By / Aug 22

This past week, I opened my computer and logged in to Facebook. I read an article about a recent shooting, scrolled past a post about a new virus, and read someone’s account of living with long COVID (long-term effects from the infection). Moving on to Twitter, I skimmed through a heated argument about the Dobbs decision, read news about famine and war, and saw several death announcements. I decided not to move on to Instagram. 

I often feel heavy and overwhelmed after spending time online, and I know I’m not alone. Someone recently shared with me how much he had struggled after reading about the Ukraine war. He saw pictures of a family being separated and began to replay these images in his mind. Lying awake at night, he considered what he would do in a similar scenario. 

Another person described her struggle with anxiety and racing thoughts. She had watched a video of a recent school shooting and couldn’t stop thinking about it. She worried about her own children. She grieved the children who were lost. The thoughts would not relent. 

Constant online access has made us daily witnesses to the grief and trauma of millions of people. Each time we open our internet browsers, we encounter news that forces us to consider issues of political conflict, theological disagreement, global suffering, financial stress, illness, and war. Many people feel a sense of tension. We want to stay informed, but too much information can leave us weighed down with thoughts and emotions that feel too heavy to bear. 

What should we do? Should we attempt to carry the sorrows and burdens of the world? Or should we distance ourselves from other peoples’ suffering to protect ourselves? Perhaps it is some of both. 

Remember those who suffer 

Scripture suggests there is something good and holy about remembering other peoples’ suffering, even when they are physically distant from us. Hebrews 13:3 tells us to “remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.” We honor people in their suffering by not forgetting about them. Instead of withdrawing from the world, we bear witness to other peoples’ pain and remember them in the same way we would want to be remembered in similar circumstances. 

Remembering often awakens a sense of compassion, which often leads to a desire to act. It might lead us to pray, give money, volunteer, speak up, or push for change. These are all good things. But too much remembering can lead to racing thoughts and anxiety. Overextending compassion can result in compassion fatigue. Giving to the point of exhaustion can lead to burnout. Absorbing too many stories of other peoples’ trauma can result in secondary trauma. That feeling of tension remains. 

Carry your own load 

We can break out of this tension by balancing wisdom from Hebrews 13:3 with wisdom from Galatians 6:5. A few verses after we are told to carry other peoples’ burdens in Galatians 6:2, we are instructed to each carry our own load. 

Recently, I realized that I was trying to carry someone else’s load. This person was experiencing a heavy struggle, and there were some practical ways I could help to carry her burdens. I could listen and ask good questions. I could sit with her in her grief. But I could not fix the problem. There was a depth to her emotional pain that I could not truly, fully understand. Aspects of her suffering could only be carried between her and God. I had to let go. I had to let her carry her own load. 

As we are inundated with stories of global suffering, we may be tempted to carry loads that do not belong to us. We may hold on to a false sense of responsibility that leads us to overextend ourselves in our care and compassion for other people. We may attempt to fix problems and over identify with burdens that were never given to us to carry. 

Cast your anxiety on the Lord 

The other day, after I closed out of Facebook and Twitter and went to bed, my mind remained filled with thoughts about what I had just read. What if I also get long COVID? What do I think about this or that debate? How should I respond to this person or react to that cause? 

Lying in bed, I used a strategy I often teach people who come to me for counseling. I closed my eyes and began to mentally list my concerns. I gave each concern a name and visualized myself writing it down on a slip of paper. The pandemic and fear of illness went on one slip. Images of hungry, displaced people went on another. A political post that frustrated me, a news article about a school shooting, and several death announcements each got a slip. I took each slip of paper and visualized myself placing them inside a box one at a time. I closed the box and remembered that God was right there with me. I handed him the box and prayed a short prayer, releasing my concerns to him. 

In counseling, this strategy is called containment. In Scripture, we see this idea described in 1 Peter 5:7 as casting our anxieties on the Lord. It is a way to set aside thoughts, feelings, and images that feel upsetting or distressing so we can proceed with our day. The goal of containing our thoughts and giving them to God is not to ignore or downplay important issues. It isn’t being selfish, indifferent, or ignorant in the face of suffering. Instead, it is a way to accept God’s care for us. He invites us to trust him by releasing to him the fears, problems, and concerns we cannot solve. 

What people, causes, local issues, and global concerns weigh on you today? Sit for a moment and honor those who suffer by remembering them. Perhaps choose one or two ways to carry someone else’s burdens. But then, let go. Carry your own load, and let your neighbor do the same. Release your anxieties to God. The world is not yours to carry. 

By / Jan 11

Is it necessary for a church to interact with members online during the week? Does it matter? Is it even the right thing to do? Many people are asking questions like these regarding church and online engagement. The truth is that if you don’t show up in people’s feeds on social media, the algorithm has plenty of other things to put there for them. Our news feeds and timelines are discipling us. And we are formed into the image of the content we most consume.

I want to encourage you to recognize that your congregation is on social platforms whether you like it or not. And, with the way we are all conditioned in a digital age, the algorithm is better at getting and keeping their attention than a 35-minute sermon. This is essential to understand because our attention is a pivotal piece in our spiritual formation. John Mark Comer said it this way, “What you give your attention to is the person you become” (The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, 54). Can you, as a pastor or church leader, use these platforms to turn people’s attention to Christ? And in doing so, can you foster his work in and through them? I believe you can. 

However, we have to get practical about how to do this, which can be uncomfortable. No one likes talking about the nitty-gritty of how to do this type of stuff because it feels small, ridiculous, or like marketing. You might read some of the ideas I share and think to yourself, “Really? That feels very basic.” But the reality is that engaging your congregation online means using basic social media marketing principles, not to build the church’s “brand,” but to shepherd your congregations during the 167 hours of the week that they aren’t in your building. 

It’s one thing to debate if church can be virtual or not. It’s another thing to use these platforms as part of your ministry the way they were designed to be used. The weekly, physical gathering will always be the primary ministry of the church. We should not forsake it (Heb. 10:25). As embodied creatures who are part of the body of Christ, our physical presence is of the utmost importance. Yet, we are a generation who is living out this reality in the digital age. And, it’s important for the church to view virtual space as the grounds for legitimate ministry.

I want to suggest going a few steps beyond just live-streaming, which many have become accustomed to during the pandemic. You may be cautious about adopting new platforms, but your congregation isn’t. They are already on those platforms, being shaped and formed by the content they see that’s not even on your radar. In light of this, here are seven practical ideas you can try in the new year.

Practical ways to engage church members online

1. Sermon point carousels

Take the sermon points from the week and use Canva to turn them into an Instagram carousel. A carousel is where you use the 10 photo slots available to you on Instagram to create what is essentially a slide deck. One example of this is from The Bridge Church in Tennessee.

