.

And when you have a social dilemma,

each player can’t opt out because they’re gonna lose.

You have to have central regulation.

So I think we have to raise the age.

The UK parliament is way ahead of us.

I think they’re actually functional.

The US Congress is not functional.

So the parliament is implementing

the age-appropriate design code

that may put pressure on the platforms globally

to change certain.

So anyway, my point is we have to have regulation

to force them to be transparent

and share what they’re doing.

There are some good bills out there.

So I think that if the companies and the users,

we’re all stuck in a social dilemma

in which the incentives against doing the right thing

are strong, we do need regulation on certain matters.

And again, it’s not about content moderation.

Who gets to say what?

But it’s things like the Platform Accountability

and Transparency Act, which is from Senators Coons,

Portman, and Klobuchar.

This would force the platforms to just share information

about what they’re doing.

We can’t even study what’s happening

without the information.

So that I think is just common sense.

Senator Michael Bennett introduced

the Digital Platforms Commission Act of 2022,

which would create a body tasked with actually regulating

and having oversight.

Right now, the U.S. government doesn’t have a body.

I mean, the FTC can do certain things.

We have things about antitrust,

but we don’t have a body that can oversee or understand

these things that are transforming everything

and possibly severely damaging our political life.

So I think there’s a lot of…

Oh, and then the state of California

is actually currently considering a version

of the UK’s, the Age-Appropriate Design Code,

which would force the companies to do some simple things

like not be sending alerts and notifications to children

at 10 or 11 o’clock at night, just things like that

to make platforms just less damaging.

So I think there’s an essential role for regulation.

And I think if the U.S. Congress

is too paralyzed by politics,

if the UK and the EU and the state of California

and a few other states, if they enact legislation,

the platforms don’t wanna have different versions

in different states or countries.

So I think there actually is some hope,

even if the U.S. Congress is dysfunctional.

So there is, because I’ve been interacting

with certain regulations that’s hitting,

designed to hit Amazon, but it’s hitting YouTube.

YouTube folks have been talking to me,

which is recommender systems.

The algorithm has to be public, I think,

versus private, which completely breaks.

It’s way too clumsy a regulation

where the unintended consequences

break recommender systems, not for Amazon,

but for other platforms.

That’s just to say that government can sometimes

be clumsy with the regulation.

And so my preference is the threat of regulation

in a friendly way encourages, you really shouldn’t need it.

My preference is great leaders lead the way

in doing the right thing.

And I actually, honestly, to our earlier

kind of maybe my naive disagreement

that I think it’s good business

to do the right thing in these spaces.

So creating a product.

Sometimes it is, sometimes it loses you,

most of your users.

Well, I think it’s important because I’ve been thinking

a lot about World War III recently.

And it might be silly to say,

but I think social media has a role

in either creating World War III

or avoiding World War III.

It seems like so much of wars throughout history

have been started through very fast escalation.

And it feels like just looking at our recent history,

social media is the mechanism for escalation.

And so it’s really important to get this right,

not just for the mental health of young people,

not just for the polarization of bickering

over small scale political issues,

but literally the survival of human civilization.

So there’s a lot at stake here.

Yeah, I certainly agree with that.

I would just say that I’m less concerned

about World War III than I am about Civil War II.

I think that’s a more likely prospect.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Can I ask for your wise sage advice to young people?

So advice number one is put down the phone.

Don’t use Instagram and social media.

But to young people in high school and college,

how to have a career or how to have a life

they can be proud of.

Yeah, I’d be happy to,

because I teach a course at NYU in the business school

called Work, Wisdom, and Happiness.

And the course is, you know,

it’s advice on how to have a happy,

you know, a successful career as a human being.

But the course has evolved that it’s now about three things,

how to get stronger, smarter, and more sociable.

If you can do those three things,

then you will be more successful at work

and in love and friendships.

And if you are more successful in work, love,

and friendships, then you will be happier.

You will be as happy as you can be, in fact.

So the question is,

how do you become smarter, stronger, and happier?

