The Problem With Comparing Social Media to Big Tobacco

Last month, the surgeon general released a lengthy advisory calling attention to social media and its effects on the mental health of teenagers. Historically, a warning from the surgeon general pointed a big neon sign at an issue that we might not be sure how much to worry about: cigarettes, AIDS, drunk driving. But people are already worried about social media—and they’re acting on those concerns. School districts are suing social-media companies for “knowingly” harming children. Legislators are grilling tech-company founders in hearings. Pundits are calling for age-restricting access to apps. Everyone just wants to do something, anything, to get this under control.

This is all understandable. Teenagers have become more anxious and more depressed. A notable rise in depression started in 2012, about the time many high schoolers got smartphones. Many parents who had teenagers during that period saw these changes in real time: A child who might have been ruffled by school social dynamics suddenly couldn’t escape them, and her mental health tanked.

The problem is real. But is it as real as the problems caused by cigarettes or drunk driving? We don’t know yet. Researchers have only started to understand who is vulnerable and what we can do to protect them. In this conversation, we talk with Kaitlyn Tiffany, who covers tech for The Atlantic and has been tracking the unfolding research into the effects of social media in detail. We won’t tell you whether to worry a lot, or not at all. We’ll just step away from the urgency for a moment to tell you what experts know, what they are guessing at, and how you might proceed in all that frustrating uncertainty.

Listen to the conversation here:

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The following is a transcript of the episode:

Hanna Rosin: I’m Hanna Rosin, and this is Radio Atlantic. So last week I was talking to a friend of mine who shared this fantasy she has of shipping her kids to a tech-free island where there were no phones, no tablets, no video games, no computers, not even a television. Now, I’ve parented three teenagers. And I’ve had this fantasy myself many, many times.

And like all fantasies of frustrated parents, it’s useless. Like you can practically hear the teen eye rolls in the background. This episode is my attempt to be useful to address the problem of teens, their phones, and their mental health from a place of facts and research and actual knowledge.

So this week I’m going to talk to staff writer Kaitlyn Tiffany, who writes about tech and online culture, and who knows that this issue is both urgent—laws are being considered right now—and annoyingly hard to pin down.

Kaitlyn Tiffany: Obviously, in eight years of writing about social media, I would not ever argue that it’s unfair to criticize these tech companies or that there’s not a ton to criticize, but it just seems counterproductive to constantly just be blaring the sirens rather than saying anything specific.

Rosin: Oh my God, I’m so glad to hear you say that. The word I keep writing down every time, almost every time I read about teens and social media, is broad. Like I’ve, I, I’ve moved away from hysterical, which is what I used to write down, but I still feel intellectually like it’s just too broad.

Tiffany: Yeah, definitely.

Rosin: And part of why I wanted to talk to Tiffany now is that it’s not just parents who are trying to crack this. It’s teachers, the teens themselves, but also legislators. There is a real hunger to do something. Pass something now, and last week gave that a big push forward.

Archival: Today, the U.S. surgeon general released sobering new figures on teen social-media use and its effects on their mental health. Dr. Vivek Murphy says social media’s effect on the mental health of young people isn’t fully understood yet. It is a main contributor to depression, anxiety, and other problems in the nation’s teenagers.

Rosin: So Tiffany, what exactly did the surgeon general say last week?

Tiffany: So the surgeon general released this 19-page advisory about social media that basically identifies it as a quote public-health challenge, but also emphasized that there’s a lot of research that needs to be done before people can say that social media is, quote, unquote, safe. So that’s kind of an interesting approach. He’s not saying that we need to prove that it’s dangerous. He’s saying we need to prove that it’s not dangerous.

Rosin: Mm-hmm.

Tiffany: And he’s drawing attention to possible risks of harm, especially for adolescents in, like, specific developmental stages. So younger preteen girls—11 to 13— boys, 14 to 15 years old, but also acknowledging there are these known, quote, unquote, evidence gaps. So was the most harmful thing that you’re losing sleep? Is the most harmful thing that you are not seeing your friends in person, et cetera? But the headline, yeah, is kind of like, Everyone pay attention to this.

It could be really bad.

Rosin: Right. Okay, so here is kind of a big question. What do we know about social media and kids at this point?

Tiffany: What we know is that through the process of doing hundreds of studies, researchers have somewhat narrowed down to some really pertinent questions about when and under which circumstances social media would be bad. It’s not in all circumstances, and it’s not for everyone. I know that is very confusing, but that is pretty much what we know.

Rosin: Yeah it creates this funky moment where legislators wanna do something now. And I bet the surgeon general’s report will just make that more intense. But the research doesn’t have enough nuance right now. Like in order to know what to do, you kind of have to know more precisely what the problem is, but the research isn’t quite there yet.

Tiffany: Right.

Rosin: Yeah. Okay. So maybe we should talk about how we got here.

Tiffany: Yeah, so I’d say there are three pretty significant moments we should touch on. A lot of researchers, or people who are interested in this topic, point to 2012 as being sort of the saturation point where the iPhone had been out long enough that young kids were starting to have them. It was also the year that Facebook acquired Instagram, which ballooned its growth, led to it launching on Android and becoming sort of a part of everyone’s daily lives.

Rosin: So the image we have of a teenager walking around with a phone, looking at whatever they’re looking at [on] Snapchat, Instagram, that started in 2012?

Tiffany: Yeah. Or, you know, became sort of the mass phenomenon by 2012. I remember somebody in my high school having an iPhone in 2007, but he was like the only person that everybody would, like, line up to play with it. It wasn’t normal yet.

Rosin: Yeah, 2012 was exactly the year that my then-preteen daughter got a cellphone, and that everybody suddenly had one in middle school.

Okay, let’s back up, because I didn’t ask you an important question: Are you interested in naming your generation? Just because a lot of this conversation is often framed as generational battles, so I’m curious to understand where you intersect with social media.

Tiffany: Oh yeah, sure. I’m a Millennial, so I did not have social media until, like, the very end of high school. My senior year, I got a Facebook account, and then I guess I wasn’t on Instagram until I [had] almost graduated from college because I didn’t have a smartphone right away.

Rosin: I just think it’s important to locate people in where they are. It’s like, are they the alarmed parent generation or are they the teenager? Are they somewhere in the middle?

Tiffany: Yeah, totally.

Rosin: Okay, so then it’s just everybody’s walking around with cellphones and then what happens?

Tiffany: Yeah, so, the next significant turning point is in 2017, where there is a bit of a backlash, I think partly driven by interest in some tech personalities talking about how they don’t let their kids use screens. But then actually sort of—

Rosin: Is that really—that’s, that’s one of the things that did it?

Tiffany: Yeah.

Rosin: That’s really funny.

Tiffany: I think it comes up a bit that, like, Steve Jobs didn’t think kids should use technology like that. But yeah, 2016, 2017, there’s more concern about should kids be spending the whole day looking at their smartphones. And The Atlantic actually published a really big piece by a researcher named Jean Twenge where the headline was “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?”

