I’m not a doomsayer. I do not believe social media is inherently evil. Instead, I believe it’s morally neutral. Like most technology, its capacity for good or evil lies in the hands of those who wield it. However, to pretend that you and I are the hands that truly wield it is naïve at best and irresponsible at worst. You may have good intentions when you sign in, but once you tap on that app you are entering a space that lauds your ability to shape the world by what you share, but in actuality, social media tends to shape you.
Obscene amounts of money, research, and energy are being invested by those far shrewder than you and me. And be warned—they don’t see social media as nice little apps to share baby pictures, stay connected, or fight over politics. Instead, they see social media as a means to an end—a way to distract you, profit from you, and influence you. In other words, it seeks to become the object of your worship.
In Christian speak, these platforms are utilized as “discipleship tools.” Only problem is, the folks investing the most money aren’t trying to disciple you into a follower of Jesus. Instead, they are trying to get you to purchase their product, embody their brand, vote for their candidate, vilify their enemy, or embrace their cultural vision for “the good life.” Social media provides them with a gold mine of information to learn more about how they can (1) reach you and (2) use this connection as a platform to speak their uniquely contextualized message to you.
Making matters worse, every one of us overestimates our ability to resist these powerful discipling influences while underestimating the time we actually spend on social media platforms. Put simply, we overestimate our holiness and underestimate our addiction. Because of that, social media has become the favorite tool of politicians, brands, businesses, and power brokers who want to shape our imaginations and capture our loyalty.
I’m reminded of Augustine’s words, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” In a day of screen addictions, attention economy, big data, ad-based media, algorithms, and echo chambers, there is no rest to be found.
Social media platforms first seek to learn about you. I heard recently that after 10 likes, Facebook can identify your political persuasion. After 50, they know more about you than your friends. After 100 likes, they know more about you than your family. After 300, they know more about you than you. And of course, most of us have had the horrifying experience of opening our phone to see an ad for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, only to realize, “Wait a second! I just had a conversation with my wife about Ben & Jerry’s like two minutes ago.” It doesn’t take long for the algorithms to get so good they can predict your needs, wants, and dilemmas before you are conscious of them yourself. Then they fill your feeds with ads that speak your language and promise to scratch your itch.
THE ATTENTION ECONOMY
We are living in a time some sociologists and number crunchers have deemed the attention economy. Consumer businesses, political parties, and others see your limited attention span as a scarce commodity. They believe this: “If we can get their attention long enough, we can control them.” This is why we see an increase in sensationalized and catastrophized content.
Clickbait captures people’s attention. By that, I mean headlines and images pertaining to hate, war, violence, injustice, villains, doomsday, chaos, conspiracy, outrage, sex, scandal, seduction, desire, pleasure, affluence, and beauty. These are the captivating enticements of the attention economy. The strategy is simple: “We will surround you with screens, push this content, capture your attention, and then we can own you.” These online influencers are finding much success.
The popular news outlets can help illustrate how this works. In them, we see a masterful (or perhaps diabolical) coalescing of curated content, sensationalized rhetoric, and shocking commentary. As a thought experiment, for several days this past July, I made it part of my daily routine to go to the following news websites: MSNBC, CNN, Fox News, and One America News. Each morning, I took screenshots of the headlines on each of their home pages. Then I looked at the four screenshots together and compared. What I observed was incredible but not surprising. Two words—curation and interpretation.
Each news outlet curated the news they shared in dramatically different ways. They reported only stories that fit their narrative of what is right and wrong, good and evil, important and trivial in the world.
For example, one weekday One America News featured the following on their front page: an article promising stimulus money thanks to the White House, a Second Amendment story on how an Indiana man wielded his gun to save others, three sympathy pieces supporting police amid rioting, one Obama/Biden “hit piece” on how they handled H1N1, a lament on the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque being taken over by Muslims, and a large scoreboard in the top right corner tallying the cost of illegal immigrants in the United States.
