Social Media And The Ninth Commandment

By Scott Seaton
In response to the often divisive and disparaging experience of social media, Emmanuel recently created a set of guidelines called “Social Media and the Ninth Commandment.” Once a friendly platform for posting pictures of kittens and stories of vacations, social media in the last decade has become something decidedly different and darker: a platform of outrage.

What’s driving the change? Money. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, et al monetize their apps by selling ads, and the clicks to those ads. To determine what ads to put in front of us, our online experience is constantly monitored, tracking how long we spend on a particular site or thread, and which links we follow. Our behavior, individually and collectively, is valuable information. As Daniel Hövermann said in Netflix’s 2020 documentary, The Social Dilemma, “If you're not paying for the product, then you are the product.”

And so to generate as much revenue as possible, the platforms need to keep you online as long as possible. The best way to do that? Conflict.

According to social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in a recent article in The Atlantic, the seeds of discord were planted in 2009, with the ability to “like” posts on Facebook and “retweet” posts on Twitter. Those seemingly small changes enabled the platforms’ algorithms to study what kept users “engaged.” The posts most likely to be shared were those that triggered emotions—and in particular, anger. And so the apps’ designers created ways to ensure we would see the posts that made us mad. So mad, we would “like” and “retweet” them, and pay the outrage forward.  

Haidt identifies three destructive trends of this development. First, social media amplified the voice of internet trolls, who dominate online forums by demeaning and harassing others. Second, social media gave more power to extreme voices, while diminishing the majority in the middle who sat out the arguing. And by targeting those within their own ranks who expressed sympathy for a contrary opinion, the poles became even more uniform and extreme. Third, social media enabled anyone to administer justice without due process, such that “we get a society that ignores context, proportionality, mercy, and truth.”

We’ve all experienced the negative effects of social media. Vitriolic posts that demean and degrade. Inaccurate or offensive memes that are instantly shared without reflection. Wild theories that foster paranoia and fear. Unless our social media behavior changes soon, Haidt predicts the situation will get much worse, especially with the growth of artificial intelligence.

While there are any number of proposed solutions—user verification, transparency of algorithms—there is no substitute for what the Gospel offers: a gracious community.

As image bearers of the triune God, we are made for community. Genuine, authentic, in-person relationships where we are known and loved. Where we learn empathy by connecting to people with a variety of backgrounds, perspectives and experiences. Where our interactions are different because they take place face-to-face, rather than via a keyboard.

And our relationships are to be gracious. Where we are committed to truth over slander, peace over division, and love over outrage. Where we are willing to examine our own behavior in light of God’s standards and not the world’s, and repent where we fall short.

One of the best tools to help us do just that is the Westminster Larger Catechism and its reflections on the Ten Commandments. Though written hundreds of years before the advent of the internet, the Catechism’s insights on the Ninth Commandment, “Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” provide timely guidelines for navigating the world of social media in a gracious, Christ-like manner.

We encourage you to read and apply these guidelines, which are based on Scripture and the Catechism. And so in a small but significant way, may our online presence honor Christ by seeking truth and peace in all our interactions.

Social Media | Conflict | Community
Posted in ,
Posted in