Social Media, Identity, and the Church

By Tim Keller

Tim Keller reviews Chris Bail's book, Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing (Princeton, 2021)

Recently I was in a Zoom forum of journalists and academics who were discussing the increasing polarization of American culture. At one point a male speaker said, “If I wanted to invent a public forum that would undermine civil discourse and lead to social division, I couldn’t do a better job than to create Twitter.” A respected woman journalist, who had been working for nearly a year to understand how social media worked, agreed with him.

I believe they are right. But I don’t see social media going away, either, because it has enormous benefits, too. It is also deeply embedded in the psyches especially of the young. So Christians can’t ignore it, and most of all we need to begin to understand it.

One book that will be useful for that purpose is Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing by Chris Bail (Princeton, 2021). This is not a religious book—it is a work of social science. (Bail is professor of sociology at Duke University.) But its findings can be significant for how Christians conduct themselves and consume social media. And, indeed, many of his final principles for “a way forward” align with Christian ethics. Here’s what we can learn from the book.

Echo chambers aren’t the problem.

Bail starts with the problem of social and political polarization and asks how social media contributes to it. The common answer is that algorithms keep us in ‘echo chambers’ or ‘bubbles’ where we only hear news and opinions from our own side, and this drives division and extremism. But Bail points to research showing that, on the contrary, daily exposure to opposing political and cultural views (and not just to the nasty, caustic versions of those views) only makes people stronger in their views or even more extreme. People who regularly listened to the opposite opinions did not adjust their views and become more balanced or moderate because for many people social media has become a place where they are curating a self. And therefore they see opposing views as attacks on their identity (31).

Social media is more about identity than ideas.

Charles Horton Cooley explained how “we develop our concept of self by watching how other people react to different versions of ourselves that we present,” (49). Cooley argued that human beings don’t so much need self-esteem. Rather, our self-esteem and identity comes mainly from what outside eyes see in us and what outside voices say about us.

Cooley’s “looking-glass self” concept has some real affinities to the biblical teaching that we are made “in God’s image;” made to reflect him. Just as a mirror cannot generate light but only reflect it, so we need validation from someone outside–we cannot validate ourselves.

In the past, most people got their identity from how well they served God, family, neighborhood and nation. Identity was forged by (1) discovering what our family and neighbors expected of us, (2) getting positive and negative feedback about our behavior, and (3) re-arranging our lives in accordance with those expectations so we could get regular validation and affirmation from our face-to-face community.

But in our mobile, individualistic, therapeutic, technologically-driven culture, we have been more and more disembedded from face-to-face communities. And in our increasingly secular society, God and faith no longer serve as a means of identity. Our relationships have thinned out and our identities are more fragile. And even though modern therapeutic culture tells us to look inward, to create our own identity and validate ourselves, many leading thinkers (pre-eminently Charles Taylor) have shown that this is impossible, that we are irreducibly relational beings.

How then can socially isolated individuals with fragile selves find the affirmation they need? Social media has become the place for us to get control over the presentation of our selves (you don’t have to daily live face to face with people), to get feedback about that presentation with unprecedented scale and speed (51), and then to constantly calibrate and curate our identities in order to get affirmation from our chosen (and as large as possible) community. 

So social media is not primarily a place of public discussion of ideas. The ideas are ways to define oneself and signal belonging to a group, as well as to assign identities to others by associating them with groups you oppose. This is the reason social media has perfected the art of ‘bad faith readings’—interpreting a person’s words in the most uncharitable sense possible. There is no effort to understand the argument in its strongest form and respond to it. Rather, the goal is to associate the thinker with shameful ‘out-groups.’

This is by no means the only way discussions are conducted on social media, but I believe Bail is right that these are the dynamics that shape discourse most often.  The public discussion of social media is a means to the end of identity formation, status seeking, and social bonding in a culture that has eroded older ways of accomplishing those functions (53).

