I run the social media presence for a medium-sized human rights charity. If I log in to our Instagram account and check the timeline of all the individuals we follow, I can see that within the last 15 minutes the following pithy statements were posted, each against some sort of sunshine/beachy background.
“Something great is about the happen to me! God is on my side, and I walk in favour.”
“My moral life is simple, you treat me good and I’ll definitely treat you better.”
“God is going to bless YOU today. Type ‘amen’ to claim your blessing.”
“When it rains, it pours… But soon, the sun shines again. Stay positive. Better days are on their way.”
All posted without any explanation or link for further reading. Not even a Bible verse to authenticate the claims laid out in the statement.
Because of my job I inevitably spend a lot of my time observing online trends, and I’ve noticed something; posting generic ‘wisdom’ statements have become a thing. A really big thing. People love it, which means the internet is full of this type of content.
I should be clear – I’m not interested in debating whether or not each of these statements is true or not – although some of them are deeply worrying – my main concern is the bigger picture of how we’re doing theology or handling truth narratives on a popular level.
A lot is made of how social media is changing our relationships, but I wonder if it’s time we took a serious look at how it has the power to warp our understanding of reality or Christianity.
Nobody is impervious to the influence of social media and the power it has to change our world views. I can testify to the impact of the digital world in my own life – I have now come to expect to hear news about the world through my Twitter feed or from news sources on Facebook. This is now commonplace.
But this also poses two problems.
Firstly, due of the sheer amount of noise on social media, especially Facebook, content producers are constantly looking for ways to get their messages to stand out from the crowd. Content is tested and refined until it meets all the criteria for going viral, often at some expense to the message itself or any journalistic responsibility. Interestingly, research shows that video is the king of content. I regularly hear from peers in my industry about the time and money that is now being allocated to creating short, punchy videos for Facebook because of the recent success of the autoplay function in the news feeds. We’ve used this where I work to great success.
If all the popular content that makes it through Facebook’s algorithm and into your news feed is stripped of substance, what kind of information diet and appetite are we cultivating?
The second problem is that social media enables us to create echo chambers of our own already existing political and religious opinions. Think about the pages you like or the people you follow. Or consider the times you have chosen to unfollow or to mute one of your friends on Facebook because you dislike what they are saying. This is bad for our thought lives.
How is this changing us? Is it building community and understanding, or is creating silos and deepening divisions?
Exposure to dissenting voices helps us to think harder about our own positions and either change our minds or build stronger arguments in response.
Have you ever reacted angrily or nodded approvingly at a headline on your news feed? Ever felt tempted to weigh in on the debate raging in the comments without clicking on the article link to investigate the story or argument for yourself? I know I have.
This too is a worrying habit. Last year NPR pulled an enlightening prank on social media by posting an article with the headline ‘Why Doesn’t America Read Anymore?’ On the surface, it appeared to be like any other post designed to elicit a healthy debate, but there was no actual article behind the link. Instead, those who did click through were greeted with a congratulatory message for actually bothering to read it before potentially liking, sharing or commenting. Everyone else, however, got stuck into the debate in the Facebook comments section, thus proving NPR’s point perfectly. Very amusing. Very concerning.
There are many instances in the Bible, and especially in Jesus’ own teachings, where a plain reading of the text will lead you into all types of misleading interpretations. The challenge for a digitally native generation is to constantly question reductionist statements, pick them apart, turn them upside down and hold them up against scripture.