Rosin: [Gasps] That is such an Atlantic-y headline. That’s actually one of the reasons I really wanted to talk to you, because I remember, I remember reading that story. I just remember having a huge resistance to it. Even though, you know, I wrote for The Atlantic, just thinking, like, Wow, that’s throwing the gauntlet down.

That’s, like, a really big question. I mean, I know it had a question mark after it, but it was like, have smartphones destroyed a generation?

Tiffany: Yeah. And it’s like, and we think the answer is yes.

Rosin: Right, right. All right, so what did Twenge argue in that article?

Tiffany: Yeah. So she was talking about these numbers that she’d been seeing, which come out regularly, from this survey that the National Institute on Drug Abuse conducts, asking adolescents about how happy they are and how they spend their free time. And she was noticing this correlation between spending a lot of time looking at screens and also expressing unhappiness and depression and suicidal ideation. That was the first thing that really concerned her. And then she was also pulling out these more specific data points, like a decrease in [the] number of teenagers who were driving or going out on dates or who had ever had sex. And there was the trend line showing that people were saying “I often feel left out of things,” or “A lot of times I feel lonely,” or “I get less than seven hours of sleep per night.” Those were concerning to her as well.

Rosin: So just to be perfectly clear, the headline says, has X caused Y, but what the data did was put X next to Y, right? It was just like in these last few years, teenagers have gotten smartphones. Also, in these last few years, there’s been this marked shift in a lot of markers of wellness. It was “an elbow in the data,” like that it was unmissable because it was such a sharp turn.

So it’s like, we see the sharp turn. Also, there were cellphones. There’s no causality there, right?

Tiffany: Yeah, yeah, so she’s talking about CDC surveys that were not specifically intended to look at how social media might affect teen mental health. They were, you know, sort of general as of like teen behavior and psychology.

And then she was creatively reading them and presenting a very legitimate hypothesis. But then, social-science researchers were presented with the challenge then of seeing whether that would bear out. So right after her article came out, there’s a huge balloon in the amount of research that was conducted. But, yeah, the first step would’ve just been like, Cool hypothesis. Let’s give it a whirl.

Rosin: Yeah. Okay. So basically that’s what I thought. Basically what’s happening between 2017 and now is, like, Cool hypothesis. Let’s test it out in lots of different formats. Let’s road test it here and there, and let’s just see, like, does it hold up? So what were the dynamics that researchers started to hypothesize?

Tiffany: So around this time, the initial question that people had was about screen time overall. So the next notable moment would have come in 2019, when researchers from Oxford published this study that was looking for correlations between digital-technology use and well-being.

And once they found this small correlation, they then sort of set it up against some other things to provide context to readers, which is pretty innovative I guess, because it allowed the study to travel pretty far, because rather than saying, Oh, the association between technology use and well-being is negative 0.049, which is probably meaningless to most people, you can say that the association between technology use and well-being is smaller than the association that’s been found between well-being and binge drinking or smoking or even having asthma or wearing glasses. And it’s only very slightly larger than the association between well-being and eating potatoes.

Rosin: Oh, this is the potato study, right?

Tiffany: Yes. The iconic potato study.

Rosin: The Great Potato Study. I remember that study, and I remember headlines like “Screen Time Is About as Dangerous as Potatoes,” and I remember finding it also totally unsatisfying because it was like, “Oh, you know, it’s ruining a generation.” “No, it’s totally cool. It’s fine. Like, there’s no problem. Don’t worry about it.” It was like neither of those answers seemed correct or were satisfying.

Like, you could see as a parent that something historically monumental was happening and you couldn’t quite put your finger on it. And just from my perspective, like, I neither wanted to be completely, totally alarmed, nor did I want to be like, “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” you know?

Tiffany: Yeah, I think the value of the potato study is that it was sort of like resetting the table a bit—like the objective, you know, when the researchers talked about the study after it was published, was to kind of acknowledge that screen time as a category is just like too broad to study in a meaningful way, because people use screens for so many different things, you know? They use them to harass and stalk people, or they use them to, like, do a yoga video. They use them to research their homework. They use them to, like, mindlessly scroll through TikTok. Like, it would be impossible to get a meaningful answer at, like, a high level about how screens as a blanket category affect people’s lives.

Rosin: Right, right. It’s useful to have a reset so that we can start narrowing in on what the problem actually is, because there is an actual problem, right? Like, depression is rising. It is a real thing. I mean, I’ve looked at the same data set that these researchers are concerned about, and they’re right. It’s really stark. Like, look at rates of depression and suicidality among teenage girls, and it’s incontrovertible that something is happening. So we’re worried about something beyond just, you know, We hate Mark Zuckerberg.

Tiffany: Yeah. I mean, the legitimate worry is that there are obvious and measured increases in depression among young people. There was a big CDC trend report that came out earlier this year that was looking at the data from 2011 to 2021.

Rosin: Mm-hmm.

Tiffany: So in 2011, 28 percent of teenagers said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and in 2021, that number had jumped to 42 percent.

And they saw big jumps in the percentage of high-school students who experienced, quote, persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, a jump in the percentage that considered suicide, as well as they started measuring for the first time the percentage that said they’d experienced poor mental health, including stress and anxiety and depression in the past 30 days. That number was 29 percent. And for female students, 57 percent said they experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and 69 percent of LGBTQ students. So those were kind of the dramatic top-line numbers that were widely covered and alarming.

Rosin: Yeah, and I guess we can all imagine there are lots and lots of reasons why young people would feel hopeless or in despair. But I also will say I’ve had many conversations with fellow parents who would describe it as night and day, like what their child was like before they were deep in social media all day and all night and had no escape from it.

And what they were like after that was their reality. Like people can truly narrate, you know, Okay, my child was like this. They would go in their room and draw; they would read a book; even if they had a bad time at school, they could escape from it. And then all of a sudden that wasn’t possible. It became like it totally occupied their psyche.

Tiffany: Yeah, definitely.

Rosin: So, okay, so let me summarize so far. So you had the Twenge article, which was like a boom in one direction, and then you had the potato research, which was a boom in the other direction. And it just sort of flipped-flopped back and forth. There’s hysteria. There’s the bounce back from hysteria. And hopefully, what I’m hoping is that, since 2012, researchers start to get more specific.

Like they start to narrow in on who’s vulnerable and what kinds of behaviors are vulnerable.

Tiffany: Yeah. I think once you get past the Oxford study in 2019, you’re at a point where you’re saying it’s not yes or no, and we’re done talking about screens. That’s pointless. Let’s talk specifically about social media, and let’s pull the data out into more specific segments so that we can be talking about specific populations, because it’s also a waste of our time to say, Screens do X to everyone all the time.

Rosin: Okay, so you and I have had this really lovely clarifying academic discussion, but the world doesn’t necessarily have patience for our lovely little academic discussion, because there is this growing urgency for regulatory or legislative intervention, and it’s kind of becoming hard to resist.

