As lawmakers discuss the regulation of social media, algorithms have rightly become a focal point. Algorithms are crucial to the business models used by ad-based digital platforms. In part, algorithms are important because they allow social media platforms and search engines to organize the massive amounts of content available on the internet. Certain social media algorithms have been identified as “malicious.” There is mounting evidence that certain social media platforms privilege anger-inducing content.
While the specific challenges represented by digital media platforms are unique, the influence of media forms is not new. As Neil Postman notes, “. . . how we are obliged to conduct such conversations will have the strongest possible influence on what ideas we can conveniently express. And what ideas are convenient to express inevitably become the important content of a culture.” Postman’s insight regarding the relationship between medium and message should alert us to a simple fact: regulation of social media is massively important, but not ultimately important.
Regulation may well be the logical step the government needs to take to secure representative democracy in the near term. We should take care, however, not to allow the resolution of this crisis to make us complacent because no governmental measures can fix our broken world. In part that is because, as O’Donovan rightly notes, the government has a “purely secular character. . .in the Christian era. . .not by its own profession, which is irrelevant, but by its actual position in salvation history.” Because we are citizens of the United States, it is certainly appropriate to participate in and be concerned with political activities.
As I note in a past article, “it is not a question of the legitimacy of government, but of its role and scope of authority.” That “role and scope” has limits. There is only so much that governmental action can accomplish.
While we watch and wait for the government and “big tech” to determine how best to wield the tools of a digital age, Christians would do well to demonstrate how people charged to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10) speak and act on digital platforms. We have an opportunity to show the world what it means to love God and others by keeping our “conduct among the Gentiles honorable” (1 Peter 2:12) as we interact on social media. To do so, we must attend to a couple of interrelated matters crucial to being and making disciples: integrity and accountability.
First, integrity does not consist of rigid rules or guidelines. Rather, as Nora Bateson suggests, “Integrity is the art of navigating those moments in which no pre-scripted rules apply. . . It means not justifying continued destruction or limiting what is possible by pointing to history, or worse ‘human nature,’ whatever that is.” This way of describing integrity is significant because it does not allow us to create a facade of integrity propped up by our dearly beloved causes no matter how legitimate.
Integrity does not bend to causes. It restrains us from pursuing causes through any means and at any cost. Integrity is not essentially pragmatic because integrity is willing to suffer loss.
As such, if we are to be a people of integrity, Christians cannot become obsessed with causes because, as Bruce Ellis Benson notes, “We create idols in order to satisfy our gaze, and their continued existence is completely dependent on that satisfaction. Should our fascination with a particular idol cease, it ceases to be an idol for us; it becomes ‘just’ an idea or material object.” Integrity fights against idolatry by focusing on being obedient at the moment even when obedience seems like a losing strategy.
Second, in Thinking Christian, I suggest, “Christians cannot ignore the possibility that we have adopted less-than virtuous mass media practices in the name of holding other Christians accountable. . . under the guise of seeking truth or crusading for justice.” While there are some Christian journalists who report Christian scandals, it is not clear that these journalists could be held accountable if the need arose. Worse, it isn’t clear that we are accountable for the content we consume. Our lack of accountability puts us in a position to be more influenced by the world than the church. This is because the negative social consequences of upsetting the world outweigh our commitment to being part of a community that finds joy in suffering and freedom in even the most inconvenient truths.
We have to ask ourselves what it means to outdo one another in showing honor (Romans 12:10), to endure sound teaching (2 Timothy 4:3), and to ensure “that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled” (Hebrews 12:15).
I don’t envy lawmakers or social media and search platforms the task of creating guidelines to tame the wilds of the digital age. Yet, that task is trivial in comparison to the one Christians have been given. We are to be and make disciples. We are to meditate on God’s instruction day and night, delighting in the wisdom we find there. We are to live together in harmony being of “one mind” and not allowing petty disagreements to arise among us.
While the Christian task may be more challenging than regulating complex digital algorithms, we walk with a Savior whose “yoke is easy” and whose “burden is light.” May we be people who take seriously the task of being and making disciples in this digital age or any other.
Dr. James Spencer currently serves as Vice President and COO of the D. L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization inspired by the life and ministry of Dwight Moody and dedicated to proclaiming the gospel and challenging God’s follow Jesus. His book titled “Useful to God: Nine Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody” will be released in 2022. He previously published “Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind,” as well as co-authoring “Trajectories: A Gospel-Centered Introduction to Old Testament Theology.”