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Wednesday Word — July 29, 2020

July 29, 2020 | Dr. Jay T. Smith

Social Media, the Public Conscience, and the People of God

Well, I did it. I shut down my social media account. I just could not do it any longer. The “likes,” the drama, the anger, and mainly the fact that I felt I had to log on, to see what was happening—it was as if I was addicted—and maybe I was, because I feel like I’m in withdrawal now. I will miss checking in with friends and family, but ultimately, I just did not want Facebook to control my world.

According to psychiatrist Joseph Firth, sustained engagement with media on the internet can produce serious alterations in human cognitive activity; more specifically:

a) attentional capacities, as the constantly evolving stream of online information encourages our divided attention across multiple media sources, at the expense of sustained concentration; b) memory processes, as this vast and ubiquitous source of online information begins to shift the way we retrieve, store, and even value knowledge; and c) social cognition, as the ability for online social settings to resemble and evoke real‐world social processes creates a new interplay between the Internet and our social lives, including our self‐concepts and self‐esteem. (Firth, et al. “The Online Brain: How the Internet May Be Changing Our Cognition,” in World Psychiatry, 18:2 June 2019, 119-129)

In other words, if I understand Dr. Firth correctly, our constant fascination and engagement with the internet changes how we think, our ability to concentrate, how we value knowledge, and how we process our self-esteem and are not positive, healthy changes! I agree with what Firth and his co-authors are saying. The use of technology of this fashion subtly changes how we perceive, process, and respond to our world. In an online forum such as Facebook or Twitter, where we read, hear, or see a statement of some sort on a subject that is important to us or interests us, we are drawn into the presentation, where our brain immediately begins to process the information. Is it true or not? Is it reliable? Is it something that I might be predisposed to look favorably upon? Or is it something that I am predisposed to look unfavorably upon? On the other hand, is the statement presented in such a fashion that I am induced to approve it as “authoritative” and “truthful?”

Social Media Relays a Message, but What Message?

Current communication and marketing techniques focus on the internet and its ability to persuade and convince the user of the veracity and attainability of the marketer’s product. They understand the cognitive science behind persuasion, and use it to effectively get their message across. I believe this is not always a bad thing. However, it can be used to manipulate the consumer of internet media. As we have seen in the United States in the last three elections, use of social media to relay a message has had a tremendous effect upon the public conscience and their voting commitments. In recent years, the dysfunctional concept of “conspiracy theory” has taken on a new life beyond the covers of the tabloid papers, enabled by the power of social media. Indeed, a vast multitude of social media operators have focused their efforts on controlling your vote through social media posts. Organizations such as Breitbart, The Washington Free Beacon, The Blaze, Red State, GeoPolitics, Mother Jones, Salon Politics, TruthDig, and TalkLeft very openly hold to a particular ideology, and have utilized the social media platform to influence voter choices, quite often with material that is declared to be truth, but in reality is just supposition, hypothesis, and/or blatant, misleading information cobbled together from unverifiable sources or fabricated facts. Nevertheless, the ability of social media to appeal to the deepest cognitive centers of the human psyche means that humans have a propensity to process this information as “truth.”

Christians and Social Media

Sadly, Christians throughout Western culture have found themselves enthralled, and ultimately enslaved, to this media-generating behemoth. Trillions of dollars have been poured into the internet by businesses, schools, and political parties since it became accessible to the public in the 1990s—all in the effort to convince you and me of their product, candidate, or “truth,” and many times at the cost of their character, integrity, and the actual truth. The trouble comes when we believe what they purport to tell us is the truth. In the wake of such false claims, we transgress the boundaries of what it means to be a Christian. As the Apostle Paul stated in Romans 1:25, “they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator…” The sleight of hand that occurs here is when we choose to believe what they have represented to us over social media as “true,” rather than first measuring what they tell us against the truth as it is in Scripture as defined by Jesus. How do I know that Christians aren’t measuring what is said? Because of this: In order to protect self-interests, we tend to “parrot” what we have read and use it publicly to create our political or economic worldview. Why? Because it is the easier than actually doing the hard work of measuring it against that which we know is the truth as it is in Jesus.

Kingdom Citizens

As the People of God, our loyalty is always to the truth of God—as it is in Jesus—before our loyalty to political parties or secular governments. That seems hard, and a practical conflict; I am a citizen of the United States, but I am also a child of the King and citizen of the Kingdom of God. But is this a conflict? Because it’s the USA—see the First Amendment to the Constitution—it does not have to be a conflict. God must come first. When God comes first, everything else falls into place for the Christian, including helping our government stay on track. However, when we allow other competing truths into the space reserved for God, we find out that our relationship with the Creator is a farce.

I believe that we don’t realize the power that social media provides not only to the genuine organization that desires to get a truthful message out, but also to those who would attempt to mislead and manipulate people in the quest for power, money, and control. Don’t be misled! Don’t be confused or deceived by political parties, political operatives, the DNC, the RNC, or the POTUS, SCOTUS, and FLOTUS. Jesus will never confuse you, for the Truth that He is will always shine on the darkness of our world. Don’t let social media, the news, and any other questionable media replace the truth that is Jesus. Don’t become a mental and spiritual vegetable because you can’t get off Facebook and have become addicted to the arguments, innuendo, and outright falsehoods. Look to the Lord. Jesus never condemned the Romans over the Jews, or the Pharisees over the Sadducees; Jesus simply brought us back to the original terms of our existence as God’s people. Americans, the Republicans and Conservatives are not your enemies, and neither are the Democrats and Liberals. Let’s change the terms of our existence.

I am a follower of Jesus Christ, and I am an American.

I will always uphold the truth as it is in Jesus.

I will love my neighbor as I love God.

The enemy is the one who would keep me from loving my neighbor as I love God.

Our Founders tell us that all people are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights; all people—all ethnicities, all genders, all nationalities, all human beings.

As an American, I will protect the inalienable rights of those who seek justice and have been pushed to the very margins.

That is a privilege as an American and my responsibility as a Child of God.

Dr. Jay T. Smith

President and Bridger Professor of Theology & Ethics

Dr. Jay Smith leads the Yellowstone Theological Institute as its president. Dr. Smith has served as minister of youth, music and as senior […]

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