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Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker Calls for a Social Media ‘Timeout’ at IOP Godkin Lecture

Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 spoke with Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Thursday evening.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 spoke with Harvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Thursday evening. By Jina H. Choe

Massachusetts Governor Charlie D. Baker ’79 called for a “timeout” on social media during a Harvard Institute of Politics forum Thursday evening.

Baker — who delivered the annual Edwin L. Godkin Lecture — encouraged listeners to increase their offline engagement with those of opposing political viewpoints, citing how social media has exacerbated the country’s partisan divide.

University President Lawrence S. Bacow introduced the governor, praising both Baker’s contributions to the Harvard community and his commitment to public service.

“He has something which we hope every Kennedy school graduate would have, and that’s a hard head and a soft heart,” Bacow said of Baker.

Baker, recalling his time at the College 45 years ago, said he never could have imagined a world with “hundreds of social media networks” and phones that could be used to “access information from any corner of the Earth in real time.”

Baker acknowledged technological advances “can break down barriers to people and information” — which he called a “blessing” — but added that misinformation on social media can “drive people apart.”

Algorithms built into social media users’ feeds, Baker said, “dramatically reduce the likelihood you will ever see or hear a news report about anything that challenges or cuts against your belief system.”

“All this self-selecting news and endless information has been driving the bulwark of the two political parties towards their extremes,” he added.

Baker said he disagreed with how social media is “used by producers and users to create their own versions of the truth” and added that it has become “so aggressive and so combative.”

“Finding people who share your love of gardening is just as easy as finding people who share your love for hate speech,” Baker said.

“One of the underlying messages here is that social media needs a timeout,” he added. “People should just stop engaging.”

Baker said mainstream news outlets also limit engagement with diverse political perspectives and reflect a level of partisan polarization inconsistent with the broader American public.

“Most Americans I believe are less partisan, less bombastic, and less combative than many of the people who are involved in and report on politics and government,” Baker added.

Such biased reporting, according to Baker, has resulted in the “cynicism about politics” shown in recent political polling.

Baker said he predicts increasing polarization will drive people away from the Democratic and Republican parties and up the number of registered independent voters.

Attendees entering the forum were confronted by a small group of protestors holding signs decrying Baker’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and calling the pandemic a “hoax.” Indistinguishable shouts from the protestors outside could be heard periodically throughout the lecture.

“It’s hard to find a time in our nation’s history when we weren’t roiled by a variety of difficult and sometimes ugly public debates — see the guys outside,” Baker said, referencing the protestors.

Baker called for coexistence and willingness to listen among those with contrasting views.

“We all need to spend more time engaging opposing viewpoints, not trying to ban them,” he said.

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