This is a great role for a volunteer and might only take about 30 minutes. Send the volunteer the sermon notes and audio. They can take the three to five big points and turn them into carousels. Instagram’s algorithm loves carousels, and it will help people remember what was preached that week.

2. Live Facebook/Instagram Q&A

Do a Facebook or Instagram Live during lunch with a Q&A on anything people want to talk about. To do this on Facebook, open up the Facebook app, go to your church’s Facebook page, scroll down below the “Create a post” button and click “Live.” Then click “Start Live Video.”

On Instagram, simply swipe right to access the camera, select “Live” at the bottom of the screen, and click the button in the middle of the bottom of the screen. 

Make sure to tell people you are going to do it before you go live so they can think about a question. You can do this on Instagram Stories, too. Use the question sticker to accept people’s questions and then respond to them by pressing the question in your notifications and then recording a video in the app responding to it.

It should only take about 30 seconds of your time to ask for questions. Doing this even once a month will show that you care about what is on your congregation’s hearts and minds and that you are willing to connect with them where they are.

3. Video of cut sermon content

Pastor, you can take one of the points from your most recent sermon that had to get cut and record a video on your iPhone of you talking about it. Make it anywhere from one to three minutes, and post it to social media. If you need help, you can enlist the help of someone on staff who is more knowledgeable about technology. 

Maybe it’s that Greek word you found interesting but didn’t think was good to keep in your sermon. Or, it might be an illustration that didn’t quite work but is still powerful. Perhaps, it’s a fourth point you wanted to make but were out of time. Whatever it is, it may not have fit on Sunday, but it probably fits on social. And don’t forget to spend some time replying to the comments after you post. It shows that you want to interact with and shepherd your people, not just preach and leave.

4. Ask questions on Instagram Stories

On Instagram Stories, use the question sticker to ask something like, “What’s the hardest thing for you to believe this week?” Then, share the answers (which are anonymous). Maybe you can even go first. Resist trying to provide answers; it will help create a culture of honesty and vulnerability in the church. In a time when so many people feel hesitant to express doubt, this is a chance for them to be honest about their struggles without feeling judged or condemned.

Your church will even receive some pastoral insight on how to better shepherd people from the results. Are you seeing common themes? Your pastor can include an aside into an upcoming sermon or make a short video to post later in the week. Pastors might be surprised at what they will learn about their congregation just by asking a simple question on Instagram.

5. Sermon resources email

Send an email to the church with the sermon sources for the week. Pastor, it will give people a look into what’s influencing your  and an opportunity to dig deeper. Make sure to keep the email brief so that people are more likely to read all of it. Be sure to include links to the resources you used so that it’s easier for your members to access them. Your congregation will benefit greatly from a simple email that someone on staff can help you shape. 

6. Church-wide Discord server or Facebook group.

Start a church-wide Discord Server or Facebook group where there can be an ongoing conversation between the congregation, staff, pastors, etc., and engage with this daily. You can create sub-channels for different topics in Discord. Many people feel disconnected from their church, and this is a way to stay in touch, foster conversation, and provides a window into how your congregation is doing so your staff can better shepherd them. All you need to do is devote just a few minutes every day to observing the conversations and joining in.

To create a Discord server, download the Discord app in the App store, create an account, and on the left-hand side bar, click the “+” button. Follow the process to create a server for your church.

For a Facebook group, open the Facebook app, click the Groups icon in the bottom of the screen, followed by clicking the “+” icon in the top right of the screen. Click “Create a group,” and follow the process to set up a group for your church.

7. Repurpose sermons into a blog/newsletter

A volunteer who is great at writing or editing can use Descript to transcribe the sermon and remove filler words. Cut it down to about 1,000–1,500 words, and put it on Substack — a service that allows you to write a newsletter that people subscribe to with their email (this creates an email list) and also publish it on a unique URL as a blog. 

Having an email list is one of the only assets you can own on the web (for now). All other services such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Discord, and others are rented space. An email list is an asset you own that gives you direct access to people’s inboxes. People can unsubscribe, but you aren’t dependent on a private platform. It’s also the most direct way to reach people. Everyone checks their email. You’re more likely to reach your people because they will open your email if they value the content you send. There are many other creative ways you can utilize email for your congregation beyond this and sending out event announcements, but it starts with building the email list first. This is a great way to do that. 

And here’s a pro-tip: Publish the newsletter on a one- to two-month delay from the date you preached it. That way it’s not immediately redundant and can be an easy reminder once it starts to slip from people’s minds.

Start with what you have

All of these suggestions are just a start. There are myriad things you can do on online platforms, but you don’t have to reinvent the wheel here, especially if this prospect is overwhelming to you. These seven ideas — which will be pretty simple once you figure them out — mean you have a strategy for the whole week. If you do one of these a day, you’ve just done more to engage your congregation online than many churches. If you do two to three a week, you’ll be covered for the whole month and still be doing great at online engagement.

We now live our lives in a hybrid of physical and digital, and there’s no going back. Of course, we never want to forsake the physical — we are physical beings made in God’s image who are called to gather together in the name of Christ — but we shouldn’t forsake our people to the digital either. It’s important that we begin to see our ministry extending into the digital spaces, where people spend hours every day. If church members are giving a majority of their attention to online platforms, then let’s find creative ways to grab their attention and point them to Christ. 

By / Jan 4

For the past few years, I have had the opportunity to highlight some of the top ethical issues in technology to be aware of as we begin a new year. In 2021, I wrote about the concerning trends of content moderation — especially in regards to free speech and religious freedom in the digital public square — as well as the growing concerns over facial recognition technologies and the ongoing debate over personal privacy. While many of these same issues will likely carry over into 2022, some have given way to larger concerns about pervasive surveillance, in addition to the threat of digital authoritarianism around the world.

For all of the good uses of technology, it has profound and consequential effects on us as humans. It shapes us in particular ways, including how we see and engage with those around us. While many today are reframing what it means to be human, Christians know that every person is created in God’s image and has inherent dignity. Furthermore, we know that our identity is rooted in God our Creator and that we are to love him and love our neighbor as ourselves (Matt. 22:37-39). This question of human identity is a central to many of the top ethical issues of the day, especially in our technologically rich society.

If 2021 taught us anything, it is that we need to take these particular ethical issues seriously. The church needs to understand that technology is becoming one of the primary disciplers of our people, forming us in ways that we may never fully understand. In light of these realities, here are four of the top issues to keep an eye on in 2022.

Content moderation and free speech

Of all of the issues our society faces today in terms of technology, there is widespread agreement across partisan lines that content moderation is one of the most consequential debates today, even if that agreement only consists of an acknowledgement that the current state of things is not sustainable in the long term. Some argue that technology companies need to moderate more content — especially around fake news, misinformation, and hate speech — while others argue that these companies are simply suppressing certain types of speech that they disagree with on ideological grounds and acting as unaccountable “moderators” in the open marketplace of ideas.

