Chris Martin is manager of social media at Lifeway Christian Resources. He writes a newsletter called Terms of Service on the social internet and our relationship with it. You can subscribe here. He is also working on a forthcoming book on the social internet and some common lies it leads us to believe. It is due to release in 2021. Today I’m interviewing Chris on social media’s negative effects.
Chris, you and I have been talking now for years about social media platforms, best practices, the effects of social media on our culture. When you first started studying social media, you saw it as a neutral tool that could be used in either positive or negative ways. More recently, you’ve taken a more negative stance toward the platforms themselves.
In a recent newsletter you sent out to your subscribers, you wrote that social media “engages our emotions . . . which is usually negativity, not positivity.” So, while not denying that social media can have positive effects, you now see the tools themselves as bent toward negative effects. What changed your mind?
I have changed my mind, away from thinking social media platforms are neutral tools, as I have done more research about the inner workings of social media platforms and the motives with which they have been created and are perpetuated. Just recently, the WSJ reported that Facebook ignored internal research that proved its algorithms, “exploit the human brain’s attraction to divisiveness.” Facebook (which owns Instagram and WhatsApp) recognized the divisiveness of its own algorithms and shelved the research for fear that changing its algorithms to be less divisive would hurt engagement and, ultimately, revenue.
As I have read and studied the inner workings of social media platforms more over the years, I have come to the realization that most of these platforms, with the Facebook suite being the most grievous offenders, routinely make decisions that support revenues to the detriment of users. These platforms are designed to make us want to engage content, even if it’s content that makes us sad or angry. Facebook has even bragged about making users more sad in the past.
I think all of us, because of sin, have a default setting to use social media in sinful ways. So I think we are primarily to blame for the misuses of social media. But it has become clear to me that the platforms themselves are acting as stumbling blocks, not simply neutral tools poorly used.
Many people these days are concerned with social media censorship, or the idea of platforms stepping in to provide “official explanations” or “corrected” information from public officials. You don’t deny that biases are likely present among big social media companies, but you think the larger effect of social media is not its leftward or rightward but its downward bias. What do you mean by this?
Let me be clear from the beginning here: social media platforms often do a poor job of content moderation. I am slow to sling blame at them, though, because it is a monumental task to moderate the online actions of hundreds of millions of people. Recently, Facebook has been criticized for catering to conservative groups in their moderation policies, and Twitter has been accused of catering to liberal groups in their moderation policies, particularly because of its annotations on some of President Trump’s tweets. In the past, Twitter has been accused of catering to the Right and Facebook to the Left. It’s honestly hard to keep track of which social media platforms are being criticized by which ideological groups.
I think what we’re witnessing is the leaders of outlandishly influential platforms trying to figure out how to balance “free speech” and basic human decency. The key question at the heart of this whole situation is, “Is it the role of a social media platform to provide a free and open space for people to communicate however they want . . . or is it the role of a social media platform to provide a moderated space that protects against hate speech, calls to violence, and other forms of harmful communication?”
I lean toward the second, that social media platforms should do what they can to curtail hate speech, pornography, and other offensive content. But, admittedly, this could lead to a pretty slippery slope. But isn’t that better than scrolling on Facebook and seeing someone torture a dog?
I think social media platforms are doing the best they can, even if they’re fumbling it a bit. I want to give them some grace here, because I don’t envy their task. It’s like they set out to invent a Supersoaker, and now they’re trying to figure out how to handle a firehose. I think some government intervention—like the FCC, but for social media—is probably what they need.
You write that being aware of how social media posts intend to manipulate us is the first step in fighting ill effects. What is the second step?
Good question. I think so much of my writing and thinking right now is devoted to the first step that I haven’t been thinking a lot about the second. After recognizing that social media platforms are designed to provoke us to like, comment, share, or retweet content that engages our emotions (for good or bad), we should refrain from taking the bait. Once we recognize, “Oh, this Facebook ad from a pro-abortion agency has been delivered to me because I am anti-abortion,” we simply ignore the ad rather than hop in the comment section to berate the advertisers. I think the second step is to simply engage less with content that makes us mad, and maybe more content that makes us happy or feel good. This can help us perpetuate positive content on social media rather than negative, which is the best we can do short of logging off completely.
You see two types of people online: those who post on social media and are angry due to a perceived lack of recognition and those who read social media and are angered by content they read. For the latter, your advice is to not take the bait. But for the former, what is your advice to those who want more online attention?
To be clear, I think there are more than just these two types of people. But often, in our sin, we fall into one of these categories. My advice to people who want more online attention would be to repent and delete your accounts. Or at least step away for a long time. Those of us who get on social media in order to get attention are operating in that default mode I mentioned before, and it will only lead us to sin. The easiest way to get attention online is to be a jerk. This is why, I think, so many people are jerks online. A lot of people simply aren’t getting the attention they want from their spouse, kids, boss, dog, or what have you, so they look for an audience online. Seeking attention, and affection, from an online audience is often a symptom of a deeper host of issues: a joyless offline life, an idolatry of the self, and more.
Social media platforms are not going away; rather, new ones are popping up all the time. Why do you think the human population, around the world and across cultures, are so drawn to social media?
Social media platforms fulfill three basic desires of people: the desire to be entertained, the desire to express oneself, and the desire to connect with others. Basically every social media platform that has ever existed, from Friendster to YikYak to TikTok, fulfills one or more of these desires. I genuinely think that the last anthropology class in the history of the world will recognize the social internet as the most significant development in human history. Social media will continue to revolutionize not only how people relate to each other, but also how people transform the world.
How can Christians and churches thus use social media for kingdom purposes, if you think that is possible at all?
I could say a lot here, but let me summarize all of my thoughts into one simple statement: Christians and churches can use social media for kingdom purposes when they use it to reflect and glorify the nature and character of God as we see it in Jesus Christ. Advocate for what is just. Celebrate what is beautiful. Encourage others. Logging off of social media entirely is not a bad option. But if you don’t see that as a viable option for one reason or another, do what you can to reflect the love and truth of the Christian faith into the world through the social internet.
We’re in an election year, and social media is likely to be a large factor in whatever outcome lies ahead. How would you encourage Christians as they scroll through social media feeds in these critical months?
Unfollow all news outlets. I did this in 2016, and it helped me a lot. I should have done it earlier. Notice: this is not a call to ignorance or to being uninformed—you can be informed through avenues outside of social media! It is a call to engage politics on your own accord, rather than being force-fed via your social media feeds. Let me explain.
When you follow dozens of news organizations and political pundits on social media, you get assaulted by politics every time you scroll. You are consuming political content even when you don’t want to be. The outlandish and rational opinions are all intermingled with the funny videos you watch or the family updates you see. When you unfollow all news outlets and political pundits, you aren’t being force-fed that content anymore, and you have the freedom to engage with what’s happening on your own time, in measured ways.
Instead of following a bunch of news outlets on social media, find a few reputable news outlets with diverse viewpoints that can give you all sides of a situation, bookmark them in your web browser, and visit them regularly so you learn what is happening and develop empathy for those with whom you disagree. Stay informed, but at your own pace. If you follow all of the latest political happenings this year via your social media feeds, you will almost certainly feel upset and overwhelmed, paralyzed into inaction or enraged into sin. Unfollow all of them, bookmark a few news websites on your browser, and engage at your own pace. This is a much more reasonable way to stay informed, and it can protect us from slipping into feelings of helplessness or anger that can lead us to fall into the ditches of either not caring about politics at all or caring about politics too much.