How social media has aided the disintegration of our public discourse

January 8, 2021

In the midst of a crisis, such as the attempted coup at the United States Capitol on Wednesday, we naturally long for answers. If you are anything like me, you likely doomscrolled most of the day and night, hoping to grasp what just took place and what it means for our future as a nation. In the moments following the mob violence and rioting, many turned to blame one side or another for the rising dissension and breakdown of our public discourse. Some blame big tech for not doing enough early on to quell the spread of wild conspiracies and misinformation online. Some blame the social media tools themselves as the main culprit, arguing these tools are inherently dangerous and have no place in civil society given the violence they incite. Others will lay the blame solely at the feet of their perceived political enemies, as they attempt to explain away the sins of their own tribe and shift the blame for the disintegration of civic life to someone else.

Social media has given rise to countless benefits in our society, even the ability to know about events as they happen such as this tragic assault on our democracy and institutions that took place yesterday. But social media can also be the rocket fuel poured on the smoldering embers of malice, discontent, and dissension that have long plagued our public life. In recent years, they have ignited over the politicization of every aspect of our lives. 

In our evaluation of technology, we often fixate on the deleterious consequences of its use or completely overlook the ways that technology is molding and discipling us each and every day. But a proper understanding of these tools and their “web of relations,” to quote the famed philosopher Martin Heidegger, will yield a worldview that is able to recognize how these tools disciple us into certain types of people who are fully accountable for our actions. In reality, these social tools have made it easier than ever to spread misinformation, disinformation, and wild conspiracy theories to the masses in record speed.

What may seem initially to be an honest question in the pursuit of truth or “insider information” can quickly lead to real-world harm and violence by those who are bent on exerting bravado over others as they seek to make a name for themselves or show that they are part of the right tribe. This does not mean that we can just simply accept anything we are told by others as fact without questioning, but it does mean that propagating wild theories after the truth has been proven time and time again is not only dangerous to our nation and democracy but also to our souls.

The danger of conspiracy theories

Social media allows for immense connectivity for people across the world, but also has the tendency to create information silos and walled gardens—where we view those on the other side in the worst possible light and our own in the best. We are often discipled through the use of these tools over long periods of time to see the immense online world as simply an innocuous digital medium of random avatars and profile pictures, rather than a place made up of real human beings just like you and me. We forget that the things we tweet, share, and post affect others, which often includes their physical safety and livelihoods.

Conspiracy theories, such as those that possibly led to the Nashville Christmas RV bombing and the lies that led to the destruction at the Capitol, are often much more prevalent on social media than we might like to acknowledge and have real world consequences. Social media can easily trick us into believing that the things we do online do not have real-world consequences and that our personally curated echo chambers are reflections of true reality. But what’s happening online is not a case of innocuous questions being asked, the spread of unverified “insider” information, or the real truth that “they” don’t want you to hear. Conspiracy theories and misinformation can lead to violence and set a dangerous precedent in our cherished democracy as we lose the ability to have respectful rigorous debate over tough issues. 

The reality behind many of those who promote conspiracy theories is that they are not usually concerned about promoting the truth or finding out answers, but rather are pursuing power and prestige. And in many ways, this is inherent in the design of social media. For all of their benefits, these platforms are designed to allow for the spread of information quickly and to incentivize the building of personal platforms with little to no accountability. We are encouraged to craft content that garners as many likes, shares, and retweets as possible in hopes that these messages go viral or influence others in some meaningful way.

While social media can be used for good, the nature of these platforms easily lends itself to be taken over by the wild theories and mistruths that spread quickly through high engagement with others. This is one reason that many platforms have community standards that govern user speech and why these companies have been encouraged to pursue good faith moderation through government legislation. On top of how these platforms are designed, misinformation and disinformation is frequently created to spread like wildfire by containing either an element of truth that has been misconstrued for a malicious purpose or some statement designed to play on one’s deeply-held beliefs and desires, as seen in the popular QAnon conspiracy theories promoting dangerous lies about our nation and its leaders under the auspice of a concern about child sex trafficking. 

Pursuing truth and righteousness in the public square

The Scriptures are clear about these types of motivations of self-aggrandizement and power, as well as how the people of God are to pursue truth in love throughout all areas of our lives (Prov. 8:13; 16:18; John 15:13). The Christian pursuit of truth and righteousness is even more valuable in the age of social media as many of our neighbors (and ourselves at times) can fall prey to these complex lies and those that share these mistruths. Conspiracy theories are not just to be rejected by the people of God, but repudiated and removed from our public discourse as the church (1 John 4:1; James 1:19). Christians of all people are not to traffic in lies, but to pursue truth as we follow the one who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

The Church has the obligation to stand up for truth in all areas of life and not to tolerate the spreading of misinformation, lies, and the prognostications of those seeking to retain power, position, or influence. While social media makes the spreading of misinformation and conspiracy theories easier than ever before, we each must take a look in the mirror to see how we may be tempted to succumb and share information online that whets our appetites or even validates what we want to be true. Believing the best about your tribe but choosing the worst of your perceived enemies is not only dangerous, but it also seeks to invalidate Christ’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:39). 

As the prescient French philosopher Jacques Ellul stated in the 1950s about the hold of technology on our lives, we must see how technology is shaping every aspect of our society. But contra Ellul, we can have deep and abiding hope that our society— and more importantly, that we each personally—can recognize the influence of technology, namely social media, and seek to alter our relationship with these tools in ways that love God and love our neighbor. The loving and most caring thing that we can do for our neighbors as the church and for those among the Body of Christ is to pursue and speak truth and show the world that our hope for the future is not tied to any earthly pursuit of power, position, or influence, but to the One that bled and died to give us new life with himself for eternity.

Photo Attribution:

Probal Rashid / LightRocket

Jason Thacker

Jason Thacker serves as senior fellow focusing on Christian ethics, human dignity, public theology, and technology. He also leads the ERLC Research Institute. In addition to his work at the ERLC, he serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College in Louisville Kentucky. He is the author … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24