In 2022, these issues will only become more controversial and divisive as major political parties in the United States and in countries around the world debate and possibly legislate how and by what standard these companies should moderate or suppress certain types of content online. One of the key elements in this debate will be where to draw the line over free speech and the nature of religious freedom in the public square.

Misinformation/fake news

This past year, I have heard from countless pastors and ministry leaders about how to navigate the rise of fake news, misinformation, and conspiracy theories in their local churches. Some Christian leaders argue that misinformation is not a problem plaguing the local church, but this is often because many of us have become so accustomed to it. And almost no one truly believes they are spreading a conspiracy theory or fake news given that they believe it to be true. 

One of the most subtle and deleterious effects of technology today is how our society perceives truth and how the information overload we face each day is causing all of us to lose a grip on reality. This isn’t an isolated occurrence but has become a cultural practice across political, social, and even religious grounds. While this debate is endlessly complex, one of the most countercultural things we can do in the midst of information overload is to simply say, “I don’t know.” Conversations about these problems will only grow in the coming year as our society awakens to the fact that misinformation and fake news have real-world consequences.

Digital surveillance and data privacy

Amidst many of the digital issues of the day, there is one issue that seems to be right outside of the limelight but will likely be a central ethical concern in 2022. With the ubiquity of technology and our dependence on it, there is the vast and growing concern over personal privacy and the use of data. Governments around the world are beginning to or have already regulated the flow of data and who has access to it, often focusing on a right to privacy. In the U.S., there has been a continued push for a federal digital privacy law similar to that found in the European Union with the GDPR and states like California with the CCPA. In 2021, much of the movement in this space centered around what it could look like for the U.S. to have a “digital bill of rights” as we move further into this digital first world.

For Christians, a right to privacy is not derived from the moral autonomy of the individual, as in many non-Christian ethical theories, but from the dignity of all people. One of the functions of privacy in this world is a way to care for the vulnerable among us and uphold their dignity as image-bearers in a technologically-rich society. As we see each day, however, is that data and information can and will be used, abused, and manipulated toward selfish ends because of the prevailing nature of sin in the world. 

Unfortunately, technology will be used to control and strip others of their dignity. One of the main ways this will be done in our digital society is through the misuse of data and information. Thus, there is a great need for a right to privacy grounded in a transcendent reality of human dignity, rather than the pursuit of autonomy and individual freedom. In 2022, we may see some more movement from local, state, and federal governments to address these important issues of data collection, personal privacy, and the use of this information by private and public actors alike.

Digital authoritarianism

In 2021, we saw the explosive growth of technology control entire people groups and even nations. While much of the focus in the West was on how technologies are shaping how we see the world around us, throughout the world these tools are still being used to prop up strong men and authoritarian regimes — bent on controlling the flow of information and subjecting people to massive propaganda in order to retain power and positions over those who are vulnerable. One of the clearest examples of digital authoritarianism is seen the continued genocide of the Uyghur people in China under the repressive Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

As I recently wrote, the CCP uses countless forms of technology to suppress basic human rights, surveil its citizens, and subjugate our fellow image-bearers to some of the worst forms of both physical and mental abuse. Technology is one of the most powerful tools the CCP has in its arsenal to control and manipulate others. But this heavy hand of authoritarianism isn’t limited to the CCP. Nations around the world have shown that they will use any means necessary to limit access to information, suppress free expression, and cut people off from the outside world altogether. In recent years, we have seen this take place in Iran, Russia, Belarus, and most recently Cuba. 

As we move into 2022, it is clear that digital authoritarianism is becoming commonplace around the world and will only continue to rise as technologies become more accurate and accessible to those bent on suppressing human rights and religious freedom in order to maintain position or power over others.

As Christians engage the most pressing issues of our day, we must do so with a rich vision of human dignity and a public theology that is rooted in the truthfulness of Scripture. While ethical issues with technology may seem unimportant or pale in comparison to others at times, we must remember that these concerns are central to many of the ongoing debates we have been having for many years. Looking out onto the ethical and policy landscape of 2022, there is much to be hopeful about, but there are also many pressing issues that need to be addressed by thoughtful and rich engagement from the church — as she proclaims the goodness of God’s design and the truth of the gospel to a world desperately in need of both truth and grace.

By / Nov 9

It happens like clockwork. Often within a few moments of breaking news or some other major event happening in our culture, we see one of the most damaging effects of social media and digital culture. Our feeds are immediately filled with “expert” opinions, half-baked ideas, and reactionary takes that routinely fail to account for the reality of the situation and resort to partisan or cultural talking points. In these moments, it seems that everyone we know has a take on what is happening. It’s tempting to join in as we seek to align ourselves with the “right” tribe or group online.

The internet was originally promised to be a major turning point in the pursuit of truth and free expression. We were told that the democratization of information would usher in a new era of freedom and emphasis on truth. The idea is that the truth would naturally rise above the fray given the freedom of information and a common pursuit of truth. But along with this pursuit came an onslaught of fake news, misinformation, and opinions based on feeling and emotion.

In reality, much of the ”news” we hear about today or “expert” commentary is nothing more than content designed to whet our appetites for immediacy, inflame our alliances to group identities, or stir up controversy to influence our behaviors. Social media in some sense breeds behavior in which we project ourselves as omnicompetent. We are constantly being pushed to post about “what’s happening?” on Twitter or to post “what’s on our mind?” on Facebook. We are encouraged and incentivized to post our random musings, unformed thoughts, and reactionary takes for the world to see.

So, how are we to break this vicious cycle of self-promotion and recenter our lives on pursuing wisdom in a digital age? The answer might sound trite and overly simplistic, but I am convinced that three little words can help change a culture: I don’t know.

Information overload

Each and every day, we are bombarded with more information than we could ever hope to process. In our digital first world, it is far too easy to focus on the things right in front of us. Social media naturally breeds an expert culture, where we seek to prove our knowledge, allegiances, and abilities often before we consider the full impact of these decisions. Through our feeds, we fall prey to what Neil Postman referred to as an “and . . . now this” culture, where we are encouraged to quickly move from one thing to the next without any real reflection or sustained evaluation of what we are being exposed to each day.

As writer Alan Jacobs puts it in his recent book, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, “navigating daily life in the internet age is a lot like doing battlefield triage.” In this digital age, we are often overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information to process. So, we usually default to shallow engagement and forgo deep reflection on the important things of life.

In conversations about technology and what this level of information access is doing to us as people, we often focus on some of the more prominent effects of technology such as screen time, app limits, and the rise of various psychological effects like the increase of loneliness, isolation, anxiety, and more. While all of these issues are important and should be addressed by the church, one of the most subtle and deleterious effects is how society perceives truth and how this information overload is causing all of us to lose grip on reality. This isn’t an isolated occurrence but has become a cultural practice across political, social, and even religious grounds. 

