What We Believe
i

Global Pillage: Stealing Our Data, Our Intelligence, and Our Souls: A Review Article

Gregory E. Reynolds

Ordained Servant: August 2022

The Plague of Loneliness

Also in this issue

Connecting Some Dots on Disconnection

11 Passages to Read When You Feel Lonely

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Preface

The Loneliness Epidemic by Susan Mettes

First Things in Acts and Paul: A Review Article

Dumb and Dangerous: A Review Article

The Deluge of Data

Terms of Service: The Real Cost of Social Media, by Chris Martin. Nashville: B&H, 2022, xii + 212 pages, $17.99, paper.

The author of this important new book on social media, Chris Martin, is a digital native (born in 1990), those who were born into or brought up in the Internet world. This makes his serious critique of social media especially poignant, since most in his generation are uncritical users of the Internet and the social media, allowing the electronic media to form them. I have been warning people about the potentially deleterious nature and goals of social media for two decades. Myspace began in 2003, but the seeds of the dangers are inherent in the Internet itself. I have avoided social media for both principial and practical reasons. Some would assert that that disqualifies me from critical analysis. However, having studied the nature and effects of media since 1990, my refusal to participate is based on careful consideration of the benefits and liabilities of social media as a powerful and pervasive manifestation of the electronic media. Social media surreptitiously mine data from our Internet participation for advertising—Facebook is the largest focus group in history, except most people are unaware of this. Martin is deeply involved with the Internet and social media as a content marketing editor at Moody Publishers and a social media, marketing, and communications consultant.

Starting with McLuhan’s fish in the water metaphor to illustrate our lack of awareness of our immediate and pervasive electronic environment, Martin asserts that the “social internet is brilliant and obscene” (2). The point of the book is to demonstrate that the water is toxic (3–4)—what purports to serve man ends up enslaving us (6).

The book is divided into three sections: 1) “How We Got Here,” 2) “Five Ways the Social Internet Shapes Us,” 3) “Where Do We Go from Here?”

Part 1 traces the presence of the Internet in our lives from its limited academic and military origins to its invasion of our homes and souls (13–18). Although Internet 2.0 represented the full emergence of the social media, the social aspect of the Internet was present from its inception; also present was the development of attention-getting methods, especially for commercial purposes (16). The greatest change occurring in this new phase of electronic media was its presence in everyone’s pockets (22ff). The smart phone is often much smarter than its users.

Martin’s analysis of how the present social networks function is most helpful. This is where the fish examines the water. What is discovered is “the fear of missing out” and “addiction” (35). Martin refers to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows to point out the danger of being so obsessed with what is going on online that off-line life fades into the background (36). This obsession has all of the classic ingredients of addiction (37). But what is insidious about this is that the media themselves are designed to promote addiction (38ff). What people assume are neutral tools are making tools of us. Causing anger and disagreement is the most effective way of commanding attention (40).

The final chapter (3) of this first part explores the druglike effect of social media. It creates “virtual tribes” of like-minded people, not expanding our horizons as the early promoters claimed. This in turn undermines empathy (47), as one tribe develops intolerance for others. This isolation causes anxiety, and mental health problems arise in young and old alike.

Part 2 explores five ways that the social Internet shapes us. First, we falsely believe that attention assigns value, and so what is popular, or trending, must be important, thus we must pay attention (63). This phenomenon has great cash value for advertising and sales. Our identities are at stake. At this point Martin makes a statement that I wish he had expanded upon, “As Christians, we are to find our identity in the finished work of Christ and our standing as image bearers of God” (65). We are being surreptitiously hijacked by the commercial interests of social media (66ff). “If socializing is the most valuable part of the internet for users, it’s the most lucrative part for businesses” (69). It is not that advertising is inherently wrong, but social media act more like magicians than salesmen, addicting its viewers for commercial purposes.

Second, social media play on the ultimate high of attention, affection, and fame (72ff). When using a product is free, there is a hidden price—for social media it is our data, and thus we are the product (75). This invasion of privacy is serious, but many ask, “Why should I care? I have nothing to hide.” All online activity, social Internet and otherwise, is recorded. It is not only used to increase profit but to modify behavior as well (80–81). The freedom for personal expression we receive in return for data harvesting is actually “the gasoline that keeps the social internet running” (85). Even if you are not on Facebook, there are Facebook Pixels, little “pieces of code installed in countless websites that sends your web activity back to Facebook” (87). And in the terms of service, “which no one reads, users consent to this covert activity” (90). Martin advises turning location services off and limiting personal information but admits in the end that the best way to limit intrusion is to stay off social media (94).

The third way that social media shape us is by alluring us to pursue affirmation instead of truth (97). Thus, the proliferation of conspiracy theories is encouraged by the platforms’ ability to connect the like-minded, thus narrowing our understanding of various issues. Martin observes that “a lot of falsehoods (or ‘fake news’) [are] built on an acorn of truth” (101). And we tend to trust like-minded people in the place of critical thinking. The pursuit of truth should be high on the Christian priority list; placing the affirmation of the like-minded ahead of pursuing truth tends to jettison that priority, or at least modify it.

The fourth way that the social Internet shapes us is that it amplifies our sinful tendency to demonize people with whom we disagree. Martin warns: “In many corners of the social internet, a lie lingers that ‘people who disagree with me cause me harm’” (113). Thus, the new progressive liberalism ingrained in the media-saturated Millennial generation has little room for considering contrary ideas (114). Christians are not immune from this tendency. Like muscles, “we do need to endure some measure of disagreements, conflicts, and social strife so that we may learn, adapt, and grow” (119). Martin counsels care in our use of language on the social Internet and to practice the Christian ideal of giving others the benefit of the doubt (121). Martin notes that “microagressions” are impossible because aggression by definition is never unintentional (123).

