I wrote this article for my email newsletter last year, so the podcast and documentary film I refer to are no longer “news.” In light of recent political developments, and incessant social media chatter, I thought I would post it on this website now, as a reminder of why I’m not sharing my views and interacting about the news of the day on social media. Who knows, maybe you’ll decide to join me.
“Fake news spreads six times faster than true news.”
“If everyone is entitled to their own ‘facts’, then there’s really no need for people to come together. In fact, there’s really no need for people to interact at all.”
“The intention [for social media] could be to make the world better. But if technology creates mass chaos, loneliness, more polarization, more election hacking, more inability to focus on the real issues … then we’re toast. This is check-mate on humanity.”Quotes from The Social Dilemma film
There is a principle I’ve heard from software engineers: “Your system is perfectly designed to produce whatever results you’re getting.” What is happening to or around you is no accident … it’s the natural consequence of the system you’ve created. If you don’t like what’s happening in your life, your church, or your society, remember that these things didn’t “just happen.” All the various aspects of that life, church, or society are working together to produce those results.
Right now, most everyone I talk to is deeply dismayed — and maybe genuinely frightened — by what they are seeing in our society: extreme polarization, division, cynicism, and social unrest. I’ve been writing about this for some time now, and I’ve been saying that our current environment of mass media, especially television and talk radio, and social media are a big part of the problem. They are an almost inescapable part of the fabric of our lives. They are how we understand and interact with the broader world. They are how we communicate with each other.
And, I believe, they are very bad for us.
They are amplifying division, extremism, misinformation, and outrage. Under the guise of informing and connecting us, they are making us cynical, suspicious, alarmed, anxious, and often very angry.
Of course, you might respond: “don’t shoot the messenger.” You can’t blame the media — the events these media are bringing to us are creating those feelings. I grant that is true to some extent. But it masks the larger problem that the media diet in our society is making us crazy.
Yes, today we’re “going there” again … but this time I’m not asking you to listen to me. Instead, listen to some of our nation’s top experts. Tristan Harris is one of the leading voices in silicon valley, and he is talking (loudly!) about the dangers of social media. He’s featured in a new Netflix documentary, and a couple interviews I want to share with you.
This is what Wikipedia has to say about Harris:
Tristan Harris is an American ethicist, computer scientist, and businessperson. He is the president and a co-founder of the Center for Humane Technology. Earlier, he worked as a design ethicist at Google. He received his degrees from Stanford, where he studied ethics of human persuasion.
If you like podcasts …
Here is a very insightful interview with Tristan Harris about the film, and about social media. The interviewer is Sam Harris, and I need to emphasize two disclaimers, which I often have to emphasize whenever I recommend a source:
- First, I do not endorse Sam Harris. There are many things he says or writes that I disagree with. But he is very perceptive and well informed, and he’s a great interviewer.
- Second, if you are a dogged Trump fan, or if you’re on the far left, you will likely be triggered. Both sides come in for some criticism in this interview.
Some of what Harris offers is behind a paywall, but I think this one is free. If you can deal with my caveats, I strongly encourage you to listen to this interview: https://samharris.org/podcasts/218-welcome-cult-factory/
If you like documentaries and have access to Netflix …
I strongly recommend that you watch the movie “The Social Dilemma.” Social media is too important of an aspect of our lives today for us to not give it some critical thought. The point of the film is not that we should do away with social media, but that we need to make it better. And in the meantime, we need to be wise about how we use it. Here’s the official trailer for the film:
Here’s what an article from the Pop Sugar website says about the film:
Since The Social Dilemma hit Netflix, social media users have been up in arms regarding the tech industry’s intrusion on our everyday lives, especially in regard to mental health. The documentary follows Skyler Gisondo and Vincent Kartheiser as they point out the dangerous effects social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have on the average citizen. Current and former Silicon Valley bigwigs weigh in, including Tristan Harris, who gives one of the scariest revelations to come from the film: “if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.“
“If you can’t access the podcast or Netflix film, watch this interview …
If you can’t watch the movie, here’s a way to get some of the information from it: The following interview was broadcast on PBS a few days ago. It was on the Amanpour show, and features Tristan Harris and Jeff Orlowski (the director of the film).
Traditional Media Should NOT Get a Pass … They are Just as Bad
The factors that Harris and others are point out that are so dangerous with social media are also present in our current media: There is relentless pressure to capture and keep our attention, in order to attract advertisers. We’re in the attention economy in mass media as well as social media. So news programs are driven by desire to get eyeballs, not necessarily to get all the details right. Nuanced analysis is not nearly as entertaining as hyperbolic overstatements.
Okay, so what’s the “medicine”? How do we deal with this onslought?
I’ve written before about how I’ve taken a media fast, and what I learned from it. I’ve written before about the need to “step back from the computer” for a while, and reflect, and not be so reactive. I also wrote an article on medium.com with the title, “While Everyone is Distracted by Social Media, Successful People Double Down on These Key Skills.” I suggest you look at that article for more on this topic.
Rather than rehash what I’ve said before, and keep trying to be prescriptive, let me end by simply offering several brief suggestions. These are things I am doing (always imperfectly!) … and I’m finding that they are helping me:
1. Take time to connect to God before connecting to “the world” through news or social media.
Do something in the morning to connect to God and orient your mind and heart before you “turn on the faucet” of media messages. Take time to read scripture, pray, and get positive reminders before tuning into the Outrage Of The Day.
2. Don’t use social media as an information source.
At all. Don’t read articles linked there. Don’t read people’s opinions about social issues or politics. I do what I need to do for church connections, see if any friends or family have any personal news, and then leave. (I would quit altogether if I could.) The key is to recognize that social media is rife with misinformation.
But it’s not only that: so much of what I find there, if it’s not straight up mis-information turns out to be uninformed opinion — and therefore unhelpful at best — and/or virtue signaling, name-calling, or shaming. I think this says something bad about me, but let me be honest: It’s gotten so bad that now, even when people post Bible verses, part of me gets the feeling that they’re using these verses to passive-aggressively make a certain statement, and part of me wonders “who is this really directed at?” and “what are they trying to say?” At that point, I just need to stop reading social media posts!
3. Don’t support propaganda media.
This one might be controversial, but here goes: I’m done reading or watching news outlets that are openly trying to advance one side of the political agenda. When news is presented to deliberately shade the story one way, information gets twisted and what runs counter to the narrative is deliberately left out. What’s left is advocacy and spin, not news.
I studied journalism in college, and was taught about journalistic ethics, and an ideal of journalism that presents the facts and issues in an unbiased way. “Just tell the truth and let the reader decide.” Nobody ever gets it right all the time, and we all have our unconscious biases, but I have given up on those organizations that don’t even try. In my opinion, they are no longer news, they are propaganda. In this category I include Fox “news” and much talk radio on the right, and MSNBC and CNN on the left. They both offer selective reporting, with helpful servings of outrage.
All of this comes out of the conviction that the things I allow into my life — things I read and watch — affect me deeply. It’s me trying to live out the teaching of Proverbs 4:23 “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” That’s a good reminder, and a good way to end. 🙂