“I don’t know” and epistemic humility

In our digital age, it is easy to falsely believe that we know more or can navigate more than we can actually handle. As we wade through this battlefield of the mind, our sin tempts us to believe that the problems we see in the online world would simply go away if people just believed what we do or would just listen to us. Richard John Neuhaus reminds us in The Naked Public Square, “In principle, we should be suspicious of explanations for other people’s beliefs and behavior when those explanations imply that they would believe and behave as we do, if only they were as mature and enlightened as we are.” In the digital age, cultivating humility and understanding of how deeply embedded sin is in every aspect of our life can help usher in a more righteous pursuit of truth in a divided society.

One of the most countercultural things we can do in the midst of information overload — especially with the constant allure of projecting ourselves as omnicompetent online — is to simply say “I don’t know”. While it may sound trite and doesn’t entail that we cower from speaking truth, it reminds us that we are indeed finite and limited in what we actually know. We simply aren’t designed — nor do we need — to have an opinion or draw an immediate conclusion about the onslaught of information we face each day.

Paul warns young Timothy that “Certain persons, by swerving from these, have wandered away into vain discussion, desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions” (1 Tim. 1:6-7). These simple words seem to typify our current age of constant connection and ease of sharing things online with social media, especially for God’s people. 

Social media generally yields itself to “vain discussions” where we try to prove ourselves to others and become teachers of others, often without a deep understanding of what we are actually saying or making confident assertions about. Modeling epistemic humility or a responsive awareness of the limits of one’s own knowledge by regularly reminding ourselves and those around us that we do not have all of the answers can help combat the concerning rise of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Not only are we ill-equipped for the task of responding to everything we see online, we simply aren’t created for that type of responsibility. Cultivating epistemic humility can breed a culture of curiosity and intrigue as it encourages sustained study and a culture of learning rather than uninformed opinions passing as facts or knowledge.

Speaking truth with grace in the public square

So when is the last time that you slowed down to evaluate the desires that may motivate your posting, sharing, or clicking online? The evaluation of our online habits shouldn’t be driven by a pursuit of avoiding the dreaded cancel culture, where a single post can ruin someone’s life, or out of a desire to back down instead of speaking truth to power with grace and understanding. With platforms (and society) designed for instantaneous connection and constant sharing, wisdom calls us to step back and seek to examine our souls before engaging online.

Slowing down can allow us time to verify the truth before we share, notice the actual person made in God’s image behind the inflammatory post, and think about why we feel the need to contribute in the first place. We can ask ourselves what we are trying to prove to others or what kind of façade we are seeking to build online. This pause can also help us see what is driving our need to be the one who corrects everyone’s controversial opinions or to show ourselves to be on the “right side” of the latest political controversy.

Of course Christians should engage online. However, when we engage, we should desire for others to know that we are not confident in ourselves but in the One who made us in his likeness (Gen. 1:26-28). Social media can tempt us to think that the things we say and do online are spoken into a void of time and space, disconnected from real life. But behind the avatars and updates are flesh-and-blood human beings with struggles, fears, and desires, just like you and me. Let’s be the ones who prize people over power and truth over position.

By / Aug 9

In 2009, I was encouraged by some friends at work to join a new social media platform called Twitter. I remember watching a short promo video and hearing about how this site allowed people all across the world to connect and speak freely about whatever came to mind — whether about our favorite sport teams or the most important social issues of the day. But as the platform grew in users and influence in the public square, real challenges emerged about how to navigate violence, misinformation, and even hate speech online. And as a long history of U.S. jurisprudence illustrates, hate speech has been notoriously difficult to define, often due to inadequate parameters and the robust protections for free expression and religious freedom from heavy-handed government overreach.

While these problems are not limited to Twitter specifically, the type of users the platform attracts and its enormous influence in public discourse have made it ground zero for many of the debates over free expression and content moderation. Just this past weekend, two prominent conservative pundits, Allie Beth Stuckey and Erick Erickson, were both temporarily suspended by Twitter for violating the platform’s rules on hateful conduct, specifically concerning gender and gender identity issues. Both users had access to their accounts limited for 12 hours, being unable to post new messages, like posts, or retweet other accounts. 

A recent Twitter controversy

Stuckey and Erickson both tweeted about the first openly transgender athlete in history to compete in the Olympic games. Laurel Hubbard, who was born as a man, recently represented New Zealand in the women’s weightlifting competition in Tokyo. Both Stuckey and Erickson were suspended for tweeting that Hubbard was still a man and that even though Hubbard fell short in the competition, it was not fair for the athlete, who is a biological male, to compete against women during the games.

Neither of the tweets advocated for physical violence, attacked, or threatened Hubbard in any way. Yet, both users were suspended for violating a hateful conduct policy that defines hate speech in the broadest of terms. Twitter defines hateful conduct in their content moderation policies by stating,

“You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, caste, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.”

The company goes on to say, “We are committed to combating abuse motivated by hatred, prejudice or intolerance, particularly abuse that seeks to silence the voices of those who have been historically marginalized. For this reason, we prohibit behavior that targets individuals with abuse based on protected categories.” But if you dig deeper into their policies, it becomes clear that the company has an incredibly broad understanding of what constitutes hateful conduct, which can easily extend to any type of speech that one simply does not like or makes a user feel uncomfortable.

Defining hate speech

While many technology companies refer to international norms on defining controversial topics — including the nature of human rights — it should be noted that hate speech is often left undefined in legal terms because of the deep tension that exists between hate speech and free expression. The U.N.’s own plan of action on hate speech from May 2019 makes this clear by saying, “There is no international legal definition of hate speech, and the characterization of what is ‘hateful’ is controversial and disputed.” While the UN leaves hate speech undefined, it clearly desires robust protections against hate speech and calls it “a menace to democratic values, social stability and peace” that “must confront[ed] . . . at every turn.

Similarly in the United States, there is no legal definition of hate speech in U.S. law as the Supreme Court has routinely affirmed that hate speech is protected by the First Amendment. A recent example is the case of Snyder vs Phelps concerning hate speech and Westboro Baptist Church. According to the American Library Association, “under current First Amendment jurisprudence, hate speech can only be criminalized when it directly incites imminent criminal activity or consists of specific threats of violence targeted against a person or group” (emphasis mine). 

Defining hate speech is a perennially difficult issue throughout society, especially with the rise of online speech through social media platforms. There are constant ongoing debates in society and the academy over what actually constitutes hate speech and if the label should simply be limited to speech that incites or instigates physical violence or harm. In the case on Twitter, the company has drawn a clear line by defining hate speech broadly, a definition which necessarily infringes on free expression and religious freedom concerning some of the most contentious issues of our day — namely human sexuality and marriage. 