On that same day, MSNBC featured eight hit pieces focusing on President Trump that derided his dishonesty, incompetency, efforts to twist voting laws, dictatorial tendencies, secret police in Portland, etc. If curation wasn’t enough, they then took these stories and interpreted them by using sensationalized rhetoric and catastrophized worst-case scenarios in order to incite powerful human emotions like fear, rage, and uncertainty.
On certain days during 2020 I’ve scrolled my social media feed and wondered aloud how Christians—who share eternity in common—could post such antithetical content and have such opposing worldviews. This is how. Depending on what ecosystem of news you live in, you will be spoon-fed a drastically different totalizing narrative of the world. Social media algorithms reinforce this by winnowing your news feed down into echo chambers of those who live, think, vote, and believe like you.
THE LOSS OF PEACE
To summarize, the voices you listen to are the voices that disciple you. Far too many of us spend far too much time “listening” to our screens. These screens are constantly:
• learning more about us
• selling us with tailored ads that tell us what we “need” in nearly irresistible ways
• grabbing at our attention with spectacle, catastrophe, and propaganda
• discipling and distracting us from what can offer our hearts true rest
No wonder we have no peace. Look at the toxicity we consume daily. No wonder we have no joy. Ad-based media keep us in a constant state of believing we need more . . . and many people never discover that more is never enough.
Peace isn’t all that profitable for the power brokers and moneymakers at the top. It’s a lot easier to capture and keep people’s attention with conflict, controversy, and clickbait. The people pulling the strings don’t want us to experience joy; rather, they need us to believe that joy is just one purchase or one vote away. These are the voices we are listening to. These are the voices interpreting the world for us. These are the voices that have learned our ways, adopted our language, infiltrated our days, and stolen our loyalties. These are the voices embedded in social media. Social media is the new “high priest” for all the false gods that own us.
WHAT DO WE DO?
Having described this intentional strategy to disciple us, we must develop an aggressive counterstrategy to resist. I have found four tactics to be particularly helpful:
1. I carefully curate the voices I listen to most intently and most often. Where do I get my news? Who do I follow on Twitter? What people do I allow to interpret the world for me? How much of my attention goes where? If we are being honest, most of us spend substantially more time on social media (and other media) platforms than we do connecting with God. Here’s a test for you. Which equation gets more of your time?
• Social media + news media + political leaders + entertainment media
• Scripture + prayer + teachers of the Bible + intentional Christian community
This should be something you consider with your kids as well. A key today for parents is not teaching your children new information but helping to teach them how to find trustworthy sources of information.
2. I actively pursue disciplines of disengagement. These disciplines—which push back against social media strategies—include such things as solitude, sabbath, silence, study, prayer, and fasting. Rather than doing or saying or posting or buying or sharing or learning something, disciplines of disengagement force you to just be with God.
We live in a time that offers unending stimulation and distraction. We never have to be bored if we don’t want to be. Most of us can’t even wait in the grocery store line or at a red light without pulling out our phone, texting a friend, flipping on Facebook, or crushing some candy. We do everything to avoid boredom. But what if comfort with boredom is essential to unlocking intimacy with God? Engagement has become the new golden metric as churches try to build preeminent online ministries. But let us not lose sight of the ancient disciplines of disengagement.
3. I detox. Daily doses of putting the phone in a drawer or on DND (do not disturb) are essential. In fact, try fasting from your phone for a few days in a row. I’m reminded that the prophet Elijah found God in “a sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19:12; New Revised Standard Version).
4. I do everything I can to rest my heart in Jesus alone. The world around us is constantly telling us—selling us—that peace is contingent on our physical circumstances. Brands tell us we will find joy if we adopt their lifestyle. Political parties tell us we will find prosperity if we can elect their political savior. Consumer culture tells us we will find contentment on the other side of “more.”
The filtered, sanitized, Instaperfect lives of others we see online tell us our normal lives don’t measure up. But they are all wrong. If you want to find peace amid ever-changing circumstances, you need to find it in an unchanging God. If you want to find joy that transcends even the fear of death, you must place your trust in something—Someone—more powerful than death. There is a New Testament passage that I hope shapes our vision and imagination moving forward. Set your sights here.
Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory (Colossians 3:1-4).