Few South Africans have heard of Jonathan Haidt, but it’s time they did. His lucid writing on the profound shift in moral culture happening across the English-speaking world has enabled me to make sense of developments that would otherwise be as incomprehensible as they are disturbing.

Haidt, a social psychologist. is professor of ethical leadership at New York University. One of his research fields is the psychology of morality, a concept I had never heard of until I discovered his work. Now that I am familiar with the term, and its many applications, a lot has fallen into place. One is the impact of social media.

In an article co-authored with Tobias Rose-Stockwell, and published in the December 2019 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Haidt analysed the impact of social media on the way individuals and groups communicate with each other, and the implications for society. Among other things, the article applies a social psychologist’s analysis to the culture of outrage and moral grandstanding that has come to dominate social media.

During the past 15 years, communication in modern societies has increasingly ceased to happen directly between real human beings who typically know each other. Instead, technology has enabled communication, under the cover of anonymity, between millions of people simultaneously, including fake accounts posing as people. It has also enabled anyone with access to a smartphone to link up with others, creating vast technologically-driven herds, acting in unison without consequences.

Under these circumstances, what happens to the norms of social behaviour? What happens to the parameters of constraint — such as respect for facts, or even basic civility — that usually characterise face-to-face human interactions? Our societies have been caught off-guard, unprepared to describe, let along manage, the consequences.

Our first challenge is that we do not have the vocabulary to describe what is happening. Though the internet has created a whole dictionary of new words to describe its many uses and abuses (googling, tweeting, phishing, sexting, trending and twarring, to name a few), these still do not help us describe the psychological effect and perverse incentives of mass-based communication technology on human behaviour.

Instead of enabling moral evolution and extending rational discourse, technology seems to have reinforced human instinct for predation, gossiping, scapegoating, social ostracisation and witch-hunting, without any of the normal constraints of decency that usually accompany interaction between people who know each other.

So it was, that in the midst of analysing yet another social media storm recently, and encouraged by a few posts online, I invited my Twitter followers to assist in finding new terms to define what we are dealing with. We need punchy words to describe a range of social phenomena, including:

  • The deliberate distortion and manipulation of what people say online, to generate mass outrage and drive a specific agenda. Here the best offering was “fauxrage”, or fake rage. It is also pronounced “forage”, which is an excellent description of what many Twitter trolls spend much time doing: combing through the timelines of specific people to find reasons to misinterpret what they say, take offence — often on behalf of others — and generate fake outrage.
  • The tendency to join the mass stampede and “get it trending”, to make the biggest impact possible, often with the assistance of fake accounts. The best proposal in this category was “agitrolling”, a clever adaptation of “agitprop”, which describes political campaigns, usually in totalitarian countries, that are disguised as art or literature. Agitrolling, of course, disguises a political campaign behind social media posts.
  • The commentariat’s attempts to jump on the bandwagon, justifying and magnifying the misrepresentation, attempting to authenticate the resulting fauxrage, and disguising its true intention. Here the winning proposal was “verbiflage”. 

In my readings around this phenomenon I have been fascinated to learn that it isn’t really new. Charles Dickens was already using an appropriate description for all three tendencies more than two centuries ago. Because human nature never really changes (it is our tools that evolve) Dickens called such people “convulsionists” — members of a fanatical sect that claimed to have identified the “truth” that no-one else dare challenge.

Having a term to describe such people helped, even back then, to expose them for what they were, and offered the rational middle ground (who don’t claim to have discovered “truth” but wish to examine its complexity) an analytical shield against the mob.

But Haidt and Rose-Stockwell make additional proposals for dealing with this age-old phenomenon in modern times, which have significant merit. To deal with the proliferation of millions of fake accounts, they suggest that every person opening a social media account should have to verify their identity —  even if they choose to post under a pseudonym.

Second, they suggest the major platforms should remove the function that shows “likes” or “retweets” so people are discouraged from seeking social affirmation by moral grandstanding and pack-hunting.

Lastly, they propose that the algorithms of artificial intelligence be used to make people reconsider before making potentially hateful posts, by asking: “Do you really want to post this?”.  This, they suggest, would give the user pause for thought before clicking “send”.

It is this last proposal I am most ambivalent about. The reason is that the major platforms seem to have devised their algorithms to suit the prevailing narrative based on neo-Marxist identity politics, resulting in a profound double standard. It is apparently acceptable to attack, and even threaten, certain categories of people, such as straight, white men, on social media. But it is not okay to question which pronouns should be used for people who identify as transsexual.

The great value of Haidt’s work is his use of social psychology to prepare us for the type of society George Orwell predicted in his dystopian novel 1984. His warning for democracies everywhere applies equally to us: if we want the idea of democracy to regain respect in an age when dissatisfaction with democracies is rising, we will need to understand the many ways in which today’s social media platforms create conditions that may be hostile to democracy’s success.

And then we must take decisive action, in ways that defend core freedoms rather than destroy them.

• Zille is DA federal council chair.