Most people would tend to agree that the initial categories laid out by Twitter such as threats of physical violence, “wishing, hoping or calling for serious harm on a person or group of people,” and “references to mass murder, violent events, or specific means of violence where protected groups have been the primary targets or victims,” fall under good faith content moderation and should be championed by all. Christians, in particular, should affirm many of these guidelines because of our belief in the innate value and dignity of all people as created in God’s image and the freedom of conscience that flows from our understanding of the imago Dei (Gen. 1:26-28). But when hate speech is broadened to include speech that makes one feel uncomfortable or that one simply does not like, we have set a dangerous precedent for public discourse.

Free expression and public discourse

Twitter claims in their content moderation policies: “Free expression is a human right – we believe that everyone has a voice, and the right to use it. Our role is to serve the public conversation, which requires representation of a diverse range of perspectives.” But this lofty goal of free expression is actually stifled and in many ways completely mitigated by promoting some speech at the expense of other speech deemed unworthy for public discourse, even if that speech aligns with scientific realities which are taught and affirmed by millions of people throughout the world — including, but not limited to, people of faith.

As I wrote earlier this year in response to a similar situation over transgender ideology and free expression, civil and nonviolent disagreements over the biological differences between a man and woman simply do not and cannot — especially for the sake of robust public discourse — be equated with hate speech or hateful conduct. And any attempt to create and enforce these types of broadly defined policies continues to break down the trust that the public has in these companies and violates the immense responsibility they have over providing avenues for public discourse and free expression.

In a time where there is already a considerable amount of distrust in institutions, governments, and even technology companies themselves, ill-defined and broad policies that seem to equate historic and orthodox beliefs on marriage and sexuality with the dehumanizing nature of real hate speech and violence only widens the deficit of trust and increases skepticism over the true intention behind these policies.

Building off of the legal boundaries of defining hate speech, our society must be able to have healthy dialogue about these contentious issues. The best way to do that is to champion free expression and religious freedom for all, not just those with whom we agree or even like. Free expression does not mean that we all must agree on these particular issues, but it does mean that everyone is able to speak their opinion freely and without fear of being cut off by those who oversee these platforms.

Whatever you may think of Stuckey or Erickson’s beliefs, we should all be able to agree that these broadly defined hateful conduct policies are dangerous to free expression and our public discourse. We need more, not less dialogue and engagement on these contentious issues. These issues will not simply pass away because God’s design for human sexuality is central to the church and society. These content moderation policies must be amended to actually stand for the free expression for all people, not just those with whom a company or even our society may agree.

By / Jun 10

When COVID-19 hit the U.S. in early 2020, nobody really knew what was coming. Quarantines and lockdowns that were only expected to last a few weeks stretched to months. Events were postponed and then cancelled. Weddings and graduations became rites of passage without an audience. People lost their jobs and businesses. Worst of all, too many people died — and without a public funeral. While all this was happening, church gatherings were restricted or called off altogether.

Getting creative with “community”

But we weren’t made to do any of this alone. God created the world and everything in it in six days, and at the end of each day, God called his creation “good,” and even “very good” when he created humankind. But when God saw that Adam was alone in the Garden of Eden, he declared something “not good.” He had designed humankind for community, not isolation; loneliness was not good. So he created community with Eve — and he put a drive within us to seek out that community. 

And so we did. When we couldn’t meet in our regular church buildings or hold our most beloved celebrations like Good Friday and Easter Sunday, we had to get a little creative. We wrangled technology like Zoom and FaceTime and social media to reach past restrictions. We recorded services and spliced video clips and reimagined activities and held virtual gatherings. We even went old-school, connecting with each other through snail mail and phone calls (because yes, phones can still actually make calls).

In many ways, this was a welcomed wrangling — more and more churches harnessed technology as a divine catapult, sending the gospel message literally around the world instantaneously. Biblical teaching and preaching reached inside the homes of many who may have never otherwise crossed the threshold of a church building. In our information-at-our-fingertips-age, pandemic or not, we can gather as households and stream solid biblical content from Bible teachers whenever we want. 

Yet, we can’t take all of this in while in New Testament community (Acts 2: 42-47), though the internet tries to offer a semblance of this. Facebook has groups and community pages. Zoom has breakout rooms where small groups can discuss from a distance. Forums and membership-based apps provide a sense of community where people can gather around shared faith. These online relationships can make lockdown life a little easier, but they only offer a shadow of what God has created us for. 

Ultimately, this type of online community isn’t healthy. “Parasocial relationships are a problem because they foster the feeling of friendship and community without the benefits of it,” Chris Martin writes. “The illusion of friendship with people on a social media platform is a hollow form of community often built on conflict and at the expense of real relationships unmediated by a social media platform.”

Something is missing

In a year of social distancing, restricted gatherings, and unprecedented quarantines, we’ve done our best to be together in person as much as possible. Zoom gatherings, streaming platforms, social media, porch drop-offs, drive-by birthday parties, and drive-in church services have been a sort of band-aid. But still, we feel a crucial pull to return to real-live community because we were created for it. Hebrews 3 calls us to “exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today’,” and Hebrews 10 teaches us to meet together regularly in order to “stir up one another to love and good works.” Ephesians 4, Titus 2, and James 5 describe life-on-life church community that edifies us as Jesus-followers.

The church was God’s idea, and he created church community for a purpose. Being the body of Christ includes many facets, from hearing the Word proclaimed together to breaking bread with one another. The community of the local church is unique and vital and can’t be replaced by screens. 

The internet can’t give us the warmth of a bonfire shared with friends on a crisp evening. It can’t give us a group of people who’ll help us move that old piano across town (again and again, for free). It can’t give us the joy of celebrating new life by passing around a newborn baby, or bouncing a toddler on our knees. It can’t have us over for dinner, can’t smile or weep, and can’t hug. Only people can do these things—real, living, breathing, incarnate people, which is significant because our Savior came to live among us; he put on flesh, dwelt with us, and experienced what it was like to live in human community (John 1:14). And he gave us a taste of what it our fellowship should look like. 

COVID-19 was incredibly hard, yet maybe it wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to our churches. The physical absence of our brothers and sisters accentuated a God-given desire to gather together. And, as a result, we can pray it continues to clarify our need for true biblical community and reinvigorates our love for and commitment to each other.

By / Apr 27

The Internet and social media can help us become wise, but only if we approach them with great care and intention. To that end, here are five habits to consider as you evaluate the place of online media in your life.

1. Go with a purpose. Don’t just “surf”!

“Surfing the Net” was one of the early metaphors for what we do online, bringing to mind a sort of leisurely, “we’ll see where these links take me!” approach to riding the Web’s waves. But it is precisely this posture—going online just to stroll (or should I say “scroll”?) around its wide-open spaces—that leads us to fill every spare moment of our lives with insipid social media debates, mildly amusing cat videos, and other online ephemera. It is precisely this unconscious impulse to hop on our phone and just go somewhere that can lead us to dark places: pornography, toxic subcultures, fruitless comment section battles. Sadly, the ease with which we can jump online in our spare moments (whether 30 seconds at a stop light or 90 seconds in the Chick-fil-A drive-thru line) conditions us to eliminate every last shred of unmediated space in our lives—which is a terrible thing for cultivating wisdom. 

