Sometimes the divide in worldview issues clearly breakdown along ideological lines and we can easily see what divides Democrats from Republicans. Other times, however, even in our hyper-partisan age, a remarkable unity between the polar ends of the political spectrum becomes visible—and when it does, we had better pay attention.
In a crucial subcommittee hearing in the United States Senate, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) came together, agreeing with urgency that the social media empire was out of control. They both placed Facebook at the very head of their concerns. Indeed, Senator Blumenthal said of Facebook, “It has hidden its own research on addiction and the toxic effects of its products.” Then, at the same hearing, Senator Blackburn indicted Facebook for its breach of trust: “We do not trust you with influencing our children.”
These two senators, one very liberal and the other very conservative, almost never agree on any political issue. On this issue, however, they—along with so many of their colleagues from both parties—concluded that Facebook and other social media platforms exert a toxic influence on the American public. Not only that, but the senators also charged these social media companies with creating policies to accentuate those harmful effects.
A recent series of reports from the Wall Street Journal [WSJ] detailed a massive leak from Facebook. A whistleblower provided the WSJ insider information from data collected while this individual was employed at Facebook. A whistleblower, in today’s parlance, means someone who calls attention to something simultaneously hidden and harmful that needs resolution.
In this case, the whistleblower is Francis Haugen, who identified herself in a “60 Minutes” interview on CBS. The Washington Post, reporting on the interview, wrote, “Haugen, the previously anonymous former Facebook employee who filed complaints against the company last month, makes as good a case as any that now is the time to hold social media accountable.” Haugen declared, “When we live in an information environment that is full of angry, hateful, polarizing content, it erodes our civic trust. It erodes our faith in each other. It erodes our ability to want to care for each other. The vision of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world.”
The information Haugen provided to the original string of articles from the WSJ, which began dropping in mid-September, put Facebook on the line and revealed enormously problematic antics enacted by the company. In a September 14 story from the WSJ, the headline read, “Facebook Documents Reveal Secret Elite Exempt from its Rules,” which referred to Facebook’s “XCheck” program. The XCheck program meant that certain people, including Hollywood celebrities and certain American politicians, enjoyed exemptions from the rules that govern acceptable and unacceptable behavior on Facebook. The social media company has previously said that the rules of the company apply to everyone, equally. Now, however, we know that was a lie.
Interestingly, a recent headline from The Atlantic read, “The Largest Autocracy on Earth.” The article explained that Facebook is acting like a hostile foreign power, and now it’s time we treated it that way.
The data goes on, detailing, “Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups.” Facebook, therefore, at least acknowledges at an internal level that its platforms presented enormous social problems—the problems have become dangerous and noxious for so many young people.
The story, however, becomes more complex when we consider the business model. As the WSJ reported, “Expanding its base of young users is vital to the company’s more than $100 billion in annual revenue.” The company, moreover, “is currently valued at more than $1 trillion. When it comes to Instagram, more than 40% of its users are 22-years old and younger—22 million teenagers, moreover, log on to Instagram every day.
Additionally, Facebook and other social media companies have integrated with nearly every sphere of our communities. Their platforms connect human beings around the world. Consider, for example, what happened when Facebook recently suffered an interruption of service. Billions upon billions of dollars of commerce simply evaporated. Wealth disappeared. Meetings of economic and political significance ceased.
Disconnecting as a society is no easy challenge. In fact, it’s probably not a possibility because even if Facebook ended tomorrow, something else would quickly fill the void.
As Christians, we understand that the issues far surpass anything covered by the WSJ or other news outlets. We understand human dignity, which means that all men and women are not objects or abstractions—we are not a collection of carefully-picked pictures to curate a fantasy experience that embellishes our image.
The rise of social media has engendered the alienation of true humanity in the guise of this technological revolution. Normal human interaction and discourse has dissipated—and in its place, has come a frightening social media menace.
Face-to-face human interaction continues to decline, which leads to an inability to treat others with dignity and respect. Insults and character defamation are much easier to instigate from the safety of your bedroom with nothing but a laptop or smartphone. In fact, as the WSJ reported, Facebook’s platforms have become an “angrier place.”
Jacques Ellul was a French theologian in the 20th century and a prophet when it came to technology. He reminded Christians that we can never talk about “mere” technology because technology is never “mere.” In our age, technology becomes a god unto itself, a rival deity that threatens to contort human nature according to its own idolatrous determinations.
Ellul, moreover, warned Christians that we can never speak of technology as if it was something separate from theology. Technology changes the user; and it exerts a collective influence on entire societies and cultures.
In our day, technology has alienated us, certainly from each other. We sense that and can see how our reliance on technology has harmed our relationships with those around us. But it also has alienated us from God, feeding sinful impulses in us that turn us away from the dignity and identity we have as image bearers.
This means that Christians must think seriously about technology and understand that technology is a theological issue. A failure to confront the rival religion of technology is just another form of unfaithfulness.