Bail observes two practical outcomes from this. Social media drives extremism and mutes moderates.” It magnifies and empowers the voices of those at the political and cultural extremes of Left and Right, while stifling the voices of those in the middle.

Social media drives extremism.

Bail defines ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’ objectively. Sociologists have a pretty good idea of the political and cultural views of the American populace. So when Bail speaks of someone with ‘extreme’ views, he is looking at the numbers—he means someone in the most conservative or most liberal 5-10%. 

Bail notes that 6% of all Twitter users generate 20% of all tweets and 70% of all tweets that mention national politics—and these 6% are mainly from the extremes (76). That is not a surprise. What is illuminating, however, is the research Bail presents about so many of those who take loud and extreme positions on the internet.

First, the research shows that those taking extreme positions have what Erving Goffmann has called a “spoiled identity.” In real life, they have not done well. Extremists “often lack status in their off-line lives” and have experienced marginalization (56). Second, their on-line personas are often far different (much more aggressive) than are their personalities in off-line life (56).

Third, they are usually strongly opposed to being identified as extremist (though they are in the 5-10%). To be seen as part of a small extremist or “fringe” on one end of a broad spectrum is, of course, discrediting. So they exaggerate their own numbers as well as exaggerating the power and numbers of the other extreme side. This eliminates the image of a spectrum and replaces it with the image of two armies—with a small number of cowards in the ‘middle’ who have not signed up for either. To strengthen this image, extremists prefer to attack moderates on their own side. By attacking moderates as being unprincipled compromisers or “really” stealth members of the other side, they can gain power by depicting the culture not as a spectrum, but as a battle between good and evil with themselves as part of the coming mainstream (64-65).

So social media helps extremists to create an image of society that is seriously distorted as a way of curating a self that is different than who they are in real life. This is why Bail calls social media a “prism”—something that distorts our view of both individuals and society.

Social media mutes moderates.

Moderates are defined as people holding political and cultural views that a majority of people hold. Besides ‘driving extremism,’ social media also ‘mutes moderates.’ How does it do that?

First, since moderates are often people with stronger off-line identities—who have achieved more success and social status and may have a more substantial face-to-face community—they have much to lose on the internet. While extremists can only gain status and belonging on-line, moderates (rightly) fear saying something that will anger others and jeopardize their career or relationships. And so, while extremists’ fragile identities get a great deal of cover on the internet, moderates’ identities are threatened by it.

Second, because social media is a distorting prism, moderates get the impression that the middle is vanishing and so it is useless to speak. Bail argues that while “false polarization”—(“the tendency to overestimate the amount of ideological differences between themselves and people from the other political parties” [75]) has increased greatly, the distribution of political views has not changed all that much. Statistically, political moderates (or people who mix ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ views) are not shrinking.

Third, as we have seen, moderates are often attacked with enormous vitriol as moderates. Extremists need to do this in order to create the image of a political reality that supports their chosen identities. Moderates find their views attacked either with ‘bad faith readings’ (construing the statement in the worst way possible) or by being themselves assigned a social location or identity that they don’t recognize or own. For example, “You are really just [insert: a white supremacist or cultural Marxist]” or “As a [X], you have no right to speak to or about [Y]. [Z] you!”

Creating a new platform.

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned. First, because social media drives extremism and mutes moderates, it becomes a place of identity creation, not idea exchange. Second, because online extremism distorts social reality (it is extreme) and because online personas are so often detached from individual reality, “the social media prism inevitably distorts what we see and for many people it creates a delusional form of self-worth” (66).

These are serious problems, because social media presents itself as the new ‘public square,’—replacing literal public square gatherings, town meetings, newspapers, and print publishing as places for exchange and debate of ideas. Not only does it present itself in that way, but both journalists and academics take it to be so—they are heavily represented on social media. So the most powerful cultural ‘gatekeepers’ think social media shows us social and personal reality despite the research (and intuition of so many) that reveal that it is distorting those things.

What should be done? In his last two chapters, Bail cautiously responds that it is unrealistic to think social media will simply collapse and that something more healthy will take its place. He shows how often people who swear off social media end up returning to it.