In his helpful book The Common Rule, Justin Earley suggests our spare moments should not be filled with online wandering, but rather “reserved for staring at walls, which is infinitely more useful.” He also suggests avoiding social media in bed and avoiding unplanned scrolling, which “usually means I’m hungry for something to catch my eye—and plenty of strange, dark, and bizarre things are happy to catch the eye on social media.” The digital wanderer is asking for trouble. Don’t go online without a plan. Go with a purpose, and stay online only as long as you need to. 

2. Quality over quantity

Given the glut of options online, and the above point that your online time should be limited only to purposeful activities rather than aimless wandering, it’s important to make the time matter. Consider following Cal Newport’s advice in Digital Minimalism, which he defines as “a philosophy of technology use in which you focus your online time on a small number of carefully selected and optimized activities that strongly support things you value, and then happily miss out on everything else.”

How does one carefully select what to read, watch, listen to, or experience online? First, listen to the recommendations of trusted people in your life. Given the choice between reading an article that just popped into your Twitter feed because an advertiser put it there or reading an article because ten people you trust shared it on Facebook, go with the latter. Check out reviews of books from trusted websites before you decide what to read. Consult the writing of trusted film critics before choosing what to watch. Limit yourself to one podcast or one Netflix show a month, and only the ones enough trustworthy people have recommended. In a world where your time is scarce and everything is vying for your attention, don’t be a passive consumer who clicks on whatever comes your way. Be happy to bypass most of it, trusting that a smaller amount of excellent, curated dishes will be better for your wisdom diet than a vast amount of hit-or-miss, haphazard snacks. 

3. Slow down!

Even if you can’t control the speed of things online, you can control your speed. And a slower pace is almost always more conducive to wisdom. Time is a great filter for wisdom: the longer something lasts, the likelier it is to contain value. Don’t spend your time reading the hottest take or the “trending now” video. Instead, wait a bit and read the (usually better) cold takes. Read the Atlantic article from five years ago that people still reference; watch the “classics” of YouTube before the flavor-of-the-week clip. Once the novelty of something wears off, if people are still recommending it, maybe it’s actually worth your time. Don’t fear missing out on most things online. Most of it is missable and will be quickly forgotten. To slow down—until history’s filter gives you reason to pay attention—is to be a wiser consumer online. 

The same goes for what you contribute online. Speed is treacherous when it comes to posting your opinion on social media or fanning some rapidly spreading flame. We often jump on an online bandwagon before we realize it has a broken axle. Take time to vet the truth and consider the wisdom of something before you share it, to consider the potential impact of your words before you post. Remember Scripture’s “slow to speak” wisdom. 

4. Diversify your exposure

Be intentional about diversifying the voices we listen to. Don’t just read articles from the same bias-confirming sources. Don’t only tune in to the radio shows where your opinions are confirmed. Challenge yourself by actually giving attention to well-articulated versions of the “other side” of arguments. Respect your ideological opponent (and yourself!) by truly seeking to understand the other perspective. 

Try to populate your social media feeds with sources representing a variety of perspectives—politically, culturally, geographically, racially, and so forth. Read international takes on your own nation’s news. Listen to podcasts outside your comfort zone. Watch documentaries on streaming sites that provoke you to think deeply (even if not, in the end, differently) about some issue. Take advantage of the Internet’s platforming of voices you might not otherwise have opportunities to hear. One way to love your digital neighbors is to listen to them, even if what they have to say is hard for you to hear. Remember, you don’t have to fully agree with others online in order to glean some truth from their perspectives. 

5. Share what’s good!

One of the blessings of the Internet and social media is the ability to easily share what we have personally found helpful, good, true, or beautiful. One of my favorite C. S. Lewis quotes comes from Reflections on the Psalms: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” Don’t feel guilty about posting online about a movie or book you loved, or sharing a photo on Instagram of your spouse, child, backyard, or something else you found delightful. The public praising of these things is a key part of our enjoyment of them. If you love discovering good music, create playlists on Spotify and share them. If you love taking photos of beautiful architecture, post them on an Instagram account. If you loved a restaurant or stayed at an amazing hotel, share a glowing review online that might lead others to discover it. Use the Internet to turn what you love into something that blesses others, rather than turning what you hate into something that angers others. 

What would happen if everyone started to use the Internet more to celebrate the good than to add to the noise with hateful tweets and trigger-happy rants? What would happen if we used our online platforms to praise others rather than for promoting our own views and signaling our own virtue? [And] what if we spent more time online publicly honoring people we do know than publicly shaming people we don’t? 


Content taken from The Wisdom Pyramid by Brett McCracken, ©2021. Used by permission of Crossway.

By / Apr 19

Recently, I was reading a book and was impressed by the scholar’s careful exposition, nuanced approach, and charitable engagement with critics. Naturally, in the age of social media, I decided to look up the author online and was surprised by what I found. It seemed that the scholar was acting a certain way on one medium and a different way on the other. Social media tends to tempt a number of us to post things that we would never publish in a book, much less say in person to another human being.

“The medium is the metaphor”

There is often a significant disconnect between how we portray ourselves online and then personally with others. This is notable because social media and digital culture tends to bifurcate our lives, giving us the impression that we have an “online” life and a “real” life. We frequently use technology to portray ourselves in certain ways depending on the medium, where the medium often dictates to us how we are to live, understand truth, and navigate the tensions in life. Neil Postman, in his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, describes this reality by using the phrase “the medium is the metaphor.” He writes how the medium in which something is communicated has significant bearing on the content itself and the reception of that message.

Postman describes this phenomenon by saying, “Major new medium changes the structure of discourse; it does so by encouraging certain uses of the intellect, and by demanding a certain form of content—in a phrase, by creating new forms of truth telling” (27). Earlier in the book, he writes how this concept may also be portrayed in the Bible when God forbids his people from making images of him in the Decalogue (Exo. 20:4) because he knows that it will alter the way that his people see him and hear his call on their lives.

Postman claims that every form of media favors a particular kind of content, and these forms are able to take command of a culture, shaping it toward a particular end. He argues that the rise of television media significantly altered the way that we thought about the world, the nature of truth, and even how we structure our lives. It became both a “meta-medium” that directs our knowledge of the world as well as a “myth” that functioned below our conscious awareness (78-79). He deems these new forms or methods of knowledge “dangerous and absurdist” as they replaced the prior emphasis on the written word.

