I’d like here to address two opposite—yet equal—errors that we can fall into when utilizing social technologies. They both result in confirmation bias. The first is associating only with people that are like us, and the second is trolling people different than you to antagonize, ridicule, and prove your own self-righteousness. In short, I want to discuss echo chambers.
I appreciate all the algorithms that make me aware of new products that I’m predisposed (predestined?) to like and new people that I’m predisposed to follow. But the second category is becoming more and more troublesome to me, if only because it reinforces my existing worldview and—more tragically—existing biases.
Every four years I’m reminded of the depravity of mankind (including my own) when U.S. presidential candidates start running ads in hope of garnering votes. Elections seem to bring out the worst in the people of a democratic society. I’ve grown tired of the rhetoric. In the past I was susceptible (as are so many) to being sucked into petty internet quibbles. This year I opted to remain almost completely silent on social media. An exercise that, to be sure, requires discipline. A sort of metamorphosis occurred throughout this discipline; when I neglected to defend those I did agree with, I started to see the merits of arguments I didn’t agree with. In short, it humbled me.
The Reality of the Echo Chamber
My Twitter and Facebook feed are evidence that there is, in fact, an echo chamber on the internet where the majority of the voices I hear are simply mirroring back to me opinions and beliefs that I already hold myself. The phenomenon is drawing more and more attention and internet businesses use algorithms to capitalize on making your internet experience a “safe zone” where you’re insulated from things you dislike and sold things you will.
Simply logon to your Facebook wall to see a bunch of like-minded people posting political views you already have a slant toward. Then read the comments to see a bunch of “amens” and “preach it brother/sister.”
Call me a rebel, but I don’t enjoy the predictability and monotony. A good way to remain stunted in one’s growth and learning is to insulate oneself from opinions they disagree with (who ever thought up “trigger warnings” anyway?). Is there any pursuit that is more of a waste of time than having all of your existing biases and beliefs reinforced by people that are predisposed to agree with you?
Escape From the Echo Chamber
I made it a point over the last year to discipline myself to listen to as many voices as I could from outside of my “camp.” And I grew and learned a lot! The biggest way I did this was by subscribing to a bunch of podcasts from theological and political positions other than my own. I also followed folks on social media with diverse perspectives. I didn’t agree with everything I subjected myself to—it’s important to be a “filter” and not a “sponge,” in this regard—but I grew in my respect and compassion for those unlike me.
With the newfound compassion and respect I found for people different than me, I was often reminded of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. (vv. 1-2)
Particularly the line about understanding all mysteries and all knowledge. Sure, I might interact with people who are complete fools and lack basic knowledge, but if I tear them down without love “I am nothing.” A friend of mine often reminds me, “if you’re right, and you’re rude, you’re wrong.” At times I’m inclined to disagree, but it seems an appropriate summary of Paul here. I fear that much of our echo chambers are just noisy gongs and clanging cymbals where we look for affirmation of our already deeply held biases.
To be sure, when I say I disciplined myself, I mean that I disciplined myself. At times I was tempted to revert back to a younger version of myself and get involved in internet arguments.
Spoiler Alert: if you’re like my younger self, and get involved in internet beefs—particularly those of a spiritual nature—you’re not going to change anyone’s mind! (Seriously, how many people do you know who came to faith in Jesus because of a snarky statement on social media? I’ve not met one yet…)
Loving Our Digital Enemies
Tying this all back in to Church and tech, how do we proceed in the digital world after one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history?
Remember that the overarching advantage of the internet and social media is disseminating information quickly and succinctly. It’s nature is always fast and short. That means that information is almost immediately outdated and that few people spend more than a couple seconds forming an opinion on what they see and read.
With this in mind, us Christians represent the Son of God who died for his enemies. Are you capable of dying to your pride enough to love your enemies as he commands us to (Matt. 5:44)? That is to say, how can you be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16) on social media and seek a seat at the proverbial table of networks outside of your echo chamber? And once seated, how do you represent Christ well without majoring on minors or offending on points other than the cross (1 Cor. 2:2)? I find I often have to remind myself that those that were most offended by Jesus were those from within the religious establishment (Matt. 23). If I post something on social media only to garner a bunch of “amens” from those within my church, I fear I’ve made a misstep. Conversely, if I see those from outside the Church interacting with my posts in a positive dialogue, I trust I’m in a good spot (Matt. 21:31).
My final piece of advice is the same as your mom’s, “if you don’t have something nice to say on social media, don’t say anything at all.” But on the other hand, “get outside of your comfort zone and take the time to hear out people that are unlike you.” It was Jesus that said:
And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. —Matthew 5:40-42