Amid all of the cultural conversations surrounding the role of technology in our society, Facebook has been at the top of the headlines. From issues over privacy and a recently announced crypto-currency, public opinion of the platform has shifted in recent years. But Facebook has also been working behind the scenes to collect feedback and put together an external oversight board to advise and guide the company on how it deals with content moderation on its platform. When CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the creation of the board in November 2018, he stated the purpose of the board is to create a mechanism for the public to appeal content decisions through an independent body.
With Facebook having over 2.38 billion active users in the first quarter of 2019, the reach and influence of this company is one of the greatest the world has ever seen. With all of this connectivity and influence, the company has entered into an age-old debate about what constitutes free speech and expression as it tries to manage its global online communication platforms. While there are varying opinions on how this board should function or if it should even exist, the fundamental questions of free speech and the role of corporations and government are paramount as we continue through our social media age. The important thing for believers to ask is: how should Christians approach issues of free speech?
A polarized world
A quick scroll through your newsfeed or timeline shows the deep scars and pain that exist in today’s polarized public discourse. We see cultural divides over political affiliation, specific issues like race and immigration, and even religious understandings. These divides play out each day online and through our media consumption. We have our preferred TV networks, news sources, and online communities that cater directly to our personal beliefs. We lack a shared moral consensus as a society, but our division did not begin with the rise of social media and other technologies.
The U.S. is truly a democratic experiment made up of people from various backgrounds and beliefs. Our history makes this clear, from canings in the U.S. Congress and the murder of a representive on the floor of the Arkansas State House before the Civil War to deep divisions over Civil Rights and U.S. foreign policy in the 20th century. Even though our society has been frayed and strained at times, the current debates and lack of civility are not a new phenomena but are symptomatic of deeper, long-term issues.
Technology has opened new possibilities for us to communicate with each other in ways that have never been possible in the history of the world. We now have instant access to limitless information, but also the ability to express our opinions and thoughts online to anyone that will listen or read. We seem to be more connected than any time in history but also more divided over fundamental beliefs, quick to demonize those that disagree with us on any issue, and hasty to make those things known.
Our broken hearts
While it is easy to blame big tech for our societal issues surrounding privacy, free speech, and a lack of civil discourse, we must remember that we are the ones engaging in these behaviors online. The tools do expand our moral horizons and open up the opportunity for us to act in these defaming ways, but those are mere symptoms of the larger issues surrounding our broken hearts and distorted minds. While it is good that we are having public discourse about the role of technology in our society and the power that these tools have on individuals and families, we must not look to corporations or even government to fix the brokenness that we see all around.
While corporations and government have their place in society (Rom.13:4-6), Christians rightly see that the root cause of many of our social and personal issues is due to the fact that we have rebelled against our Creator (Rom. 3:23). Rather than love God and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39), we treat God as a nice addition to our own lives and our neighbor as a burden or barrier second to our own desires.
As Christians move forward in our digital age and in a world that lacks basic civil discourse, we can model for our families and neighbors what it means to live as Christ’s ambassadors in between the times. Hate speech and bullying are not becoming of the people of God. Our conduct online is not hidden because our God knows all things and will judge us for every careless thought, action, and click. We need to be the first to admit that the ways we have engaged online are not honoring to our Lord or our neighbor. But the good news of the gospel is that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
We need open and honest conversations about the tools we use each day and the effects they have on our public discourse. Facebook is having extremely complicated discussions that require input from multiple sources. Above all, the issues regarding privacy, accountability, and free speech need to be addressed in light of the understanding that all people, even our enemies, are created in the image of God and deserve dignity, respect, and honor. While our society is broken and frayed, nothing will change the root cause of our prideful hearts other than the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross.