Under the Influence: Social Media’s Power and Christian Community

Social media does not have to be off limits to the Christian, but we need to understand its shaping power and engage it appropriately. Despite the common assumption that technological advance is…

Social media does not have to be off limits to the Christian, but we need to understand its shaping power and engage it appropriately. Despite the common assumption that technological advance is always a good thing, there are certain “burdens” that should never be lifted, namely, gathering in person. Insofar as social media helps cultivate genuine biblical community, it serves us well.

During a time when challenging issues proliferate, a biblical vision of community must be a central ingredient to the Apostle Paul’s instruction to being transformed by the renewal of our minds.

It follows that we should have our most challenging interaction face-to-face where we are less prone to dehumanize others in the conversation. The humanizing value of in-person, embodied interaction is evident in our preference for in-person engagement rather than zoom, Skype, or other video communication technologies.

In-person gatherings are also more likely to foster biblical community because face-to-face interaction humanizes others in the conversation—it is easier to treat them with dignity. If someone with a contrasting opinion is in the room, their mere presence as an image bearer makes it far less likely that a caricature will be made out of their ideas, dialogue partners will interact with less volatility, and there is a greater chance for mutual understanding so everyone has the opportunity to arrive at a more biblical perspective.

The Formative Nature of Social Media

Social media’s influence over its users is no accident. In the widely viewed Netflix documentary, The Social Dilemma, a band of social media’s most influential engineers revealed their effort to “tailor” the user’s media content and reward certain behaviors with “likes” and “favorites.” However, they lament that they were admittedly naive to the real-world impact that these mediums would have.

In the film, Harvard sociologist, Shosana Zuboff lamented that “Facebook discovered a way that they were able to effect real-world behavior and emotions without triggering the user’s awareness—[the users] are completely clueless.” In addition, the documentary’s mastermind, former Google ethicist Tristan Harris said, “Fake news spreads six times faster than true news [on social media].”

A chief driving force behind social media is advertisement revenue based upon “clicks” within the platform. In short, the more clicks a medium generates the more valuable their advertising space is to venders. The goal is to generate clicks at any cost. Humanity’s appetite for gossip, half-truths, and slander, resulted in the consumption of tasteless content, the emergence of “click-bait,” and tailored user experiences—all to keep us clicking. The experts admit that social media’s users are the product (i.e., what is being formed), not the mediums themselves. The film communicates an overarching ethical concern for the complicity of tech engineers in the proliferation of untruth, anxiety, and depression among social media’s users.

Community and Social Media

The user’s tailored experience on social media does not end with individual media surfing, but in cyber communities. God made us, his image bearers, with an indispensable need for community, but interest-based online groups function differently than in-person communities. Online communities are predisposed to polarization, not because people always intend for them to be so, but because of how the platforms are made and used.

When we hop on our favorite social medium, we are often on the “go” looking for something to “fill the gap” with passive or mindless entertainment. Because we desire to put our minds on its proverbial autopilot, we do not think deeply about the issues we encounter despite being confronted with the most controversial and pressing issues of our day. As opposed to thinking through social media content with a finely crafted Christian worldview, we often take the easy route, and our attention gravitates toward headlines that affirm our assumptions.

When we curate our friends and join groups on our favorite social media outlets, it is self-affirming because we are more likely to get “likes” and “favorites” within that group because of a shared set of commitments. In order to retain attention in a group and relive the dopamine surge experienced when our online content is affirmed, we are prone to overstatement and increasingly polarizing rhetoric. Social media’s algorithms seize upon this activity and feed that appetite with a flood of provocative, yet self-affirming content to keep them clicking. This is how cyber communities can become insular and toxic as they recycle self-endorsing messages within the group.

Biblical Community

Biblical community is not predicated upon self-affirmation or groupthink, but upon the admonition to live unto Christ. The Christian life is built upon Christ who formed a community—the church—comprised of people from various nations, political dispositions, ideological persuasions, and cultural backgrounds who are now family. This community is forged because those who reside within it are transformed, not unto themselves, but unto another who transcends the community.

The kind of environment where “iron sharpens iron” and when there is a higher expectation of commitment to the group, there is a greater likelihood of being formed into the image of Christ in challenging ways that are easily avoided when cyber-gatherings can be exited at the user’s discretion. While cyber communities abound, incarnational environments have a higher likelihood of forming participants in more challenging biblical ways rather than having the floor slanted towards the lowest common denominator of careless groupthink.

Social Media and the Christian

As we spend time on our favorite platforms, we must resist getting emotionally invested in making a name for ourselves online because the communities gathered will not serve your spiritual formation as effectively as in-person community. Remember, the mediums are designed to enhance imbalance rather than foster biblical wisdom. Social media best serves as a catalyst for spiritual growth by helping to organize meaningful in-person gatherings, positively affirming uplifting content, and compiling topics for discussion within a community committed to your becoming more like our Savior.