Social Media Justice and the Gospel

One of the common complaints against Christianity—what Tim Keller calls defeater beliefs—is that a good God…a loving God…would not judge sin and wouldn’t punish it if he did. He would just wipe it away and forgive it without judgment. We are taught by culture not to like violence, so we like to believe that a just God would also be non-violent.

Miroslav Volf, a theologian at Yale and a Croatian who had personal experience with the gross injustices of ethnic cleansing and genocide in former Yugoslavia argues that a God who punishes evil through judgment is necessary to keep people from seeking revenge:

If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end to violence––that God would not be worthy of worship. . . . The only means of prohibiting all recourse to violence by ourselves is to insist that violence is legitimate only when it comes from God. . . . My thesis that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many . . . in the West . . . [But] it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence [results from the belief in] God’s refusal to judge. In a sun-scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die . . . [with] other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

Our belief in a God who violently judges sin is necessary to restrain our hearts from desiring immediate and exorbitant revenge on the people that seek to do us harm. This is why Habakkuk calls for the judgment of the Lord in chapter 2 of his short book, rather than trying to settle all of the scores with his own hands.

In fact, in the history of Christianity, some of the worst evils that have been perpetrated in the name of Christ have been caused by people not trusting into God’s justice, but trying to bring about their own version of justice in their own time.

Social Media Justice

As Christians living in a world that celebrates injustice, often presenting it under the cloak of goodness or true justice, we find ourselves given a tool to announce our disapproval of everything bad. Thus, we think, we can stand against real injustice, even if it only via posts or tweets.

This is the mentality of the social media warrior. In fact, in our age, the digital assaults on people’s reputations that are perpetrated in the name of injustice are not much different that murder. The goal of many social media warriors is to destroy the life of their victims, but without the shred of mercy that actually killing them would entail.

An example of this is the recent brouhaha over the interaction between the Native American activist Nathan Phillips and a boy from a parochial school. That case itself has turned into a Rorschach test for your political position, so I will leave that unending debate over who was right (if anyone) in that situation to others.

However, what we should not miss is that there was an instantaneous urge to crush, smash, and destroy by those that hated the look on the boy’s face in the initially miscaptioned photo. To be clear, the opposite reaction could have been obtained from the other side if an activist wearing a charged political slogan had been caught in a pose that could have been represented as disgust, smarminess, or disrespect of one of the political right’s favored populations. The problem is not left vs. right, it is the urge to destroy.

And there were calls for destruction. Based on questionable interpretations of the event, which were driven largely by an inflammatory caption on a photo posted by a bot Twitter account run out of Brazil, people who consider themselves good and just and consistent in their pursuit of justice were calling for assault and even execution of the child in the photo. There were dozens of physical threats made against the school itself. All of this in the name of justice. Again, when the tables are turned, there are voices on the right that are just as nasty in their pursuit of justice.

This is exactly the sort of “justice” that Habakkuk is warning against: Justice that is really unjust because it is brought about in our way by our hands, instead of according to God’s judgment.

Conclusion

I believe in a God of judgment because it is the clear expectation of the authors of the Old and New Testaments. The need for a just God of judgment reinforces my belief in the God described by the Bible. The rise of the social media warrior with his virulent, destructive cruelty in the name of justice reminds me why Christianity must be true, else we have no hope.

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We need a just God who will make the wrong things right. That is part of the gospel. Just as is the fact that salvation is available for all who believe in accept the power of the atonement to cover our sins, and put faith only in that for our final redemption. God is just. Our attempts to force justice in this world will bring about injustice. Thank God that he sent Christ to keep those who receive him, who believe in his name, from bearing the deserved wrath for our sins on our own shoulders. Thank God for being a God who is both just and gracious at the same time.

The Fake Web is Ruining the Internet

Something is amiss in the futuristic, digital wonderland that is the internet.

Among the most obvious problems are the incessant arguments including those caused by trolls and those perpetuated by sea lions. Add that to the sheer magnitude of bots online, and we have a real problem that can lead to misery, confusion, and misdirection away from facts.

