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A Message from Duncan- February 1, 2023

A Message from Duncan- February 1, 2023

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Do you ever struggle to communicate your thoughts and feelings?  Well, get in line and learn from a master.  I’m British, and identifying feelings has never been my people’s strongest suit.  (Is what I’m feeling serenity or am I just so closed off to my emotions that they are practically dead?  I can’t tell.)

You know what I’m talking about.  You have an opinion and believe it deeply.  And yet, despite your strong conviction, you have never been able to state it clearly.  So your brilliant thought remains unspoken, gathering dust in the recesses of your brain.  I do it all the time.  You should see Draft 1, Draft 2, and Draft 3 of my sermons.

For two decades, I’ve believed that social media often acts as a divisive force in our nation.  My conviction has been instinctive – ‘common sense’ – but now, thanks to an New York Times opinion piece by Thomas B. Edsall, I have data and a really smart person, whose words I can quote at cocktail parties, giving the impression that they are mine.

Edsall wrote to a legion of sociologists and media gurus to get their take on whether social media worsens polarization and escalates partisan hostility.  (Duh. Isn’t it obvious?)  Here is what he found from his conversations with smart people who know what they’re talking about:

  1. Because social media is a free-for-all, it creates the opportunity for the most highly ideological people (and for special interest groups) to have more influence because they have more time, money, or motivation than everyone else.
  2. People seek out political information they agree with, which then reinforces their beliefs.
  3. Divisive social media messages receive more engagement. An analysis of nearly 3 million social media posts found that posts about the ‘other party’ were more likely to be shared than those about ‘my party’. Each additional ‘other party’ word (e.g, “Democrat” or “Republican”, “liberal” or “conservative”) increased the odds of that post being shared by 67 percent.
  4. Divisive content captures attention. Social media operates as an attention economy, in which people and organizations try to go ‘viral.’  The most politically extreme American politicians have the most followers.
  5. In an analysis of over 500,000 Twitter messages on hot-button political topics, posts that contain emotional words were 15-20 percent more likely to be retweeted by others.
  6. Social media promotes polarization by allowing extreme information across the political spectrum. The result is to make ordinary people think that those on the other side are extreme. This, in turn, fuels deeper entrenchment into one’s own group and a willingness to support illiberal policies to avoid letting opponents gain power.
  7. Social media has added to the erosion of institutional trust.
  8. Social media has led to the nationalization of our politics. As such, Members of Congress are loyal to their party first and their constituents second.
  9. Social media encourages anger, and anger impairs strategic decision-making by obscuring long-term consequences and risks.
  10. Social media lowers the threshold for expressing outrage by reducing its costs, and outrage spreads like wildfire online. Anonymity lets people be outrageous without consequences.
  11. The spread of moralized content can create “online firestorms” that ruin people’s reputations within hours.

Phew.  After all that, I’m sure no one needs convincing of the dangers of social media.  And yet, the Christian church has always been at its most effective when it engages positively with the culture, using the media channels open to us.  So, contrary to what you may be anticipating, I do not advise anyone to withdraw from social media.  On the contrary, if it is as powerful as Edsall argues, then Christians MUST be involved, using it for all the good it can do – sowing harmony and understanding, sharing empathy, telling good news stories and enhancing community life.

So let us post and Tweet, but let our words be savored with the salt of the Gospel and the grace of the Holy Spirit.