Tiffany: Yeah, so I think the question of, like, regulatory or legislative intervention has been much more urgent and frequently asked in the last couple of years, since the Facebook files were leaked by Frances Haugen. To time stamp, this was in the fall of 2021. Frances Haugen, who was an employee at Facebook, leaked a huge batch of documents from the company to a bunch of journalists. And in the Facebook files, the most dramatic revelation was this collection of slides presenting internal research that Facebook had done where teen girls expressly said, Instagram makes me feel bad about myself or causes all of these problems for me in my emotional life.

And the thing that was sort of missing from a lot of the conversation around those slides was that they were conducted not scientifically, like admittedly not scientifically, not for scientific purposes. So there’s a pretty big contrast between that and the sort of like decades of studies proving that cigarettes cause cancer.

But the takeaway from the Frances Haugen leak was that meme of, like, “Facebook knew”—like, Facebook knew it was doing this.

And so that was kind of transitioned quite smoothly and quickly into this comparison to Big Tobacco, which is super common now.

And I get why people use these metaphors. I just, like, worry about how literal people take them sometimes, because cigarettes do not have societal benefits and people died horrifically of lung cancer. That is simply not the same thing as the questions that we have about social media.

Like, tobacco is bad for everyone. Full stop. If you smoke cigarettes, that’s bad for you, and there’s no debate about that. And social media can be bad for some people in certain circumstances, but it also would be pretty ridiculous, I think, to argue that it has no benefits whatsoever.

Rosin: Right.

Tiffany: And it’s not as simple as saying: “Drop the cigarette; it’s gonna kill you.”

Rosin: Mm, this is so helpful. I already understand so much more than I did, you know, half an hour ago when we started this conversation. For me, this is important and satisfying because almost everything I read in the popular media, like, nothing feels specific enough to me. So that’s basically what I’m looking for. It’s, like, Oh, we’re about to enter this era where we’re gonna haul people up to the Hill and make all this legislation.

But before I know how to think about all that legislation or if I think it’s the right thing to do, or not the right thing to do, I just feel like I need to understand a little better what the problem is and, like, who, who we’re targeting and what the research shows and just understand it a little better.

Tiffany: Yeah, definitely. If there are big policy changes now, it will be hard to, first of all, prove what kind of effect they have and, second of all, reverse them if they don’t work. So, the stakes are really high; we should definitely figure out what we’re doing.

Rosin: Okay, that brings us to now. So let’s you and I do it. Let’s get into specifics. What concrete things do researchers actually know? And what directions are they pointing in now?

Tiffany: Yeah, I think there are still questions that remain to be answered, and hopefully some of those will come as we’ve had more time to do, like, longer studies. There’s one that’s being done right now that started in 2016 that’s looking at the same group over a period of 10 years. So you can maybe identify specifically cause and effect, but there’s been some smaller-scale ones that I think pretty convincingly prove that there are these windows of acute vulnerability for teenagers, and specifically for young girls between 11 and 13 and boys between 14 and 15.

But for girls it’s even more apparent, and there are pretty clear relations between specific mental-health outcomes. So as social-media use goes up, the satisfaction in their appearance goes sharply down, in a study that came out last year. So those things are starting to be repeated more clearly, which also gives important clues as to the mechanisms of how social-media use would affect somebody’s mental health, because, like, in that case, that’s obviously an issue of, like, of body image and social comparison, which is about the platform itself.

Whereas, you know, some other studies have wondered, maybe it’s not anything that they’re doing online. Maybe it’s just the fact that being on your phone means that you sleep less or go outside less, or hang out with your friends in person less. So if that’s the case, you know, that becomes maybe more of an issue of parenting than if it is specifically about the content they’re being served or about the sort of basic structure of the app. Like, that’s really good to know and is important to act on. I think it is obviously still difficult to say, like, “What are you gonna do about the fact that Instagram makes girls feel bad about the way that they look?” That’s a pretty broad problem with a lot of cultural history and baggage, but it’s at least, like, something to focus on.

Rosin: Mm-hmm. It’s funny; a lot of this is, like, it sort of ends up in a commonsense realm.

Tiffany: Yeah.

Rosin: I have my parent hat [on] now. So, like everything else, it requires knowing the child, and, whether it’s a teacher who knows the child or a parent or friends, it’s like there are young girls whose brains are still developing, who are just past puberty, who are maybe self-conscious, and social media can exacerbate, it sounds like, existing dynamics that girls have struggled with forever.

And so if you know that there’s a kid who’s just especially vulnerable to those dynamics, and let’s say you notice them up all night or not sleeping or really fixated on these things.

Tiffany: Yeah, I think that’s right.

Rosin: Like, as a parent, I’ve definitely had the instinct of, like, Get off your damn phone. But it seems like if you’re actually looking for vulnerability, it’s a little more precise than that.

Tiffany: Yeah. And I think it sounds kind of hokey to be, like, “Just talk to your kids.” But these do seem to be things that kids are pretty articulate about.

Rosin: Mm-hmm. So the dynamics they’re talking about with young girls, are they just the dynamics of time immemorial? Like do they ever get into, you know, is it scrolling that’s the problem? Is it scrolling for X number of hours? Is it your close friends, or is it looking at pictures of the Kardashians?

Like, what have they ever, like, homed in on sort of, what is the behavior that leaves you feeling vulnerable? Like, is it passive or active? Is it posting pictures or just looking at other people’s pictures?

Tiffany: Yeah, there was a period where there was a lot of interest in that distinction between active and passive use: people sort of arguing that there might be a difference in terms of how social media affects you, whether you’re actively messaging people and posting stuff. And that might be good, whereas passively scrolling and, you know, just seeing things that make you feel bad would be worse.

But it kind of came down to these aren’t meaningful distinctions, because there’s good active use and there’s destructive active use and there’s good passive use. You know, I spend a lot of time scrolling on my phone, because I am reading The Atlantic, which is passive use, of my phone.

And there’s bad passive use, which would be like when you’re scrolling and you don’t know why and you didn’t wanna be, and it makes you feel bad.

Rosin: Got it. So it’s not as mechanistic as what you are doing. What matters is who you are at the moment that you’re doing it, and what your orientation towards it is. Like, if you happen to be in a moment of distress and you’re in a certain age, it doesn’t matter if you’re using it actively or passively; social media is gonna amplify your distress.

Tiffany: Yeah, and there’s been some more recent research that suggests that it could matter how you think about social media as well. So if you feel like social media is fun—it’s where I connect with my friends; I use it for the X reason and then I stop using it, because I’m in control—like, in those situations it can be related to positive outcomes, as opposed to negative outcomes.

Negative outcomes are more tied to feeling, like, I have no control over this and Im spending so much time doing it and I dont want to be.