And the answer to all three is, it’s a number of things,

but it’s, you have to see yourself

as this like complex adaptive system.

You’ve got this complicated mind

that needs a lot of experience to wire itself up.

And the most important part of that experience is

that you don’t grow

when you are with your attachment figure.

You don’t grow when you’re safe.

You have an attachment figure to make you feel confident

to go out and explore the world.

In that world, you will face threats, you will face fear,

and sometimes you’ll come running back.

But you have to keep doing it because over time,

you then develop the strength to stay out there

and to conquer it.

That’s normal human childhood.

That’s what we blocked in the 1990s in this country.

So young people have to get themselves the childhood,

and this is all the way through adolescence

and young adulthood.

They have to get themselves the experience

that older generations are blocking them from out of fear,

and that their phones are blocking them from

out of just hijacking almost all the inputs into their life

in almost all the minutes of their day.

So go out there, put yourself out in experiences.

You are anti-fragile and you’re not gonna get strong

unless you actually have setbacks and criticisms and fights.

So that’s how you get stronger.

And then there’s an analogy in how you get smarter,

which is you have to expose yourself to other ideas,

to ideas that people that criticize you,

people that disagree with you.

And this is why I co-founded Heterodox Academy

because we believe that faculty need to be in communities

that have political diversity and viewpoint diversity,

but so do students.

And it turns out students want this.

The surveys show very clearly Gen Z

has not turned against viewpoint diversity.

Most of them want it,

but they’re just afraid of the small number

that will sort of shoot darts at them

if they say something wrong.

So anyway, the point is you’re anti-fragile,

and so you have to realize that to get stronger,

you have to realize that to get smarter.

And then the key to becoming more sociable is very simple.

It’s just always looking at it

through the other person’s point of view.

Don’t be so focused on what you want

and what you’re afraid of.

Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

What’s interesting to them?

What do they want?

And if you develop the skill of looking at it

from their point of view,

you’ll be a better conversation partner,

you’ll be a better life partner.

So there’s a lot that you can do.

I mean, I could say,

go read The Coddling of the American Mind.

I could say, go read Dale Carnegie,

How to Win Friends and Influence People.

But take charge of your life and your development,

because if you don’t do it,

then the older protective generation and your phone

are gonna take charge of you.

So on anti-fragility and coddling the American mind,

if I may read just a few lines

from Chief Justice John Roberts,

which I find is really beautiful.

So it’s not just about viewpoint diversity,

but it’s real struggle, absurd, unfair struggle

that seems to be formative to the human mind.

He says, from time to time in the years to come,

I hope you will be treated unfairly

so that you will come to know the value of justice.

I hope that you will suffer betrayal

because that will teach you the importance of loyalty.

Sorry to say, but I hope you will be lonely

from time to time so that you don’t take friends for granted.

I wish you bad luck again from time to time

so that you will be conscious of the role of chance in life

and understand that your success is not completely deserved

and that the failure of others

is not completely deserved either.

And when you lose, as you will from time to time,

I hope every now and then your opponent

will gloat over your failure.

It is a way for you to understand

the importance of sportsmanship.

I hope you’ll be ignored

so you know the importance of listening to others.

And I hope you will have just enough pain

to learn compassion.

Whether I wish these things or not,

they’re going to happen.

And whether you benefit from them or not

will depend upon your ability

to see the message in your misfortunes.

He read that in a middle school graduation.

Yes, for his son’s middle school graduation.

That’s what I was trying to say,

only that’s much more beautiful.

Yeah, and I think your work is really important

and it is beautiful and it’s bold and fearless

and it’s a huge honor that you would sit with me.

I’m a big fan.

Thank you for spending your valuable time with me today,

John, thank you so much.

Thanks so much, Lex, what a pleasure.

Thanks for listening to this conversation

with Jonathan Haidt.

To support this podcast,

please check out our sponsors in the description.

And now, let me leave you with some words from Carl Jung.

Everything that irritates us about others

can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.

Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.



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