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The seduction of “online reality”

Never let online engagement usurp real relationships

A Homeland Security vehicle sits outside the Moakley Federal Courthouse in Boston, Mass., where Jack Teixeira appeared at a hearing, on April 19. Associated Press/Photo by Steven Senne

The seduction of “online reality”
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What in the world is a “Thug Shaker Central”?

That bizarre phrase suddenly appeared in national newspapers and in opening monologues across the country as the details of the latest massive leak of U.S. military intelligence began to emerge. As it tuns out, a young member of the Massachusetts Air National Guard named Jack Teixeira had been sharing confidential military information to his private group chat, the aforementioned “Thug Shaker Central.”

Teixeira’s motive as of now appears to be simply to blow off steam and to gain status and standing in the eyes of his online friends. This is a striking example of a truth that’s been with us for years but is still not fully acknowledged. For young people, their most intimate and important friends and confidants are online, and often partly anonymous. This can quickly become extremely dangerous, for reasons we can well understand.

This latest controversy isn’t just a one-time case of a life lived overwhelmingly online. As Jonathan Askonas and Renée DiResta note, “many significant intelligence leaks over the past 15 years have been substantially motivated by online reality.” For many people under the age of 40 (at the least), group chats, private interest groups, and Slack (or Telegram or Signal) channels are where social bonding takes place. More and more, these digital spaces command the deeper loyalties.

From media reports, the “Thug Shaker Central” group started off like so many others. The young men typically shared memes (some said to be racist), talked about guns and video games, and aired political views and grievances. It sounds mundane and deeply troubling, even if juvenile and embarrassing. Yet because of this online socializing, crossing over into something like treason against his country, Teixeira is likely to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Bad company corrupted good morals, even if no one in the company ever met in person.

Bad company corrupted good morals, even if no one in the company ever met in person.

The role of online friends and influencers is a major them of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. She argues that the dramatic increase in rapid-onset gender dysphoria is largely the product of a social contagion fueled significantly by the internet and social media. A similar argument about a different maladaptive social phenomenon can be found in Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr and the Alt-Right. Of particular importance is Nagle’s chronicling of the number of violent terrorist actions which appear to have originated on the message board 4Chan.

Nagle’s book was written in 2017. Since then, digital contagions have only continued to produce violence. In 2019, a young man opened fire on a Synagogue in Poway, Calif. In his manifesto he explicitly denied that he had learned his ideology from his family. Instead, he credited “the true anons” and referred to the message board he frequented. The memes, the avatars, and the slang made up all sorts of dark conditioning. They were psychological operations that eventually created a monster.

This malady is not simply a right-wing danger, as Shrier’s book shows. It’s a human problem, as social animals find more and more of their identity in digital community. The pseudonym or alternate identity becomes a sort of icon, the true self people wish to have.

Christians have to understand this new landscape and take proactive steps to help people resist the pull. This is not to say that we should not challenge social ills and oppressive political agendas. But we must do so through flesh-and-blood communities with lasting commitments and accountability. We need to strengthen families, churches, and rooted institutions. Instead of icons or idols, we need the true images of God.

Churches should resist the pull to move their activities to digital platforms. Their worship services and prayer gatherings should still require “the assembling of yourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25). And families should insulate themselves from ever-encroaching communications from smartphones and laptops. When technology is needed, it should be used as a means to bring people together, people who will actually come together.

For as much of an impact as digital communities can make, they still come cheap. They require so little. They come and they go. This is no doubt why they can grow and spread so impressively. But when the going gets tough, well, digital communities usually just go away.

Christians cannot reject technological advances, and I doubt many of us can unplug and log out entirely. But we can and we must work to master these tools rather than be mastered by them.

Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the rector of Christ Church Anglican in South Bend, Ind. He has written for Desiring God Ministries, the Gospel Coalition, the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and Mere Orthodoxy and served as a founding board member of the Davenant Institute. Steven is married and has three children.

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