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No Social-Media Algorithm Rewards Grace

More By Chris Martin

In the December 2019 issue of The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and technology-ethics writer Tobias Rose-Stockwell concluded an article titled, “The Dark Psychology of Social Media,” with the following thoughts:

If we want our democracy to succeed—indeed, if we want the idea of democracy to regain respect in an age when dissatisfaction with democracies is rising—we’ll need to understand the many ways in which today’s social-media platforms create conditions that may be hostile to democracy’s success. And then we’ll have to take decisive action to improve social media.

Social-media platforms have transformed over time to reward mob mentalities instead of civil discourse. Haidt and Rose-Stockwell go so far as to say that today’s social-media platforms “create conditions that may be hostile to democracy’s success.” 

Likewise, today’s social-media platforms create conditions that may be hostile to considerate, Christlike communication. While social media can be a place to learn and grow in our Christian faith, it often feels like a black hole, resembling an endless void of darkness that can’t be penetrated by any kind of light. 

What are Christians to do? Abandon social media because of its problems? Go to battle for Christianity and the gospel against any and all combatants who assail the name of Jesus online? 

Managing social media for a large Christian organization, I see Christians shine the bright light of the gospel and mercilessly eviscerate others online every single day. I fear many of us have fallen into feedback loops created by algorithms intended to generate engagement, and have lost sight of our calling to be known by our mutual love (John 13:34–35).

What Changed

The early years of social media were dedicated to connecting friends. It wasn’t much more complicated than that. There were no “timelines,” “news feeds,” or other steady streams of content on the earliest social-media platforms. Users had profiles, and communication between users occurred on those profiles or in private messages. 

But the social-media landscape changed dramatically in 2009 with two major additions: Facebook’s algorithm and Twitter’s “Retweet” button. Haidt and Rose-Stockwell observe the following about these innovations:

The News Feed’s algorithmic ordering of content flattened the hierarchy of credibility. Any post by any producer could stick to the top of our feeds as long as it generated engagement. . . . The Retweet button essentially enabled the frictionless spread of content. A single click could pass someone else’s tweet on to all of your followers—and let you share in the credit for contagious content.

These features, and the eventual addition of others like Facebook’s version of a retweet—the “Share” button—laid the groundwork for the polarization already present in our hearts to take center stage in our public discourse and, indeed, our entire culture.

These methods of engagement are functionally social reward systems. Likes, comments, shares, retweets, and other forms of affirmation act as “points” in a gamified sociological landscape, both literally within the algorithms that govern these platforms and figuratively in the sociological architecture of the internet.  

We are more eager to share negative content because fear and anger push us to action more than love.

No social-media algorithm rewards grace. Encouraging tweet threads aren’t shared as much as angry ones. “Cancel culture” thrives because the reward systems and algorithms support mobs, and most mobs are angry. We are more eager to share negative content because fear and anger push us to action more than love.

Social-media conflict within the body of Christ helps no one because there’s no public incentive to resolve it. Until the conflict is taken offline or to a private online space, all parties involved are performing for their followers, whether they think about it or not. No one gets retweets for conceding ground, only for holding it.

Few Christians have difficulty communicating the truth of the gospel on social media. We have that nailed down. Yet so many of us struggle to communicate the truth of Christ with the love of Christ on social media.

Social Media as Spiritual Battleground

Why are we so prone to give a listening ear to “discernment” blogs? Why do we foam at the mouth to cancel the celebrity who steps out of line? Why do we cheer on, either aloud or in our hearts, the ideological gladiator we love most in the digital colosseum?

Sin.

Our sinful hearts lead us either to sign up as gladiators for social-media warfare, or to willingly punch our tickets, grab our popcorn, and watch the madness. In our sin, we love a good fight. We love seeing the people we believe are wrong “put in their place” by the people we believe are right.

Our sinful hearts lead us either  to sign up as gladiators for social-media warfare, or to willingly punch our tickets, grab our popcorn, and watch the madness.

Simply, we’re prideful. Social media is yet another place to feel triumphant. We just want to win.

We must see social media less as an ideological battleground on which we demonstrate our spiritual prowess and more as a spiritual battleground on which we demonstrate our ideological humility. We ought to listen more and post less. Social media can be a tremendous tool as an extension of incarnational ministry, but it can be a lethal weapon in our efforts to simultaneously display the love of Christ.

So What Do We Do?

Practically, what are Christians to do on social media? One option is to log off completely. We’re not being faithless if we opt out of shining gospel light online. There is no ministerial obligation to participate in social media. If you can’t figure out a way to use social media to glorify God and point others to him, your soul and the church will be best served if you log off.

If you can’t figure out a way to use social media to glorify God and point others to him, your soul and the church will be best served if you log off.

But what if you want to stick around? How can Christians use social media in constructive ways that point folks to the glory of God and the overflow of that glory in our world? 

1. Share the beauty of life.

Are you a gifted photographer? Take beautiful pictures of the world around you and share them with the world, reminding your audience of the God behind the creation you capture in your photos. Are you a gifted cook? Create a cooking social-media account devoted to the craft of cooking, celebrating the diverse tastes the Lord has gifted us.

We can use social media to share the beauty of life while pointing our followers to the God behind all that beauty.

2. Celebrate goodness and righteousness.

It’s pretty trendy to bemoan injustice on social media. People tend to be motivated by anger than they are by joy, so posts about how awful the world is tend to get far more attention than other kinds of posts.

We must see social media less as an ideological battleground on which we demonstrate our spiritual prowess and more as a spiritual battleground on which we demonstrate our ideological humility.

Perhaps we need more believers celebrating the justice and righteousness we see in our world. Tell stories of the goodness you come across in a given day. Share stories of service and selflessness in your community. Point people to the God of all goodness and righteousness.

3. Manifest kindness.

Again, we’ll be known by our love for one another—or lack thereof. All of us need encouragement from time to time. Use social media to send encouraging notes to people.

Can you find your favorite author on Twitter? Mention the author and tell him or her how you see God working in their writing. Are you friends with your pastor or small-group leader on Facebook? Take 10 minutes out of your lunch hour one day and write up an encouraging Facebook message to that person.

Be kind to others. Be generous. Let the love of Christ overflow in your online world.

Gospel Light

Social media isn’t going away. Perhaps the light of the gospel can penetrate the darkness of the social internet.

Let’s shine it and see what happens.

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