Rosin: Yeah. Okay. That’s important too. So that is, that’s actually, there’s another parenting lesson in there. If you can somehow orient your kid towards a feeling of control, like, Use this in a way that benefits you and don’t let it use you. Again, very commonsensical, but maybe that’s—that gives you another tool, like, I’m not just yelling at you because you’re on your phone. I’m trying to understand how you are orienting yourself and managing the time that you’re on your phone and whether it’s serving you or it’s making you feel worse.

Tiffany: Mm-hmm.

Rosin: Yeah. So despite the research being incomplete and the questions being thorny and philosophical, there are going to be things proposed. So what do you know about the things that have already been proposed?

Tiffany: So there are state laws that have been passed or proposed in many states already that would make it so that minors can’t be on social media without parental permission.

Rosin: That’s age-gating, right?

Tiffany: That’s the age-gating solution, yeah, that a lot of pundits have been sort of advocating for, for the past couple of years, including Frances Haugen. I think those will face a lot of challenges, including, like, in enforceability and just, like, First Amendment issues. A lot of free-speech-issue groups would say that it’s not productive to just prohibit young people from speaking in public.

I think just, like, personally, it just seems very punitive, even if that’s not how people, like, mean it to come off to kids. Like, how else are they gonna receive it? And it’s just a more dramatic measure than I think people are giving credit for. Because you can say, like, “Hey, well, we agegate other things.You can’t drive until X age. You can’t drink until X age. Why not say you can’t have an Instagram until X age?” But you are in effect yanking something away from millions of teenagers, some of whom might be like really, I don’t know, emotionally dependent on it. Or even just like creatively dependent or like really enjoy using it and it’s not harming them.

And it, it just seems really—it’s really dramatic and really abrupt and something that should only be considered if there’s, like, absolutely a rock-solid evidence base in my opinion.

Rosin: Interesting. I also don’t know how you would measure this at all, but it does create a sense of distrust between generations, because you could make the argument as a parent that smoking is inherently bad. You can’t smoke as a kid. Drinking is, you know, you’re just not ready to drink; you’re not ready to drive a car.

But I, but I don’t know that a kid would fully get on board with the idea that you’re not ready to use any social media at all. Like, they could understand, okay, there are some dangers out there and we should talk about it and sort of watch for vulnerabilities, but like, an N-O? I don’t know.

Tiffany: Yeah. Yeah, totally.

Rosin: Yeah. Okay, so is there, are there other proposals that you’ve seen that seem interesting or dangerous?

Tiffany: Yeah, I think the FTC is trying to, like, be a bit more creative about how to limit Facebook and Instagram’s ability to profit off of targeted advertising towards teens, which some people would maybe think of as being productive, because it eliminates a little bit of their profit motive to keep teens on the app all the time.

You know, I’m pro-privacy. I think that’s a good idea. It’s pretty complicated in that it’s not just about what Facebook does, but yeah. I mean, I think that’s a good thing to aim for for sure.

Rosin: Now, how would that address the original problem we discussed, which is depression?

Tiffany: Yeah.

Rosin: Like, I feel like a lot of this is sort of like setting up a, a kind of, like, Rein those guys in. But the problem we started out with was that social media was making kids distressed.

Tiffany: Yeah. I guess this gets at why it’s so important for the research to identify the specific problems and the specific mechanisms, because, like, if the main way that social media is causing depression or anxiety in teens is because it’s preventing them from getting enough sleep and it’s preventing them from seeing their friends in public, just purely hypothetically, like then what you could, like, deduce from that is that, like, okay, maybe these products are just too addictive, and our kids are being sort of coerced into staying on them for too long.

And it’s not about the content; it’s just about purely how much time they’re taking away from things that make them happier and healthier. So in that situation, it’s a little bit more obvious why reducing Instagram’s incentive to, like, keep kids on the app and to, you know, get more data from them that they can monetize and serve them more ads, like, Instagram would be more incentivized to focus on adults and not serve as many ads to kids. And, and you know, personally I don’t think, like, Instagram is just, like, ruthlessly driven to extract all monetary value from children. Even as, again, I don’t wanna be in the position of, like, defending a corporation, but that’s sort of the logic and that’s sort of the reason why you have to get more specific.

And if the answer is that the main way that Instagram causes depression is through negative social comparison and like poor body image instigated by seeing all of these images of models, like, no, probably privacy protection isn’t gonna solve that problem. We’d have to come up with something else.

Rosin: You know, we talked about this; it’s hard to talk about, but like, we get stuck in a moment or sort of, like, in the same way we get stuck in a musical moment. We get stuck in a kind of social-media moment.

And meanwhile, like, people have moved along. They’re using different platforms; they’re kind of navigating it much more deftly, say, than the generation or even the two years before them.

Tiffany: Yeah, I always sort of, like, marvel at my younger sister’s levels of adjustment and happiness. But, I guess, I mean, this is not scientific at all. This is just like a personal pet theory based on nothing except anecdotal experience, but, like, they are a little bit more squarely in this demographic of concern. I think two of them would be considered Gen Z? And my understanding from, from watching them or talking to them is, like, they really experienced very little strife around social media because it felt pretty natural to them, you know? They post goofy—like, ugly, sometimes—pictures of themselves. And, you know, that’s, like, funny and fun for them. I sometimes wonder if there is, like. a kind of narrow band of people, like maybe around my age or a little bit younger, who were forced to adapt to these things in real time, in the middle of puberty, which made it maybe more fraught than if you had just always thought of Instagram as something that existed and something that you were gonna one day use.

Rosin: You know, that is such a good point. It’s anecdotal, of course, but we do talk about his research as if these teenagers are fixed in time. Like there was only this one band of teenagers, but maybe they got the onslaught and then as time went on, people got more adjusted. Like, they themselves changed and maybe caught up with things.

So maybe the teenagers we’re legislating for are not the same teenagers we studied. And the problems of the earlier set of young people, they just might not be the same as the problems of teenagers now.

Tiffany: Yeah, because, like, I did have a lot of anxiety around Instagram in my early 20s when I first had it, and have gone through periods like, you know, during breakups where Instagram is like absolutely a toxic minefield for me in many ways, including, like, all of the body-image stuff we’ve been talking about. But, but I—I sometimes do, yeah, just think like, Huh, maybe there’s something about, like, kind of always having this and sort of deciding how to use it yourself and just be like, “Well, it exists; it’s part of life.”

Rosin: Yeah, no, I mean, there’s a, there’s actually a really good lesson in there, because what you’re describing about your sisters is they use it; like, it exists. They know the name of it; their older sister used it. Lots of people use it. It’s not this new, crazy thing.

And so they just do with it what they want, you know? And they kind of like make it work for them. Like, every once in a while it’s gonna get you down, but if you can use it how you wanna use it, then sure, why not?

Like, it must seem absolutely absurd. These discussions about, like, End it tomorrow. It’s like, why? You know, I’m just posting dumb pictures of my friends.

Tiffany: Yeah.

