It’s More than Algorithms that Are Dividing Us

More and more, pastors and church leaders acknowledge problems related to social media. Whether it’s division and disunity in the local congregation (due to church members duking it out online), or suspicion and distrust of Christian leaders, writers, and organizations (due to spurious claims, quotes out of context, or false accusations), the conclusion is the same: We aren’t doing well at discipling people to be discerning and reasonable online.

Online rabbit trails lead to online rabbit holes, and the algorithms of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube seem designed to “engage with rage”—showing us whatever would be most likely to provoke a reaction. Click on one video, and another one pops up, and then another—each clip reinforcing tribal loyalties and stirring up similar suspicions. Over time, we develop impressions regarding this topic or that teacher. We gather in groups, which split into subgroups, which splinter into micro-groups. Sometimes, these splits occur not because of a difference of belief at the core level of doctrine, but a difference of emphasis in what to say and when to say it, or what strategy to employ for seeing change. These differences turn into debates, and fissures between like-minded brothers and sisters grow into canyons.

It’s increasingly rare these days to hear someone say something like, “I think this thinker does great work here and here, but I disagree on that particular issue over there.” The leader’s fans will interpret your disagreement in a way that makes you just another one of the “haters.” The leader’s opponents will hear the kind words you use to preface your disagreement and interpret them in a way that makes you a weakling, a compromiser. No matter what “tribe” you’re in, you must demonstrate fealty. Everything is “all or nothing.” Reject that brother, no matter what. Embrace that sister, no matter what. Prove your purity.

Are Algorithms to Blame?

Many wonder why it seems like so many divisions have become so stark so fast. What might be exacerbating these tensions? An easy culprit is the social-media platform. The algorithms of these sites are designed to maximize and extend the time we spend on the platform, so it’s no wonder they serve morsel after morsel of content tailored to whatever grabs our interest. If you think the biggest problem facing evangelicalism is racism and misogyny, example after example will appear before your eyes, leaving you with impressions that confirm your diagnosis. The same is true if you think the biggest threat to the church is Critical Race Theory or “wokeness.”

The flames of division are fanned by social-media sites. Algorithms are responsible, right? Well, yes, that’s partly true, but it’s not the whole story. No doubt algorithms and social-media strategies exacerbate divisions between brothers and sisters in Christ.

But algorithms are not the primary cause. The problem runs deeper.

Changing Algorithms Isn’t Enough

If the big problem is a bad algorithm, then the solution is a better algorithm—one that would help us encounter opposing viewpoints more often. But Duke University professor Chris Bail, in his important book Breaking the Social Media Prism, points to research showing that there’s little evidence to support the idea that algorithms facilitate radicalization (93). What about those news headlines telling us about troll farms and misinformation campaigns? There’s little evidence to show that these are a major source of political divisions in America (94). Most mass media campaigns, even the successful ones, have minimal effects.

Julia Galef’s book The Scout Mindset goes against the grain of commonsense wisdom, by showing that “exposure to the other side” politically doesn’t make someone more inclined to a middle position, or more likely to question their views. Instead, a person tends to grow more polarized after having encountered the views of “the other side,” after seeing how awful their opponents are. Diversifying your news sources and political commentators will only go so far.

Voice of the Heart

Bail’s work dives deeper to show us why simply exposing yourself to other viewpoints online doesn’t make you more reasonable. Breaking out of the echo chamber can be counterproductive, Bail writes, because the problem goes deeper than the algorithm. It’s a heart issue exacerbated by social media, not created by it. As he explains,

In an era of growing social isolation, social media platforms have become one of the most important tools we use to understand ourselves—and each other. . . . [Social media] helps us do something we humans are hardwired to do: present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them, and revise our identities accordingly. (10)

We are not testing ideas on social media. We are trying on identities. And what’s the result? According to Bail,

Social media is more like a prism that refracts our identities—leaving us with a distorted understanding of each other, and ourselves. The social media prism fuels status-seeking extremists, mutes moderates who think there is little to be gained by discussing politics on social media, and leaves most of us with profound misgivings about those on the other side, and even the scope of polarization itself. (10)

Once we invest ourselves in creating an identity online, we are primed and ready to take offense when someone disagrees with us, or when someone articulates a viewpoint we believe to be profoundly mistaken. Stepping outside your echo chamber isn’t, for many people, a way of seeking out different ideas; it invites an attack on one’s very identity.

The Church and the Heart

The church is not immune to these tribal forces. That’s why every day online feels like a battle between evangelicals with different views—brothers and sisters who may agree on primary points of theology and ministry yet make different emphases or promote different ways of engaging the culture. And the more you feel inclined toward one “camp” or another, the bigger the contrast between “us” and “them” grows.

Remember, social media is not really an arena for ideas to compete; it’s a place for a vicious competition between identities (39). According to Bail,

The deeper source of our addiction to social media . . . is that it makes it so much easier for us to do what is all too human: perform different identities, observe how other people react, and update our presentation of self to make us feel like we belong. The great tragedy of social media . . . is that it makes our tendency to misread our social environment even worse. (53)

In the next column, we’ll look at one of the main ways social media distorts our social environment, giving us an inaccurate view of what is going on in the church. But for now, let’s focus on the only answer to this dilemma of “performing different identities” online.

Justified by Faith

A changed algorithm won’t fix our problems, only a changed heart. And the only way to see long-lasting heart change is through the internal sense of security that comes through justification by faith.

What does the truth that we are justified by faith have to do with online tribal warfare? The gospel announces the gift of God’s grace based on Christ’s person and work in our place. We rest assured in him. He is the source of our identity. He is our victory.

Knowing we are accepted by God (because of Christ’s performance, not ours), we don’t interpret online disagreement, even harsh words, as an attack on our identity. And when we speak the truth, defend the faith, or correct someone in error, we don’t do so as a way of “proving” our loyalty to one tribe or another (or demonstrating our ability to “crush” or “smack down” an opponent), but out of sincere concern for someone else, and with the humility of knowing we don’t always get it right either.

Apart from a heartfelt understanding of justification by faith, we are bound to follow the world’s tribal instincts, assuming the worst of brothers and sisters in Christ, catastrophizing every controversy, proving our bona fides to whatever camp we care about most.

It’s time for a better way. It’s time to stop blaming the algorithm.

T. Was

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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