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Articles

What is our role in social media renewal?

Online discourse and loving our neighbors

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October 26, 2020

Social media can sometimes bring out the best in humanity. But more often than not, it shows the glaring friction and breakdown of civil discourse in our communities. Social media has become the main place for each of us to get the news, share our thoughts (and our hot takes), signal our political allegiances, and connect with others in the midst of ongoing social distancing and gathering restrictions. 

Layered on top of our social interactions, companies and brands have often joined the fray, seeking to signal their own political allegiances. This past week, Expensify CEO David Barrett sent an email to each of the company’s customers urging them to save our democracy by voting for a particular candidate in the upcoming election. While he is within his rights, this type of direct, political message ultimately leads to a growing breakdown of trust and normalcy in our society; it seems everything in our lives, even our expense report software, has become overly politicized.

A few clicks online reveal a number of theories as to why our civil discourse is at this low point. Some will argue that particular candidates or our perceived political “enemies” have fueled the flames of division and hatred online. Others blame the social media companies themselves for their content algorithms that often contribute to the spread of misinformation, half-truths, and red-hot political tensions. But it is far too easy and simplistic to scapegoat others. 

While every actor in our digital society shares some responsibility for the breakdown of our digital public discourse, each of us has a part to play in this technological society, to borrow a phrase from the late philosopher Jacques Ellul. Too often, we revert to a myopic view of technology that sees the breakdown of society today as someone else’s fault. All of this leads us to give into dystopian future visions of our society where we believe there is no real way to stop or slow down this crumbling of our public discourse. We simply must seek to live as faithfully as possible while society rips itself apart.

Our hopeful role in social media change

But as L.M. Sacasas aptly states in his brilliant essay at The New Atlantis, “Although it’s not hard to see how the Internet, given its scope, ubiquity, and closeness to human life, radically reshapes human consciousness and social structures, that does not mean that the nature of that reshaping is altogether preordained or that is will unfold predictably and neatly.” In other words, there is hope, but the road ahead is difficult. 

In our technological society that prizes speed, efficiency, perpetual commentary, and the prolific sharing of content, maybe we should decide—for the sake of our own souls and the good of our neighbor—to slow down on social media.

The politicizing of everything clearly leads to burnout and immense fatigue. Most of us are exhausted by the constant churn of social media and, at times, desire to give up on these platforms. The breakdown of civility and thoughtful engagement online has also led to ineffective efforts and missed opportunities to bring about lasting change on the most pressing issues of the day. This is because so much of the real work of change takes place behind closed doors in face-to-face conversations with people who recognize the humanity of their interlocutors, which is the exact opposite of so much of the hashtag campaigning that is popular in our day. 

With the tensions of the age swirling around us and a major election looming over us, we need more than keyboard activism and an online presence speaking into our algorithm information silos. Each of us need to take personal responsibility for our small part of this great dystopian narrative and make a difference by seeking to love God and love our neighbors above ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39), especially in our online conversations.

In these days leading up to the election and in the midst of these turbulent times, we can start by reevaluating how and why we engage on these social platforms in the first place. Are we using these platforms just to build our own? Are we seeking to puff ourselves up, or are we seeking the good of others? Are we seeking to tear another down or build them up in love? 

Just because a tool is available to us doesn’t mean that we need to make ourselves available to it. In our technological society that prizes speed, efficiency, perpetual commentary, and the prolific sharing of content, maybe we should decide—for the sake of our own souls and the good of our neighbor—to slow down on social media. Even simple steps like taking regular breaks from these tools, fighting the urge to comment on everything that arrives in your feed (especially those outside of your expertise), and pausing before sharing something will help to form you into a person who thinks deeply and lovingly toward others. This extra space can allow us time to evaluate our motives and desires as we seek to honor God in everything we do in life.

One of the powerful ways that technology forms us is over a long period of time through the small decisions we make along the way. The breakdown of our civil discourse did not happen overnight and neither will the restoration of loving our neighbors as we seek better communities, online and in person. The small steps that you can take right now with your social media consumption and habits can alter the trajectory of our interactions and life in this technological society.

Jason Thacker

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