Rosin: You know, at so many stages of this, I’ve just wanted to push it away and not think about it. But the truth is, like, the depression rates keep rising. Like, there is something at the heart of this. I don’t know that we’ve made all the connections properly yet, but there is something there that we should keep paying attention to. What do you think the next few years are gonna look like? Like, what’s the best-case and worst-case scenario for how we rein this in, now that the surgeon general has said, “Time to do something about it”? Like, I bet if you look back in history, it’s like, the surgeon general issues a report, it’s a symbolic moment, and the culture around things changes. What is the best case and worst case for social media?

Tiffany: I think worst case would be what we were talking about, just really dramatic measures like a blanket age-gate that isn’t based in evidence and there’s kind of no way to undo it and no way to see what effect it has for 10 years. I think that’s the worst-case scenario.

I think best-case scenario would be kind of where we are, like, watching people sort of chip away at the problem, find these specific places where we can intervene, whether that’s educating teenagers, educating parents, or whether it’s putting pressure on Facebook to do things like share data with researchers, which they can be pretty stingy about.

I think, like, that would be really productive. I think, like, part of the issue that we keep running into with this is that there’s not, like, a great headline and there’s not a silver bullet. So it is sort of just, like, the boring answer of like, Well, we need to keep learning, you know?

Rosin: Right. That would be the sexy Atlantic headline.

Tiffany: Yeah. Real nerds here.

Rosin: It would be like, Let’s figure out how social media is affecting the mental health of teenagers and put into place small measures to ameliorate it.

Tiffany: Right?

Rosin: I would totally, totally read that article.

Tiffany: Yeah. And start over from scratch in two years, once we are no longer even using any of these platforms we’ve been talking about.

Rosin: Right. That’s the subhead.

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Human Extinction Makes for Brilliant PR

On Tuesday morning, the merchants of artificial intelligence warned once again about the existential might of their products. Hundreds of AI executives, researchers, and other tech and business figures, including OpenAI CEO Sam Altman and Bill Gates, signed a one-sentence statement written by the Center for AI Safety declaring that “mitigating the risk of extinction from AI should be a global priority alongside other societal-scale risks such as pandemics and nuclear war.”

Those 22 words were released following a multi-week tour in which executives from OpenAI, Microsoft, Google, and other tech companies called for limited regulation of AI. They spoke before Congress, in the European Union, and elsewhere about the need for industry and governments to collaborate to curb their product’s harms—even as their companies continue to invest billions in the technology. Several prominent AI researchers and critics told me that they’re skeptical of the rhetoric, and that Big Tech’s proposed regulations appear defanged and self-serving.

Silicon Valley has shown little regard for years of research demonstrating that AI’s harms are not speculative but material; only now, after the launch of OpenAI’s ChatGPT and a cascade of funding, does there seem to be much interest in appearing to care about safety. “This seems like really sophisticated PR from a company that is going full speed ahead with building the very technology that their team is flagging as risks to humanity,” Albert Fox Cahn, the executive director of the Surveillance Technology Oversight Project, a nonprofit that advocates against mass surveillance, told me.

The unstated assumption underlying the “extinction” fear is that AI is destined to become terrifyingly capable, turning these companies’ work into a kind of eschatology. “It makes the product seem more powerful,” Emily Bender, a computational linguist at the University of Washington, told me, “so powerful it might eliminate humanity.” That assumption provides a tacit advertisement: The CEOs, like demigods, are wielding a technology as transformative as fire, electricity, nuclear fission, or a pandemic-inducing virus. You’d be a fool not to invest. It’s also a posture that aims to inoculate them from criticism, copying the crisis communications of tobacco companies, oil magnates, and Facebook before: Hey, don’t get mad at us; we begged them to regulate our product.

Yet the supposed AI apocalypse remains science fiction. “A fantastical, adrenalizing ghost story is being used to hijack attention around what is the problem that regulation needs to solve,” Meredith Whittaker, a co-founder of the AI Now Institute and the president of Signal, told me. Programs such as GPT-4 have improved on their previous iterations, but only incrementally. AI may well transform important aspects of everyday life—perhaps advancing medicine, already replacing jobs—but there’s no reason to believe that anything on offer from the likes of Microsoft and Google would lead to the end of civilization. “It’s just more data and parameters; what’s not happening is fundamental step changes in how these systems work,” Whittaker said.

Two weeks before signing the AI-extinction warning, Altman, who has compared his company to the Manhattan Project and himself to Robert Oppenheimer, delivered to Congress a toned-down version of the extinction statement’s prophecy: The kinds of AI products his company develops will improve rapidly, and thus potentially be dangerous. Testifying before a Senate panel, he said that “regulatory intervention by governments will be critical to mitigate the risks of increasingly powerful models.” Both Altman and the senators treated that increasing power as inevitable, and associated risks as yet-unrealized “potential downsides.”

But many of the experts I spoke with were skeptical of how much AI will progress from its current abilities, and they were adamant that it need not advance at all to hurt people—indeed, many applications already do. The divide, then, is not over whether AI is harmful, but which harm is most concerning—a future AI cataclysm only its architects are warning about and claim they can uniquely avert, or a more quotidian violence that governments, researchers, and the public have long been living through and fighting against—as well as who is at risk and how best to prevent that harm.

[Read: It’s a weird time to be a doomsday prepper]

Take, for example, the reality that many existing AI products are discriminatory—racist and misgendering facial recognition, biased medical diagnoses, and sexist recruiting algorithms are among the most well-known examples. Cahn says that AI should be assumed prejudiced until proven otherwise. Moreover, advanced models are regularly accused of copyright infringement when it comes to their data sets, and labor violations when it comes to their production. Synthetic media is filling the internet with financial scams and nonconsensual pornography. The “sci-fi narrative” about AI, put forward in the extinction statement and elsewhere, “distracts us from those tractable areas that we could start working on today,” Deborah Raji, a Mozilla fellow who studies algorithmic bias, told me. And whereas algorithmic harms today principally wound marginalized communities and are thus easier to ignore, a supposed civilizational collapse would hurt the privileged too. “When Sam Altman says something, even though it’s so disassociated from the real way in which these harms actually play out, people are listening,” Raji said.

Even if people listen, the words can appear empty. Only days after Altman’s Senate testimony, he told reporters in London that if the EU’s new AI regulations are too stringent, his company could “cease operating” on the continent. The apparent about-face led to a backlash, and Altman then tweeted that OpenAI had “no plans to leave” Europe. “It sounds like some of the actual, sensible regulation is threatening the business model,” the University of Washington’s Bender said. In an emailed response to a request for comment about Altman’s remarks and his company’s stance on regulation, a spokesperson for OpenAI wrote, “Achieving our mission requires that we work to mitigate both current and longer-term risks” and that the company is “collaborating with policymakers, researchers and users” to do so.

The regulatory charade is a well-established part of the Silicon Valley playbook. In 2018, after Facebook was rocked by misinformation and privacy scandals, Mark Zuckerberg told Congress that his company has “a responsibility to not just build tools, but to make sure that they’re used for good” and that he would welcome “the right regulation.” Meta’s platforms have since failed miserably to limit election and pandemic misinformation. In early 2022, Sam Bankman-Fried told Congress that the federal government needs to establish “clear and consistent regulatory guidelines” for cryptocurrencies. By the end of the year, his own crypto firm had proved to be a sham, and he was arrested for financial fraud on the scale of the Enron scandal. “We see a really savvy attempt to avoid getting lumped in with tech platforms like Facebook and Twitter, which have drawn increasingly searching scrutiny from regulators about the harms they inflict,” Cahn told me.

At least some of the extinction statement’s signatories do seem to earnestly believe that superintelligent machines could end humanity. Yoshua Bengio, who signed the statement and is sometimes called a “godfather” of AI, told me he believes that the technologies have become so capable that they risk triggering a world-ending catastrophe, whether as rogue sentient entities or in the hands of a human. “If it’s an existential risk, we may have one chance, and that’s it,” he said.

[Read: Here’s how AI will come for your job]

Dan Hendrycks, the director of the Center for AI Safety, told me he thinks similarly about these risks. He also added that the public needs to end the current “AI arms race between these corporations, where they’re basically prioritizing the development of AI technologies over their safety.” That leaders from Google, Microsoft, OpenAI, Deepmind, Anthropic, and Stability AI signed his center’s warning, Hendrycks said, could be a sign of genuine concern. Altman wrote about this threat even before the founding of OpenAI. Yet “even under that charitable interpretation,” Bender told me, “you have to wonder: If you think this is so dangerous, why are you still building it?

The solutions these companies have proposed for both the empirical and fantastical harms of their products are vague, filled with platitudes that stray from an established body of work on what experts told me regulating AI would actually require. In his testimony, Altman emphasized the need to create a new government agency focused on AI. Microsoft has done the same. “This is warmed-up leftovers,” Signal’s Whittaker said. “I was in conversations in 2015 where the topic was ‘Do we need a new agency?’ This is an old ship that usually high-level people in a Davos-y environment speculate on before they go to cocktails.” And a new agency, or any exploratory policy initiative, “is a very long-term objective that would take many, many decades to even get close to realizing,” Raji said. During that time, AI could not only harm countless people but also become so entrenched in various companies and institutions as to make meaningful regulation much harder.

For about a decade, experts have rigorously studied the damage done by AI and proposed more realistic ways to prevent them. Possible interventions could involve public documentation of training data and model design; clear mechanisms for holding companies accountable when their products put out medical misinformation, libel, and other harmful content; antitrust legislation; or just enforcing existing laws related to civil rights, intellectual property, and consumer protection. “If a store is systematically targeting Black customers through human decision making, that’s a violation of civil-rights law,” Cahn said. “And to me, it’s no different when an algorithm does it.” Similarly, if a chatbot writes a racist legal brief or gives incorrect medical advice, was trained on copyrighted writing, or scams people for money, current laws should apply.

Doomsday prognostications and calls for a new AI agency amount to “an attempt at regulatory sabotage,” Whittaker said, because the very people selling and profiting from this technology would “shape, hollow out, and effectively sabotage” the agency and its powers. Just look at Altman testifying before Congress, or the recent “responsible”-AI meeting between various CEOs and President Joe Biden: The people developing and profiting from the software are the ones telling the government how to approach it—an early glimpse of regulatory capture. “There’s decades worth of very specific kinds of regulations people are calling for about equity, fairness, and justice,” Safiya Noble, an internet-studies scholar at UCLA and the author of Algorithms of Oppression, told me. “And the kinds of regulations I see [AI companies] talking about are ones that are favorable to their interests.” These companies also spent many millions of dollars lobbying Congress in just the first three months of this year.

All that has really changed from the years-old conversations around regulating AI is ChatGPT—a program that, because it spits out human-esque language, has captivated consumers and investors, granting Silicon Valley a Promethean aura. Beneath that myth, though, much about AI’s harms is unchanged. The technology depends on surveillance and data collection, exploits creative work and physical labor, amplifies bias, and is not sentient. The ideas and tools needed for regulation, which would require addressing those problems and perhaps reducing corporate profits, are around for anybody who might care to look. The 22-word warning is a tweet, not scripture; a matter of faith, not evidence. That an algorithm is harming somebody right now would have been a fact if you read this sentence a decade ago, and it remains one today.

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Will Ted Lasso or Succession Leave More of an Imprint?

This article contains spoilers through the series finales of Succession and Ted Lasso.

Succession ended on Sunday with a series finale whose title, like the three season finales before it, was taken from a John Berryman poem, “Dream Song 29.” Before the episode aired, there was widespread speculation about whether the poem alluded to any particular revelation. Would Kendall, whose death felt like it had been foreshadowed so many times on the show—all those vacant gazes down at the city from up high and baptismal engulfments in water—die by suicide, as Berryman did? He wouldn’t, it turned out. Although Jeremy Strong apparently improvised, while in character, a version of the last scene in which Kendall tries to hurl himself into the Hudson and is thwarted by his bodyguard, in the aired version, Kendall survives, albeit as a broken version of himself. You can decide for yourself whether the poem alludes to Kendall’s guilt over the covered-up death of a waiter (in a lake, no less), or the revelation that his father believed he may have killed his own sister, or both.

Berryman, though, could also bring to mind the other influential TV show that ended this week, Ted Lasso. In the Apple show’s second season, Ted reveals to his therapist that his father died by suicide, a devastating twist for a series that debuted as an ebullient cross-cultural sports comedy. In “Dream Song 145,” a different poem in the same series, Berryman recalls how his own father, “very early in the morning, / rose with his gun and went outdoors by my window / and did what was needed.” That moment, Berryman writes in another poem, “wiped out my childhood.” He was raised in Oklahoma; Ted comes from Kansas. Ted confesses to his therapist that he’s furious, still, that his father “quit on his family”; Berryman, in rage, recounts spitting on his father’s grave. Berryman’s alter ego is named Henry, like Ted’s son, whose presence motivates the series’ occupying question: Can people change? Can we be better than our parents? Or are we fated to keep passing the poison to the next generation?

This is, you’ll note, Succession’s central concern too, answered in definitive fashion in the finale, when a pregnant Shiv potentially elects to preserve cursed power—and pain—for her future child while selling out her brothers. The show’s worldview is that people simply can’t escape their coding, an existential framework that, to my mind at least, made the last two seasons deeply claustrophobic, with everyone doomed to repeat the same steps of the same game with the same players. Succession is a clever show—so clever. It’s profane and caustic and, in the right moments, so tense you could gnaw your thumbs off. It’s exquisitely written in a way that makes the lumpen final season of Ted Lasso feel like something conceived of and drafted by an obliging AI. The two shows are functionally antithetical in style. (Call it the “snark versus smarm” debate transposed for 2020s television.) Succession is a study of American capitalism largely written by Brits; Ted Lasso is a riff on British culture mostly written by Americans. Both shows somehow feature Harriet Walter playing a mother who fails her children. Both have, at some point, incorporated lines from Philip Larkin’s poem “This Be the Verse,” which Succession’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, also paraphrased in a piece for The Guardian on the origins of the HBO series.