Instead, he lays out very tentative ideas about how to create a social media platform in which ideas rather than identities can actually be debated (see chapter 9 – “A Better Social Media”). His ideas have a lot of merit and we should root for him and for others who are trying to create such a space. The basic task is this: to create a platform in which “like” counters are replaced by meters that reward posts that use values appealing to the other side and state opponents’ positions in a way that they themselves approve (129). Such a platform would reward and elevate posts that both sides believed were fair and well-reasoned.

Some of his proposals are intriguing for Christians. Could we create a space where religious, cultural, and political views could be debated and discussed that also avoids the distortion of the current social media? It looks like we could.

Hacking the social media platform.

In chapter 8, Bail lays out several principles that he believes move toward persuasion in social media rather than polarization. The five I identify below have some uncanny parallels in the Bible which I can note only in passing. They are:

1. Listen long and hard. (cf. James 1:19–“Be quick to listen and slow to speak”) Don’t engage someone right away. Follow them and listen to them for a while. Try your best to put the best construction of their views so you can find some things of value in what they say.

2. Use their own vocabulary and authorities. (cf. Acts 17:23, 28) In Paul’s speech to Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Acts 17, he quotes their own thinkers, Epimenides and Aratus. In John 1:1, the gospel writer also uses the Greek philosophical term, the Logos.

3. Agree to something inside their worldview as you critique them. (cf. Acts 17:29; 1 Corinthians 1:22-24) Use arguments that build on and ‘resonate with the worldviews of the people you are trying to persuade’ (110). Rather than saying, “I am all right and you are all wrong,” say “You believe this. Great! But then why don’t you also believe this? It seems to follow…” Notice how Paul does this in Acts 17:29 when he argues in verse 29 (to paraphrase) “If, as your own philosophers say, God created us, how could he be worshipped by idols we create?” See also how he presents the gospel to both Jews and Greeks—identifying and affirming their cultural goals, challenging the idolatrous way they are pursuing those goals, and then re-directing them to fulfill their deepest cultural aspirations in Christ.

4. Be willing to be self-critical. (Matthew 3:2: [John the Baptist] Repent!) Don’t defend everything you or your party or tribe has said or done. Don’t take a stand to die on every hill.

5. Loosen the links between your ideas and your identity. (cf. 2 Timothy 2:24-26) Don’t make your ideas into an identity such that any disagreement feels like an attack on your very being. Here, I’m afraid we can see Christians being ‘conformed to the pattern of this world’ (Romans 12:2) by letting the social media prism forge their identity. Christian identity is not a performance—it is a free gift of God’s unchanging love and regard on the basis of Christ’s perfect performance. This is why Paul can say in 1 Corinthians 4:3-4:

I care very little if I am judged by you or by any human court; indeed, I do not even judge myself. My conscience is clear, but that does not make me innocent. It is the Lord who judges me.

1 Corinthians 4:3-4

See how Paul does not get either furious or deflated by what others think of him. But it is not based on his own self-assessment, either. Jesus was judged in Paul’s place and now he can know God accepts him in Christ (see all of Romans!)

Paul (and Jesus too) can speak sharply to opponents, but it is never out of lost temper, or threatened identity. Christians, however, often get sucked into social media tribes and allow the prism to assign them a distorted identity. But as Paul says, we have the resources for a profoundly secure identity and self-worth that makes us able to speak gently or sharply to opponents—not based on our own anger or offendedness but strictly on the basis of what they need.

I don’t believe Christians can escape social media for the time being. Jesus says that when Christians are noted for their unusual love, then the world will know he came from the Father (John 17; 1 John), but we are a long, long way from looking at all distinct from the rest of the world on account of our love within that medium. 

Could at least some Christians be known for their love on the internet? And could they take part in the rebuilding of new spaces of public discourse in which we can present our faith confidently and listen to our critics carefully and humbly–at the same time?

Yes, we could. But will we?

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