The possible paradise of the internet is turning out to be a myth. The democratization of information has made it nearly possible to discern what is true.

Marketplace Distortion

Consider the validity of marketplace ratings. While there are examples of faux reviews that are exceedingly humorous, like the ones for the Hutzler 571 Banana Slicer on Amazon, fake reviews make buying decisions harder. And that’s not the way it is supposed to work.

The ideal of online reviews is for people who have used the product to honestly review them. However, anyone who has tried to sort through the reviews on products in a major online marketplace will know that amid the real, honest reviews are dozens that appear to be made up. These often are very high or very low ratings (depending on whether the company or their competitor funded the reviewers) and include gratuitous typos, insufficient information, and information designed to mislead. So, a product may have hundreds of reviews, but the real ones with important criticism may have been diluted by fake reviews.

The prevalence of fake reviews in the online marketplace makes using reviews nearly worthless sometimes. Add that to the ability for sellers to revise listings of old products to newer ones, while bringing along their reviews, and you have a recipe for unhelpful confusion.

Another trend that is unhelpful with the democratization of information is the volume of websites that seem to indicate they are dedicated to product reviews, but which are really dedicated to trying to acquire revenue through affiliate traffic. For example, do an internet search on “best gifts for a 10-year-old boy, you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. Someone trying to get suggestions for Christmas or birthday may want a blogger’s suggestions that their kids liked, but may only be able to find suggestions in click-through format designed to rake in money from another online marketplace.

Sometimes these offerings are helpful, but they accomplish the opposite of the intended purpose. When someone does a search online for creative suggestions, they are usually looking for something off the beaten path. However, these dozens of “product review” or “product suggestion” websites tend to all “recommend” the same dozen or so products, none of which they have any real knowledge of. (Full disclosure: I use affiliate links at the bottom of my book reviews and sometimes get a little money from them, but that is secondary to the actual review.)

The reality of the internet is turning out to be something less than the promise.

The Web Is Mostly Fake

According to a recent article from New York Magazine, we’ve passed the point where, by some measures, more than half of internet traffic is fake. Given that the next video you watch or next widget you buy may be recommended based on the programmed habits of a bot, this matters significantly. For those, like me, who spend time creating real content online—especially those who depend of traffic from YouTube or other traffic sites—that distortion can be disheartening and financially debilitating.

Because traffic generates traffic as we all chase the next cool thing, this fake traffic is distorting our culture. Is someone’s video really viral, or did they create or finance a bot army to give them clicks, help them trend, and push a somewhat novel but largely inane product into everyone’s feeds? The world may never know.

Given that a fair amount of news reporting—both traditional media and various internet outlets—is now mind-numbing reporting about trends on social media, the power of faking on the internet may have significant social implications. Is anyone really mad about the latest controversy? Or, was some minor infraction by a local official magnified by thousands of bots financed by someone who is either making money off of the clicks or gaining power by fracturing society? This is a powerful question that I don’t have an easy answer to.

One Proposed Solution

I do think, however, that we have the potential to curb some of the worst excesses in our own control by using self-control and changing our habits.

Perhaps the best solution to the problem is to use the internet in an old-fashioned way, with sustained patronage, long time relationships, and word of mouth recommendations. Major branded websites for news and information will likely remain significant, but to some extent we need to rely more on pseudo-social connections rather than search algorithms.

Used by CC 2.0 License. Photo by londonista_londonist.

Used by CC 2.0 License. Photo by londonista_londonist.

For example, as a blogger well after the heyday of blogging, I think we need to bring back the blogroll. If someone likes my website, there is a decent chance that they will like the blogs I like, so I can let them know what and who I follow. That also means that I am vouching that I’ve watched/read enough of the content to know that it is real and not bot-generated.

In a world of depersonalized identities, we need to reorient toward personal connections, even if it is only virtually. The possibilities for deception are still higher, but bots are generally identifiable through their patterns of activity, real people are both more predictable and more erratic.

Conclusion

Much of the internet has become, for all intents and purposes, worthless. People are fake. Reviews are fake. Facts are fake. As we try to live life in a virtual age, taking advantage of the real benefits of the internet, we need to begin to reestablish habits that will make our experiences online more benefit than curse.