[Read: The Succession plot point that explained the whole series]

If we’re talking about cultural impact, we have to acknowledge that Ted Lasso, at this point, is about as hip as Nickelback, whereas Succession has made its way into our idioms, our jokes, even our structural understanding of money and power. Here is my confession, though: As much as I admired Succession’s finale aesthetically and intellectually, I hated the experience of watching it. There was something deeply unsettling about its nihilism, its acceptance of art’s futility in the face of commerce. (“Drama can change minds,” Willa loftily tells Connor in Season 1, trying to argue that her play could be as significant as his campaign for president. “Yeah, but not really,” Connor replies.) It’s striking that a show with so many spectacular individual components—the writing, the god-level acting, the superlative direction, the production values—adds up in the end to something so hollow: a series about people who are nothing at all, stuck in hell, fated only to contaminate the rest of us.

Early in the coronavirus pandemic, I interviewed a professor of media psychology about the different ways people seek comfort in television—why some of us were kicking back with anodyne, escapist fare such as The Great British Baking Show while others of us were perversely streaming Outbreak and Contagion. Depending on how your brain processes hardship, it turns out, you’re either a person who wants to be uplifted with feel-good entertainment or a person who wants to be reminded that no matter how bad things get, they could still get worse.

It’s this theory, I think, that explains why both Succession and Ted Lasso found eager audiences over the past few years: There were viewers who wanted to be smothered in shortbread, and viewers who found that they had new tolerance for the viperous Roys and their obscene infighting. “We wrote the first season in the belief that nobody would watch the show,” Georgia Pritchett, one of Succession’s executive producers, wrote this week. “And nobody did, really.  Or the second season. It took a global pandemic, and the world’s population sitting at home wondering what they could do, for people to really start paying attention.” Back in 2018, I remember imploring people to watch the first season, cajoling them to stick with it through the sixth episode, when Kendall is absurdly thwarted by traffic in his first bid to topple his father, so they could get to the seventh, when the corporate tussling is finally traded out for some breathtaking emotional violence.

As inaccessible as Succession could be at first, Ted Lasso was the opposite: Almost embarrassingly eager to please, it wielded sincerity like a cudgel, and employed so many pop-cultural tropes that it could work as a matter of muscle memory alone. Ted was akin to a Midwestern Mary Poppins, blowing in as the wind changed to help people connect with one another and be the best version of themselves. In a different climate, it might have sunk without a trace. But in late 2020, to audiences ground down by a surfeit of real-world suffering at a time of scant optimism or inspirational leadership, it stuck.

[Read: The new comedy of American decline]

Both shows are structured around central poles: If Logan Roy is the rapacious cancer spreading to everything and everyone he touches, Ted Lasso is the inversion, an ego-less Wichita prophet who couldn’t care less about winning, and whose only governing principle is his belief in our capacity to be better. Both shows are consumed with fathers and sons, and the psychological morass that accompanies having an absent or abusive parent. Both are set in a world where masculinity has calcified into systems that make everyone miserable, and where victory is fleeting: You win, or you lose, and you carry on playing. (In an interview with Vulture, Mark Mylod, one of Succession’s main directors, even compared the show’s static environment to soccer.) Ted Lasso delivered sermons—to a fault, in its third season—through feel-good breakthroughs and teachable moments; whatever Succession had to say, it kept to itself.

And yet: When Ted Lasso was good, it could be wonderful. I laugh-cried, in the penultimate episode, when Jamie confessed that he’d stopped conditioning his hair because “what’s the point”—a joke about peacocking professional soccer players that is also a fairly neat summation of depression. I was fascinated, in Season 2, by the idea that Ted’s relentless positivity, his exhausting superpower, might be more of a defense mechanism sparked by his father’s suicide than an innate character trait. (In the end, it was both.) So much of the third season was excruciating, marked by weak writing, sloppy structure, and dubious, unearned twists. But the finale, written by the show’s co-creators, returned somewhat to form in revisiting the show’s fundamental conceit. “Can people change?” asks Roy Kent in a spontaneous meeting of the show’s consciousness-raising group for befuddled men. The show concluded that they can, if they’re big enough and humble enough to know that they need to.

I’m still not sure whether Succession was an inherently cynical show or, to use Tom Scocca’s summation of snark, a theory of cynicism. One of the reasons I loved the scenes of emotional annihilation that tended to anchor the end of each of its seasons was that they promised a catharsis that never came. If you’ve been to the theater, you’ve seen the sort of play in which secrets are laid bare and characters stripped of their defenses so that they can begin, afterward, to heal. Succession offered up the wastage but never the forward momentum. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Jeremy Strong summarized how the show’s creator, Jesse Armstrong, understands humanity, “which is that fundamentally, people don’t really change. They don’t do the spectacular, dramatic thing. Instead, there’s kind of a doom loop that we’re all stuck in.” I’ll never not be formally impressed by Succession. But it’s equally hard not to feel queasy, after everything, about its conception of mankind, in which we’re all so condemned by fate that there’s no point even trying to imagine our way out.

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What Trump’s Recording Could Reveal

This is an edition of The Atlantic Daily, a newsletter that guides you through the biggest stories of the day, helps you discover new ideas, and recommends the best in culture. Sign up for it here.

Yesterday, news outlets reported the existence of a recording in which Donald Trump discusses his possession of classified documents. The recording could prove legally damaging, but its existence also reveals something important about how the former president operates.

First, here are three new stories from The Atlantic:

Image Above Law

Yesterday evening, CNN and The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors have a 2021 recording of Donald Trump discussing a military document he held on to after leaving the White House. According to multiple sources, Trump indicates in the recording that he is aware that the document in his possession is classified.

The content of this recording could play an important role in Justice Department Special Counsel Jack Smith’s investigation of Trump’s handling of secret records in Mar-a-Lago. A strong prosecution would need to prove that Trump was aware that what he was doing was illegal, and the 2021 tape could offer that evidence. (Neither CNN nor the Times heard the recording, but multiple sources described the audio to reporters.)

But, as my colleague David Graham noted today, the apparent recording plays another role in our understanding of Trump too: “The circumstances of the recording,” he writes, reveal “the way he seems to understand bad press as a graver threat than criminal prosecution.”