Since Postman died in 2003, we can only speculate how he might describe the exponential breakdown of truth and ways that we process information in 2021 with social media. I can only imagine that he would be even more alarmed at the dangerous perversions of “truth” from conspiracy theories, fake news, and deepfakes, as well as the disconnected lives that people exhibit online, in print, and in person.

What does this mean for us?

So if Postman is correct—and I think he is—then what does that mean for those of us who inhabit this age of social media?

First, we each need to recognize how digital tools like social media are constantly shaping or discipling us each day. We must realize that the power these digital mediums have over us is not only altering how we think about truth, the world around us, and our neighbors but also altering how we depict ourselves. The reality is that we often mimic what we see online to the detriment of our souls and public witness.

Why is it that we tend to post takedowns without context or subtweets of those with whom we disagree? Why is it that we feel we must comment on every bit of news, especially on things about which we have little or no prior knowledge about? Why is it that we will spend countless amounts of time crafting a perfect post that someone will spend mere milliseconds reading in order to garner additional likes, shares, or engagement? Why is it that we will act charitably and gracefully toward someone in person or in long-form writing, only to turn around and seek to disgracefully dunk on them with an uncharitable post, clickbait title, or angry rant just to be seen as the right kind of person to our own tribe or to appease our naysayers?

While these issues are complex and much more can (and should) be written on these issues, we need to see that the medium itself is encouraging and shaping us toward that end. But it is far too easy to scapegoat the platforms or technologies today, rather than taking personal responsibility for our own actions and for the disconnect in our digital lives.

Second, we need to recognize that we think the digital world is cut off from reality. We tend to view it like a private megaphone that we can use to say and do things that we never would otherwise. Social media can easily become merely performative and fuel our addictions to self aggrandizement. We build platforms on outrage and then seem surprised when our outrage fails to satisfy. Thus, we must continue to dial it up in order to keep people coming back as they grow more and more desensitized to this type of content.

This point was brought home to me over the weekend when a friend and former pastor of mine posted about how he recently heard two different stories that detailed how someone’s online presence affected their “real life.” Both stories involved a person either being hired or being passed over for a professorship based on their online activities and public disposition. He explained how our online activities have become part of our resumes. While the medium of social media may encourage or even allow us to divide our lives in some type of digital fairyland disconnected from reality, the things we do online are very public and will have long-lasting effects on us, not only in terms of job opportunities but also on our souls. 

Each person must evaluate these things for themselves and reach a conclusion about how to move forward in this digital economy. Some will intentionally step back from social media and pursue obscurity online as they invest in the people and places right in front of them. Others will use digital platforms to encourage, challenge, and teach others but must do so with their eyes open to the detriments and dangerous effects of these tools. While we may think we are fighting the culture war or protecting the sheep through our digital engagement, we may actually be leading others and even ourselves astray by failing to remember that we are called to be above reproach in all places and through all mediums (Titus 1:6-8), and to model Christlikeness as members of the body of Christ.

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By / Apr 12

Last week was a particularly busy week for the technology industry at the nation’s highest court. First, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Google’s favor in a decadeslong court battle with Oracle over the use of certain software code to build the Android operating system. Oracle claimed that Google’s use of the code violated federal copyright law. Then, the high court released its decision in the case Biden vs. Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University. This particular case was ruled moot, and the lower decision was dismissed. The case was originally titled Trump vs. Knight. It was changed with the inauguration of Joseph R. Biden since the case revolved around the question of the president’s ability to block access to the public on a social media platform.

What was the case about?

The original lawsuit was filed back in July 2017 by the Knight First Amendment Institute and seven social media users against President Trump on account that he had blocked these seven individuals on Twitter after they criticized him or his policies. Being blocked by the president meant that these users could no longer see or respond to his posts on the platform. As veteran court reporter Amy Howe wrote, “The plaintiffs alleged that blocking them on Twitter violated the First Amendment, and the district court agreed. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld that ruling.” The lower court ruled that the president’s Twitter account was a public forum and that the government violated the rights of these individuals by blocking access to it.

On Aug. 20, 2020, a petition for a writ of certiorari was filed. The Supreme Court agreed to review the case, but it was also during an election year. In January, the Trump administration filed a brief indicating to “the justices that, although the 2nd Circuit’s decision was worthy of their review, the case would become moot once Joe Biden succeeded Trump as president on Jan. 20.” Amy Howe explains, “Trump had been sued as the president, rather than in his personal capacity, the administration explained, but Biden would not have any control over Trump’s Twitter account.” Then after the attack on the United States Capitol over alleged election fraud, President Trump was permanently suspended from Twitter over the claim that he incited the violence (even though the administration said that this suspension could be overturned, so that fact should not have bearing on the case.) All of these shifting circumstances ultimately led the court to grant the petition for a writ of certiorari, vacate the judgement, and remand the case back to the Second Circuit with instruction to dismiss the case as moot.

What does this case have to do with online content moderation?

On April 5, Justice Clarence Thomas released a concurring opinion alongside the court’s ruling. Justice Thomas explained in detail the court’s deliberations and the reasoning behind the decision to grant the petition for a writ of certiorari. But he went on to connect this case to the larger questions surrounding the immense responsibility and control that certain technology companies have in civic discourse given our public dependence on and the massive size of technology companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Google.

Justice Thomas writes, “Today’s digital platforms provide avenues for historically unprecedented amounts of speech, including speech by government actors. Also unprecedented, however, is the concentrated control of so much speech in the hands of a few private parties. We will soon have no choice but to address how our legal doctrines apply to highly concentrated, privately owned information infrastructure such as digital platforms.” He went on to state that the government might have a compelling interest to intervene in this new power dynamic by possibly limiting the right of a private company to exclude. Justice Thomas explained, “If part of the problem is private, concentrated control over online content and platforms available to the public, then part of the solution may be found in doctrines that limit the right of a private company to exclude.” He submitted two possible legal doctrines for consideration, designating social media as “common carriers” or as “public accommodations,” both of which are highly controversial in digital governance debates, especially among legal media scholars.

Justice Thomas argued that the “common carrier” designation has been applied to other industries with considerable market size, such as those in transportation and communication. These industries are given special privileges by the government, but also have restrictions placed on their ability to exclude. “By giving these companies special privileges, governments place them into a category distinct from other companies and closer to some functions, like the postal service, that the State has traditionally undertaken.” This particular argument may overlook the difference between social media as simply a carrier of information, rather than a curator of that information posted by users. 

The other designation of “public accommodation” would apply regardless of the relative market size of the companies, given the ongoing scholarly debate about whether market power is a necessary aspect for a company to be considered a common carrier. Justice Thomas wrote that these companies may not “not ‘carry’ freight, passengers, or communications,” but nevertheless they could have their right to exclude curtailed given their public utility. “If the analogy between common carriers and digital platforms is correct, then an answer may arise for dissatisfied platform users who would appreciate not being blocked: laws that restrict the platform’s right to exclude.” While he acknowledges that technology companies do indeed have their own First Amendment rights, he nevertheless argues that these rights may need to be diminished in light of the influence this industry has over our public discourse. This is a complex situation, especially for conservatives who traditionally resist the government’s intrusion into the rights of individuals and corporations.

