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How social media has aided the disintegration of our public discourse

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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 chair of research in technology ethics at ERLC. He writes and speaks on various topics including human dignity, ethics, technology, public theology, digital governance, and artificial intelligence. His book, The Age of AI: Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humanity, released March 2020 with Zondervan. He is … Read More