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Live not by outrage

Digital media bring out the worst in us—by design

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies on Capitol Hill. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik

Live not by outrage
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“Live not by lies.” Those were the words of the great Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, stalwart prophet against the brutal Communist empire of the Soviet Union. In our own day, those words have new life on the lips of Christians, conservatives, and other traditionalists determined to speak the truth even where political correctness forbids it.

There’s a funny thing about lies, however. They tend to show up even in the places you don’t look for them. And no medium has done more service for untruths than the internet. Conservatives are ready for combat when the topic turns to the scourge of pornography or the problem of Big Tech censorship. But there’s another digital moral dilemma for conservative Christians: Is the internet shaping us into something other than truth-tellers?

An internal report by Facebook, written two years ago but recently leaked to the press, found something astonishing: A huge percentage of Facebook content targeted to Christians at the time of the 2020 election was literally “fake news”—content mills operated by European “troll farms,” i.e., behavioral engineers publishing anything Facebook’s algorithms indicated would attract large engagement. Not everything pushed out by these pages was false, of course, but it’s telling that such a high volume of traffic came screaming words like “We need to take back America for God, share if you agree!”—but those words never came from Christians or even from Americans. The messages were calculated to get attention, not to convey truth.

This is an all-too-common slice of digital life in the 21st century. As social media expands, as traditional sources of knowledge lose ground to either mistrust or technological hegemony, the temptation to suspend discernment and rely on our most tribal instincts is nearly overwhelming. As if the polarizations of everyday politics weren’t severe enough, the pandemic has deepened our echo chambers and intensified “negative epistemology”—the tendency to shape our beliefs merely by believing the opposite of whatever our ideological opponents are saying.

These dynamics would exist without the internet, but they are undoubtedly much worse because of it. The stunning documentary The Social Dilemma revealed that social media companies rely on algorithms that weaponize human nature. Content that engages negative emotion, such as outrage or disgust, is infinitely more valuable for driving up use than positive or even neutral content. Increasingly, those who use social media as a source for news and perspective—as millions of Americans do and will continue to do—will be bombarded (intentionally) by text, videos, and images that confirm the righteousness of our cause and the absolute wickedness of the other side.

Why have Christians not done more to rise above this ideological swamp? Part of the answer is that many of us are more excited about politics than truth. But another answer is that too few Christians are thinking critically about the consequences of technology: how constant, never-ending access to information, untethered from accountability and community, might be training our spirits in a way that is antithetical to the discipline of taking every thought captive to the mind of Christ.

Contrary to the ecosystem of the web, the Christian virtue of wisdom begins and ends, not with tribal groupings or bare ideological commitments, but with the fear of the Lord (Proverbs 1:7). Whereas the logic of social media is to multiply words as quickly as possible in the service of driving traffic and engagement, Christian wisdom is sober-minded and self-controlled, preferring even silence to foolishness (Proverbs 17:28). Most of all, Christian wisdom is grounded in a doctrine of objective, transcendent truth, to which the proper response is a reverential humility and earnest seeking rather than arrogance and confirmation bias.

G.K. Chesterton famously observed that, traditionally, a man was expected to have firm confidence in truth but not in himself, and that in modern times this formula has been reversed. In the world of digital media, absent embodied presence and shared foundational convictions, the temptation to conflate the pursuit of truth with the actualization of our own identities is sharp. The call to Christian wisdom is not only counter-cultural; it is an act of mortifying the flesh. A commitment to the kind of humble, self-skeptical, truth-confident cultivation of wisdom called for in Scripture will be inconvenient and politically costly.

But as Solzhenitsyn observed, there is no morally legitimate alternative. We must choose to tell the truth in our hearts, in our communities, and online. To the degree that this requires a radical rethinking of our embrace of certain technologies, we should choose the spiritual benefits of truthfulness and wisdom over the fleeting pleasures of digital “victories.” Let us not live, or speak, or post, by lies.

Samuel D. James

Samuel D. James serves as associate acquisitions editor at Crossway Books. He is a regular contributor to First Things and The Gospel Coalition, and his writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and National Review. Samuel and his wife Emily live in Louisville, Ky., with their two children.

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