The fifth and final way that social media shape us is that they tend to seek the destruction of the people who are demonized. A second commonly held lie is that the lives of harmful people must be dismantled (127). This is the logical conclusion of cancel culture. In answer to the question “Why are people nasty on the social internet?” Martin opines that the importance of attention in the design of social media means that nastiness gets the most attention (128). I would add that the lack of face-to-face presence undermines accountability. Martin goes on to take an in-depth look at cancel culture. Cancel culture is good when the immoral or illegal behavior of the rich and powerful is exposed and justice is served (133). However, often cancel culture looks more like vengeance than justice (136). The moral relativism of these digital vigilantes leads for example to canceling of Christians who hold to biblical sexual ethics (137). Reconciliation is impossible because the vigilantes want to punish period. The anonymity of the Internet makes follow up impossible (139). Since Christians view every human as image bearers of God, we must seek real justice, true forgiveness, and treat those with whom we disagree with respect.

Part 3 provides six ways to counteract the worst tendencies of the social media, or put positively, “to provide . . . tools to more wisely engage the social internet” (147). Sixty pages of solution is unusual for social and media critics. Thus, Martin’s effort is to be applauded, despite his being repetitious at points.

The first tool is “Study History.” Martin quotes Ecclesiastes 1:9, “There is nothing new under the sun,” to make the point that history shows us that people have faced what we face before. History also helps us formulate solutions to problems. History expands our view of other culture’s ideas and people, helping us to understand alternative perspectives. Like travel, history encourages empathy. Being situated in the stream of our heritage and traditions is severely lacking in most Millennials. The electronic environment has left them without context—no past, no future.

The Second tool is “Admire Creation.” Getting out and admiring the created world slows us down and tends to make us more thoughtful, as it removes electronic distractions (157)—that is if you remember to leave your phone at home. It involves all five senses (157) and reorients our sense of beauty (160), which has been corrupted by the daily barrage of photoshopped pictures of nature.

The third tool is “Value Silence.” This is one of my favorite ideas. Before coming in to write this review, I was sitting in our garden hoping that the dogs would stop barking, the hedge trimmer would run out of gas, and the person playing a radio too loud would locate the volume button. But Martin is thinking of a different kind of silence—refraining from using the social Internet as a digital soapbox. By not responding we are quenching our natural sinful tendency to spout off. So, this kind of silence produces empathy and encourages wisdom and humility (166–172). The missing element here is the option of getting off all social media. While critics like Nicholas Carr helpfully suggest media sabbaths, I would like to recommend consideration of something akin to the eternal sabbath, of which our temporary weekly sabbaths are a foretaste.

The fourth tool is “Pursue Humility.” Martin begins with a quote from Rick Warren, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less” (174). That may be cute, but a better quote comes from Paul:

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Phil. 2:3–7)

“Pride is integral to so much of the disfunction we find online” (175). While Martin warns about several sins and recommends Christian virtues, his desire to reach a non-Christian audience blunts the vital connection between Christian virtues and Christ.

Humility makes us willing to admit when we are wrong, assume the best of others, and forgive others when they wrong us (176–80). Looking at the nature of the medium of the social network, Martin observes that “No algorithm is engineered to promote reconciliation and forgiveness. All algorithms are engineered to favor the spread of conflict argumentation” (180). The conclusion of this chapter left me wanting more. Martin’s concluding section, “We Cannot Do It Alone,” never mentions what Christians would expect: the most important person in our lives, our helper the Holy Spirit. The false impression is left that family, friends, colleagues, and self-discipline alone can cultivate biblical humility.

The fifth tool is “Establish Accountability.” This chapter reminded me of The New Yorker cartoon showing a dog in a chair in front of a computer saying to another dog sitting on the floor, “On the Internet nobody knows that you’re a dog.” Martin fails to drill down on the way that the Internet alters social space and does an end run around traditional gatekeepers, invading our households and our hearts. When he properly observes that “mental health statistics are growing more discouraging as social media use is increasing,” he fails to suggest that opting out of social media may be the best way to restore accountability and mental health (185).

The sixth and final tool is “Build Friendships.” “The social internet has cheapened friendship. . . . Our screens mute the full range of friendship” (192). Again, “I think many of us have become so fused with our phones that we have forgotten the magic of real, embodied friendship” (193). But if embodied friendships are superior to online friendships, why take time pursuing the inferior? Martin’s emphasis on sacrificial love cites Christ as an example, but this and other suggestions leave us with a semi-Pelagian view of human nature. The discerning Christian will add theologically what Martin leaves out, and probably believes himself, in the interests of appealing to a non-Christian audience. His many excellent insights make the book worthwhile.

No one likes the idea of being used, but under the guise of expressive individualism that is just what social media do. Like it or not, if you participate in social media, you are being used. The Internet is not just a technology, it is a philosophy of life, a worldview. At its heart is the Baconian idea that reality can be analyzed and manipulated for our own ends. The Christian is in the unique epistemological position to stand outside of this way of thinking and living. Christians must not succumb to the chimera of Enlightenment dreams that reality is ultimately manipulable, and humans may take complete control. Social media not only tend to addict its users, but they also reorganize our social spaces and relationships. Romans 12:1–2 should lead us in the direction of leaving the lake whose water, as Martin begins and concludes the book, is toxic and enslaving.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2022.

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Ordained Servant: August 2022

The Plague of Loneliness

Also in this issue

Connecting Some Dots on Disconnection

11 Passages to Read When You Feel Lonely

Commentary on the Book of Discipline of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Preface

The Loneliness Epidemic by Susan Mettes

First Things in Acts and Paul: A Review Article

Dumb and Dangerous: A Review Article

The Deluge of Data

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