By Drew Gilliland
Program & Research Associate, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice
Social media is a ubiquitous presence in the West, and is a growing one across the entire world. It is undoubtedly a source of positive connection and friendship for many, but its dangers are increasingly difficult to ignore, as much as the corporations who run them would like the public to think otherwise. From Russian trolls in elections in the US, Europe, Africa, and beyond, to disinformation campaigns in Myanmar that have targeted ethnic minorities and exposed them to hate-based violence.
The content isn’t the only issue, either. Facebook, for example, has unprecedented access into the lives of its users, acting much more like “Big Brother” than many governments could ever hope to be (with the exception of China and other countries like it). Privacy is not so very private, anymore.
The economic clout of social media corporations is also alarming. Social media has helped drive the destruction of the newspaper (especially the local newspaper), has contributed to the clustering of large corporations together in a manner reminiscent of Gilded Age monopolies, and sells user data to innumerable other corporations, giving them enormous sway over both consumers and producers. It has helped us become more angry, more cloistered, and less compassionate, siphoning us off into echo chambers of rage and distrust. So how can we -- especially those of us who believe in Jesus who himself embodied selfless love in an age of division, distrust, and hatred like our own -- think about loving, and actually embody love, to our neighbor in the age of social media?
First, a brief definition of social media is in order; it is easy to confuse social media with the wider internet. While a discussion of the internet’s effect on society is also important, for the sake of this discussion, “social media” must be distinctly defined. Social media is a content-sharing platform, with individuals or organizations as users who mutually interact, that is based on publicly-viewable (generically-named) “likes,” comments, and “shares” (or, at the very least, likes and comments). Examples include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn. This definition excludes platforms like Snapchat or YouTube; Snapchat is based on a person-to-person interface, with no sharing or liking feature, and YouTube does not allow for users to share other videos. The lines for this are admittedly blurry. For example, Google is definitively not a social media platform, but it used to have its own social media feature, Google+ (now discontinued). YouTube may seem similar to Instagram because, on it, users can view and post videos, even commenting on or liking them. However, it is different from Instagram in that it is not based on mutual user interaction, as between friends. It’s more like a message board where users can view content and discuss more or less anonymously, and is less of a truly “social” platform.
With these constraints in mind, social media is a place where love for neighbor must absolutely stand at the forefront. Loving our neighbor is based on loving God – the self-sacrificial, life-giving, others-empowering and others-centered God who was made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ – because he made humans in his own image. We are his icons here on Earth, designed to work alongside him in the restoration of all things. As such, loving our neighbor involves thinking creatively about how to show love to the person (or group of people) with whom we are interacting.
This first area in which we can love others on social media is in our interpersonal interactions on these platforms. Too often, Christians can be just as trollish as any other group, tearing down one another if we disagree and contributing to the cacophony of outrage. Even pastors with whom I am very sympathetic, like Thabiti Anyabwile, a prominent evangelical African-American pastor who has become discouraged by much of white evangelical discourse about race in particular, can make mistakes online. Recently, he published an outstanding and humble apology to “some evangelicals,” asking for forgiveness for sometimes writing out of a place of fear and anger, for sometimes writing indiscriminately, for sometimes writing too soon, for having a harsh tone at times on social media, for sometimes misrepresenting the motives of others, for sometimes acting out of “hopelessness about the state of reconciliation and the pursuit of justice in the church,” and, finally, for apologizing too late about these things.
We can all learn from Anyabwile in his apology’s approach. First, he is humble. He is willing to recognize that he has contributed to “injustice” on social media. We must be willing to look at ourselves honestly and about how we interact online with others. Next, he rightly diagnoses various dangerous and toxic core motivations from which we choose to interact with others, namely fear, anger, hopelessness, or, (often in my case) self-righteousness. These attitudes will bleed through in our tweets and comments, especially when discussing contentious issues. I have been guilty of all of them. Instead of acting out of love, we will act out of one of these other motivations. “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Luke 6:45b, NIV). These motivations can lead to the third point – writing indiscriminately, harshly, too soon, and in a way that does not charitably view the position of others. When these actions are taken on social media, they immediately shut down vital dialogue – not necessarily all interaction, but the true two-way conversation in which views can be honestly, passionately, and respectfully shared – and tend to further entrench others into their current viewpoints. In order to love, we need to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. It will greatly contribute to an increase of gracious interaction on social media.
The next way that we must consider how to love others in regards to social media is its wider social impact. It is clear that, despite our best efforts, social media has had seriously deleterious effects on our social fabric. It is clear that, through their comprehensive collection of data about every last aspect of a person’s life, secretive algorithms algorithms, and addictive UX/UI design, those in Silicon Valley care little about protecting individuals and instead want to squeeze every penny possible out of them. To love our society, we must push for public and private policies that will check the invasive power of social media corporations into the lives of individuals. The European Union is already taking steps in this direction with its recently implemented GDPR legislation, which requires companies to be much more transparent about data collection. Legislation should go further, limiting how much data can be collected. I also believe that larger corporations, especially the Facebook-Instagram-WhatsApp conglomerate, ought to be broken up, allowing for a race to the top in privacy policies. Free speech issues are thorny, on social media, but algorithms should force alternative viewpoints to come to the forefront of various pages to minimize the effect of social media echo chambers. UX and UI design should also be scrutinized. Especially to children, who are increasingly exposed to social media, the design features of social media apps and websites should actively encourage users to put it away, not keep them online. The counterargument from the market perspective naturally opposes this, because “eyes on the screen” is what drives revenue. Unfortunately, eyes on the screen is also what is contributing to much negative social change. There are more policy suggestions that are loving towards our neighbor, but these would be a good start.
It is a massive challenge to love our neighbor in today’s world, even without social media. However, we can start by learning the depth of God’s love for us and his created order, and join him in his mission to reconcile all things to himself. This includes our online social media interactions. By closely watching what we say, why we say it, and how we say it on an interpersonal level, and by advocating for policies that protect people against Big Tech overreach, we can love our neighbor well in this rapidly-changing digital world.
The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.