David walks us through the circumstances behind the tape: The recording was reportedly made during a meeting Trump held with two writers who were working with Mark Meadows, his former chief of staff, on Meadows’s autobiography. At the meeting, Trump was apparently upset about a recent New Yorker report claiming that, in the final days of his administration, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley had tried to prevent Trump from ordering a strike on Iran. Trump reportedly referenced a classified document that he suggested could undermine that claim. Meanwhile, Margo Martin, a Trump aide, was reportedly recording the meeting because Trump was worried about being misrepresented or misquoted.

In other words, David writes, “Trump’s fear of damaging press—whether in the Milley reports or the Meadows book—was so much greater than his fear of criminal accountability that he ended up making an incriminating recording that could be a key piece of his own prosecution.”

Trump has long viewed tapes as a protective currency, my colleague Sophie Gilbert noted in 2018—“a talisman against future malfeasance.” But he’s been burned before, when allies or employees use his own techniques against him. Two notable examples: the attorney Michael Cohen, and the former presidential aide Omarosa Manigault Newman.

This time, Trump could get burned by his own recording tactics—but David argues that he has some cards left to play: “Over and over, he’s managed to wriggle out of potential legal jams with bluster, brazenness, and the occasional large check.” That strategy worked even when Trump was president; by rallying political support, Trump was able to escape serious consequences from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, as well as conviction in both impeachments. He will try these tricks again, David reminds us:

No matter how damning the evidence that Smith is able to assemble, Trump is seeking to bully the Justice Department out of charging him. If that doesn’t work, he hopes to be reelected to the presidency in November 2024, which would allow him to shut down any investigation or prosecution against him, or to pardon himself. It might yet work.

And although 2024 is still a year away, one thing is for sure: Trump can consistently rely on political support from the GOP’s base. In an article aptly titled “They Still Love Him,” also published today, David noted that the majority of GOP voters don’t want a better Trump alternative than the candidates on offer. They want Trump himself. They still love him, and they will continue to love him—all the way to 2024, when he gets the chance to shove his legal troubles out of sight.


Today’s News

  1. The debt-ceiling deal passed the House with a vote of 314–117. It will now go to the Senate and, if it passes there, can then be signed into law by President Joe Biden.
  2. Russia says it repelled three more cross-border attacks from pro-Ukraine forces while its aerial assaults on Kyiv killed three people.
  3. The Senate passed legislation to block President Biden’s debt-relief program. Biden has said he will veto the measure, but the Supreme Court is expected to rule on two cases on the plan this month.


Evening Read

Video by The Atlantic. Source: Sobli / RDB / ullstein bild / Getty.

NASA Learns the Ugly Truth About UFOs

By Marina Koren

At a meeting in NASA headquarters yesterday, the public had some blunt questions about UFOs, or, as the government now calls them, “unexplained anomalous phenomena.” A NASA spokesperson summarized them aloud: “What is NASA hiding, and where are you hiding it? How much has been shared publicly? Has NASA ever cut the live NASA TV feed away from something? Has NASA released all UAP evidence it has ever received? What about NASA astronauts—do they have an NDA or clearance that does not allow them to speak about UAP sightings? What are the science overlords hiding?” In short: Are you guys lying to everyone?

Read the full article.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Nicole Holofcener on the set of “You Hurt My Feelings"
Jeong Park / A24

Read. A new collection of Susan Sontag’s 1970s writing and interviews about feminism, On Women, showcases the writer’s stylish, idiosyncratic approach to the debates of her era.

Watch. You Hurt My Feelings, in theaters, is made by a filmmaker who knows what’s wrong with your relationships.

Play our daily crossword.


For those of you who are fans of The Wire, my colleague Adam Serwer’s 2019 story on the “Stringer Bell rule” offers a useful descriptor for the most important rule of a conspiracy—one that Trump and his inner circle have violated over and over again.

— Isabel

Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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Growing wheat is getting harder in a hotter world: study 

Two of the world’s major wheat-growing regions are skating on the ragged edge of a catastrophic failure.

Since 1981, wheat-withering heat waves have become 16 times more common in the Midwest, according to a study published on Friday in the journal NPJ Climate and Atmospheric Science.

That means a crop-destroying temperature spike that might have come to the Midwest once in a century in 1981 will now visit the region approximately every 6 years, the study has found.(In China, such frequency has risen to every 16 years.

Wheat is the main food grain produced in the United States. These findings are a sign that farmers need to be prepared for a future that is markedly more disrupted than the past, the authors wrote.

“The historical record is no longer a good representation of what we can expect for the future,” said Erin Coughlan de Perez of Tufts University, the lead author on the paper.

“We live in a changed climate and people are underestimating current day possibilities for extreme events,” Coughlan de Perez added.

The study comes as Congress debates what to cut from the upcoming Farm Bill — an enormous omnibus package that subsidizes much of American agriculture — to mollify hardline conservatives opposed to any increase in spending.

Existing Farm Bill programs — and in particular those that deliver crop insurance, a key safety net amid disaster — are being strained by the increasing instances of extreme weather like heat waves and droughts. 

In many ways, wheat — which was domesticated by ancient farmers in the dryland communities of Syria — is better suited than corn to the dry climate of the Midwest. Like other cereal grains, wheat boasts a special pair of “guard proteins” posted to keep water from escaping from  the tiny holes on the leaves where plants breathe.

That biological difference means that drought hits wheat yields far less hard than it does corn, a 2016 study in PLoS One found.

But heat represents another significant threat, the NPJ study found.

The risk is not the scorching heat of summer but an unseasonably warm spring — which causes wheat plants to suffer heat stress at the crucial moment when they flower.

At above 82 degrees Fahrenheit, flowering wheat plants begin to suffer heat stress. At 91 degrees, essential biological processes within the plants begin to break down.

And since record-breaking heat tends to coincide with similarly extreme drought, that means a compound threat that can lead to wheat crops being killed off shortly before harvest.

This is getting more common, Coughlan de Perez said. It used to be unusual in the Midwest for spring wheat crops to reach temperatures where they began to break down.

“We used to have seasons where you’d see an average of maybe four or five days of that enzyme breakdown threshold being exceeded—it was pretty uncommon,” she said.

But now if conditions break wrong, they could lead to heat waves that led to as many as 15 days above that threshold, which they described as “very damaging.”

Part of what makes planning for such outcomes difficult is that they are so unpredictable: even as temperatures get hotter on average, relatively cooler years can precede ones that are devastatingly hot. 

That’s why climate scientists often compare the weather to a game of dice that climate change is steadily loading — meaning extreme outcomes are more likely. 

Both regions have been unusually lucky in recent years: during the cool years of the La Nina, the plains of the Midwest and Northeast China have experienced much cooler weather than should be possible under the Earth’s warming climate.

“These regions haven’t experienced the full extent of what is possible, and they might not be ready for it,” the authors wrote.

Cooler weather has led to a dangerous complacency in a world where climate change has loaded the dice, the authors wrote. 

“I think, with climate change, we’re suffering from a failure of imagination. If we’re not imagining the kinds of extremes that could happen, then we won’t prepare for them,” Coughlan de Perez said.

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