Are Social Media Platforms Ready?

First, a response to Jonathan Rauch’s compliment about my use of the term “emotional correctness.” Alas, Jonathan, I first encountered the term reading Frank Furedi’s book What’s Happened to the University?, so I cannot claim originality here. I can say that I immediately adopted the term for my own use because it so poignantly captured my longstanding concern about the trend the term captures. Other insightful writers have chronicled the ways in which the “therapeutic ethic” has affected public discourse and citizenship, going back to Philip Rieff (1966), Richard Sennett (1974), Christopher Lasch (1976), Elizabeth Lasch-Quinn (2001), and even Hannah Arendt in the 1950s. This is not a knock on therapy’s utility within its proper sphere, but rather a critique of its expansion into other domains of the polity, where it can be counterproductive or worse. Among other things, this aggrandizement reflects the blurring of the boundary between public and private life that once served as a linchpin of liberal freedom. Social media has exacerbated this blurring its own special way.

I first witnessed the contemporary deployment of emotional correctness back in 2000, when a UW-Madison student responded to a talk by Dinesh D’Souza during the question and answer session by declaring that D’Souza’s talk had traumatized him so much that he wouldn’t be able to study for at least a week, or even perform his normal functions. The audience was rather stunned by this remark, but I perceived it as a harbinger of things to come. I wish that my cultural antenna had been wrong.

Second, this trend adds some weight to the pessimism that Arnold Kling expresses in his reply to Jonathan regarding social media’s ability to fix itself. Fact checking and checking for harmful vitriol in this domain become more difficult when a culture’s consensus over what constitutes “harm” breaks down.[1] The concept of “harm” continues to expand, as Nadine Strossen shows regarding hate speech in her recent book, Hate: Why We Should Resist It with Free Speech, Not Censorship. In iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us, social psychologist Jean Twenge found that 28% of a national survey of young adults believed a professor should be fired for making just one “insensitive” remark in class.

Given what we could call the “new politics of harm,” how can we fairly trust social media organizations so replete with young adults to consistently distinguish in a proper manner?

Are social media institutions properly equipped to understand this problem, and then to monitor appropriately?


[1] See Bernard E. Harcourt, “The Collapse of the Harm Principle,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Volume 90 (1990).

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Arnold Kling has devoted years to observing and participating in American political discourse. Such as it is. He writes that all too often, Americans seek to demonize those with whom they disagree, rather than trying first to understand what they are saying in their own terms. Social media does not help us to do better, he argues, but one thing that could is surprisingly simple: “If you think that the problem with political discourse is caused entirely by the other side,” he writes, “then look in the mirror instead.”

Response Essays

  • Jonathan Rauch offers a “friendly amendment” to Arnold Kling’s argument: We must amend our weakening civic institutions. He recommends direct social action, including but not limited to various organizations that seek to start conversation across political divides; strengthening institutions that don’t line up neatly with partisan politics, but that serve good purposes anyway; and—perhaps controversially—re-engineering our social media environment.

  • Nikki Usher turns her attention to American journalism, which often sets the tone for our political conversations. She finds that with the decline of local journalism, journalists have an increasingly cohesive and uniform view—one that sees itself as cosmopolitan, but that is really parochial to Washington, DC. Journalists nowadays often stumble in covering other areas of the country, which increases the importance of Arnold Kling’s populist/cosmopolitan divide.

  • Donald Downs considers that free speech requires a concern for the personhood and well-being of others—and the concern to avoid offense can also be stifling. He characterizes this as a tension between chutzpah and “due doubt” of one’s own beliefs, and he argues for the importance of civility understood in a special way: Civility is not mere politeness in politics, he argues; it is a key part of the role that we must all play as citizens, regardless of political disagreements.