Overall, Justice Thomas explores each of these options as well as their potential pitfalls throughout the concurrence. He rightly points out that these decisions would need to be enacted by various legislatures, but they also might be under the prerogative of the courts depending on the contours of the cases brought forth. This opinion, while not holding any enforceable action, is significant because a sitting Justice of the Supreme Court is making these types of arguments to reign in the power of the technology industry—an issue that both Democrats and Republican have been pursuing , even if on different ideological grounds.

What does this mean?

Justice Thomas acknowledged the tenuous realities in the current public policy debates over the role that these digital platforms play in our public discourse in light of their immense size and influence, including their ability to moderate user content. He is correct in saying that applying old doctrines to the new challenges of digital platforms is an extremely complicated matter, whether it be on issues of free speech, questions of public accommodation, or the nature of religious expression online.

As legal expert and free speech attorney David French correctly states, “Millions of Americans are deeply concerned about the power and reach of America’s largest tech companies, but their concerns often diverge sharply depending on their partisan affiliation.” French goes on to say, “The two sides are increasingly united in wanting more government regulation. They’re deeply divided as to what those regulations should say.” French, as others have pointed out, is concerned about government intervention in these matters since it may jeopardize the countless First Amendment victories that have been forged in recent years.

While Christians may disagree about the best path forward in these particular debates, we all must acknowledge that we live in a time where religious speech is increasingly seen as at odds with acceptable public discourse and free expression is often hampered in the pursuit of secularism. We need more believers engaged in this discussions who understand that the technology industry must be a major element in a full-orbed public theology. These types of decisions are crucial for the health of our democracy and the future of religion in the digital public square. 

Even with the immense complexity of these debates, one thing is abundantly clear: the dignity of our neighbor is at stake around the world. We must keep that truth central to this debate over digital governance, whether here in the United States or abroad under the repressive hand of authoritarian regimes. Though these issues may at times seem just to be about tweets, posts, and even the contours of particular content moderation policies, they must be seen as ways that human beings, created in God’s very image, are able to communicate, express themselves, and do life in an ever-increasing digital society.

By / Jan 18

If you’ve used social media in the past year—and over 75% of Americans have — you’re probably in an online bubble without even realizing it. Thanks mostly to COVID-19, we’re living in a world where most of our connections are through screens. And that’s not a good thing. 

Social media use among American adults has been steadily rising for years, but as stay-at-home orders rolled out across the country earlier this year, it exploded. Platforms like Facebook saw up to 27% more daily users during the first few months of the pandemic. Zoom went from 2 million users to 6 million, almost overnight. And local apps like Nextdoor saw their users grow by almost 80%. 

As our work, school, and social life all moved online, we became even more disconnected from the world outside our screens. This rapid move to online communities was at least partially responsible for drastic increases in mental health issues. 

Approximately one in three Americans reported suffering from anxiety or depression in 2020, up from one in 12 in 2019. On a more concerning note, the CDC reports that 25% of young adults considered suicide at some point during 2020. 

While these numbers are staggering, we’ve overlooked the way our digital isolation has caused many people to lose their grip on reality. Conspiracy theories have exploded online. Both conservatives and liberals have become convinced that the success of the other side would mean the end of the republic. And the disconnect between the laptop class — those who see the world from their comfortable work-from-home lives—and the working class—the waiters, cashiers, and blue collar laborers who have been directly affected by restrictions shutting down their places of work—has grown larger than ever. 

Why is this happening? 

Simply put, we’ve lost the real-world human connections that keep us grounded. We’ve been forced into online bubbles on platforms designed to group us with people like us. 

When you open Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, or virtually any other social media site, you’re seeing posts selected just for you by the AI algorithm. These posts are designed to connect you with people who have the same interests, have similar beliefs, and think the same way you do. Why? The algorithm is designed to increase engagement and keep you from closing the app, and logically, if you see things you like and are interested in, you’ll stay on the site longer. 

If the only things you read are articles tailored by the algorithm to fit your interests and the only people you talk to are those who post things that align with your thoughts, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked into a version of reality that doesn’t exist in the real world. 

But social media algorithms aren’t new. As the hit documentary The Social Dilemma shows, they’ve been in place for years. So what’s changed? 

In a normal time, most of us have regular interactions with people who aren’t like us. We talk to friends or neighbors who are on opposite ends of the political spectrum. We visit with relatives who don’t share our faith or belief systems. We interact with co-workers who come from different backgrounds and see the world differently. Our real-world connections provide an unfiltered dose of reality that keeps us grounded. Last year, we lost that, and our online bubbles became more isolated than ever. 

Escaping our online bubbles

While our world may soon return to normal, our tendencies to withdraw into sheltered bubbles won’t disappear when we get the COVID-19 vaccine. So, here are three ways to escape our online bubbles in 2021:

1. Limit social media use carefully 

This might seem like obvious advice, but it’s not as easy as it seems. Social media apps are intentionally designed to keep us scrolling for as long as possible. Personally, I’ve found it’s helpful to limit notifications and block out periods of time where you don’t check social media. The only way to win the battle against mindless social media use is to be intentional about disconnecting. 

2. Get your news and information from multiple sources

It’s tempting to believe everything you read on the internet, but so much of what we see on our feeds just isn’t true. Take the time to research things before believing them, and especially before sharing them with others. Often, a quick Google search will provide the truth about something. 

It’s also helpful to seek out multiple sources to find the truth about issues. Don’t get all your news from one media outlet. Read and follow people who think differently, but who are thoughtful and sincere in their arguments.

3. Be intentional about making real-world connections 

Making a point to connect with people outside of social media — especially those who aren’t like us — is so important. Not every conversation has to be a political discussion or deep worldview debate. In fact, simple “small talk” can go a long way. Even in a time of social distancing, it’s possible to make these real-world connections. Video chats, texts, and phone calls are all far better than a Facebook message or Twitter DMs. 

These connections don’t happen on their own. Unlike social media, where the algorithm creates conversations, real-world connections require effort and intentionality. Pick up the phone and call an old friend. Text someone to see how they’re doing. Surround yourself (even virtually) with people you love and trust. They will keep you grounded — often without realizing it.

It might seem like our isolation is out of our control, but we can be purposeful about escaping our online bubbles. We don’t need the world to go back to normal to change the way we interact with others. In an online world designed to pull us apart, let’s choose to break out of our bubbles. In 2021, let’s scroll less and talk more. We might “like” fewer posts, but we’ll be free to love more people in the real world.