Amusing Ourselves to Death - A Review

Neil Postman’s classic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in an Age of Show Business, is an assessment of the shifts in Western culture since the advent of modern communication technologies. This is the sort of book that was prophetic in its day and, although somewhat dated, still communicates significant warnings to readers now.

Amusing Ourselves to Death was published in 1985, during the Reagan presidency. It certainly does not escape Postman’s notice that the ascendency of an actor to the highest political office supports his point that entertainment has become the central purpose of American culture, though that fact is more a capstone illustration of the book’s greater point than the central argument of concern.

What Postman notes, however, is worth paying attention to. His central premise is that the medium is the metaphor. This is an intentional deviation from Marshall McLuhan’s famous slogan that the medium is the message.

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Postman’s clarification is helpful, since it separates the content of the message from vehicle that carries the message. In other words, the facts of the news are the same (if written well), but the secondary signals created by the means that the news is transmitted also shape the reception of the news.

For example, Postman notes that prior to the invention of the telegraph, most newspapers focused almost exclusively on local news. The telegraph sped up the spread of national and international news, so that information could be had within minutes rather than days or weeks. The change was not wrought overnight, but the shift of concern from local issues to global ones has completely overtaken us today. Notably, it is much easier for me to find out about the personal lives of political leaders across the globe than to find out what the local city council is talking about.

Not only has news changed, but education has changed. Instead of doing the long, hard work of training minds, much of our educational methodology has shifted to entertainment. Postman notes that Sesame Street is a prime example of this, though certainly neither the worst nor the only platform that does this. According to Postman, whatever good is done by teaching through entertainment is undermined as it forms the learning human to expect education to be exciting. Thus, the endurance to learn and slog through difficult tasks has been diminished by the medium that is very effective in achieving short term gains.

It would be easy to claim that Postman was merely clutching at pearls, if the evidence did not point overwhelmingly toward the aggravation of the problems he identifies.

The point is not that technology is bad, but that technology is most effective if it is used in a particular manner. As a result, it is most commonly used in its most suitable manner, which shapes the media consumer in powerful ways. The efficacy of each medium to convey certain parallel signals effortlessly alters people’s epistemologies.

(Epistemology is the study of the way that people know things. Whether or not we know how to spell it, everyone has an epistemology.)

Not only how we acquire information but how we know is shaped by how information is received. Media is forming our minds to perceive in particular manners.

We need look no farther than click-bait internet articles to see that Postman is correct. There are entire companies that feed off of deceptive headlines that declare one thing in their headline and argue something entirely different in the body of the article. Even news sources that are still considered credible have recognized that few people read beyond the headlines and those who do are unlikely to get past the perspective that the headline has already presented, whatever the evidence is that runs to the contrary.

The reshaping of epistemology is radically important, even more so now than it was in 1985. Our elections have been tampered with by agents from other nations who spread misinformation with just enough truth to cast doubt. Our news sources have recognized this, along with the inability to discern opinion from fact in most of the population, and thus they have largely abandoned anything like an attempt at objective reporting because getting their constructed truth out is more important the facts. Additionally, with the wide array of “news” shows of varying degree of accuracy and political leanings available all 168 hours each week, the presentation of information has to be even more entertaining than before. In our current milieu, there appear to be a fair number of people that get their news through comments on social media rather than any legitimate news source (regardless of its bias). So, the cycle continues and the hole gets deeper.

Postman’s warning is an important one. It may even be easier to accept now that a quarter of a century has passed and the challenges have morphed.

Lacking from Postman’s analysis is an answer the for the disease that ails us. He’s standing athwart history yelling “STOP,” but does not provide a solution.

The truth is that there is no easy solution, and that the simplest solution (i.e., turning everything off completely), is unworkable because we and our children would be functionally disconnected from so much of society. However, we have to figure out a way to throttle the flow, learn how to think and exist without electronic devices, and recover some of the humanity that is being eroded with every flicker of our many screens.