I lost my mother because of Facebook

Sherry burst into tears. Her husband put his arms around her, pulled her close, and said, “Everything will be all right.” These were encouraging words, but the situation was very serious. She lost her mother.

No, she didn’t die. That reason was Facebook.

In three years, her retired mother went from Facebook illiterate to social media addict. A great-grandmother who liked photos of her great-grandchildren became an avid fan of the QAnon conspiracy theory, posting articles promoting the most outlandish views. Sherry watched her mom change from a devout woman who quoted the Sermon on the Mount and said to go after evil and malicious people with “arming love” to an anxious propagandist who warned Sherry that the end of the world was coming.

Sherry tried to intervene several times, but to no avail. Now she was crying in my office, “I lost my mom because of Facebook.”

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I told her, “I know it’s hard. But you’re not alone. Your mom isn’t the first person to be transformed by social media. There are so many. Even in our church.”

A new pastoral reality

Like any other pastor, I am struggling with a new challenge. Artificial intelligence – using neural networks and sophisticated algorithms – is leading my church into the valley of the shadow of death. The algorithm, to paraphrase Psalm 139, probed them and knew their hearts. He tests them and gauges their anxious thoughts. He weaved their digital patterns of behavior so that he could sell their eternal data to the highest bidder and keep them dependent on the online platform that provided his services.

Pastors need to be aware that every day of the week their church members are being taught – and their mentor is most likely an algorithm. Is it any surprise that human shepherds are losing out to digital ones?

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Algorithms aren’t the only problem, of course. A recent article in the MIT Technology Review showed that foreign troll farms are using an algorithm to target Christians in an attempt to destabilize American democracy. Nineteen of the twenty most visited Christian pages on Facebook are operated by these anonymous companies. If you visit one of these Christian troll sites, it will seem harmless at first: Cheesy posts. Italicized Bible verses over beautiful natural scenery.

But then you will see it.

A headline that says something demonstrably false. A hot partisan article that borders on conspiracy theory. That’s what troll farms do. First, they build trust with Christian platitudes. Second, it will inject some harmful misinformation into the Christian’s social media cocktail. Third, they watch as Christians are led astray by QAnon.

But even stopping these international actors would not solve our problem.

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According to an internal Facebook report leaked to the Wall Street Journal, “our algorithms use the human brain’s attraction to compartmentalize … in an effort to capture users’ attention and increase their time on the platform.” To keep you on Facebook, the platform keeps you at high of emotive content – ​​which usually means the most extreme, politically sensitive, heady trash. This explains why people are so easily radicalized on social media.

How to lead your people in the age of social media

Pastors ask themselves: How do I combat the distorting power of ubiquitous social media when I only have one hour a week? How do I shepherd a flock fed by an all-powerful algorithm? How do I help my people renew their minds to the image of Christ when they are being negatively influenced by foreign trolls?

No one has an answer. But we have to be creative because we have already lost precious time. Here are seven things I think every pastor should consider.

Pray.

An algorithm pretends to be divine, but never achieves it. The Holy Spirit is not threatened by the age of global networks. In fact, I’m sure historians looking at our generation will catalog all the ways the Holy Spirit has transformed society through social media despite enormous challenges. Yes, pastors only have one hour a week. But God gets every hour. Trust him. Spend time praying for your people.

Preach about social media

You can’t be an expert on everything, but given the omnipresent power of big tech companies, it’s worth taking the time to understand how they operate. Watch the movie The Social Dilemma. Read Chris Martin’s excellent book Terms of Service. Try to understand how smart phones, global internet access, and technology companies have combined to become the most powerful discipleship powerhouse since the printing press.

Then take this knowledge and report it. Help people understand that social media is an online casino that steals their attention with an uncertain reward. Teach them to cultivate disciplines like sabbath and solitude that intentionally reduce the influence of technology in their lives. Encourage parents to set healthy technology limits—for themselves and their children.

Teach about media literacy

Media literacy is the ability to accurately analyze and interpret a media product. It may sound basic, but it’s not. How do you know if a website is anonymous? How can you tell if a news source is biased—and how should that affect your reading? What are the dangers of reading subtitles?

Develop a theology of reporting

Jeffrey Bilber’s book Reading the Times [přečtěte si recenzi v angličtině] is a great start. It raises a number of critical questions: What deserves the attention of journalists, let alone the attention of the public? What does the news cycle do to our attention? What are the risks of focusing our reading on national issues rather than local news?

Batya Ungar-Sargon and Ashley Rindsberg add an equally important question: What are the incentive structures that control what is published? They have shown that the financial incentive structures in our current media environment favor media outlets with biased and hot news over objective reporting. This does not only apply to televisions. This also applies to our most prestigious newspapers and news magazines. Encourage your people to seek out news sources whose incentive structures promote fairness and independent thinking, including the growing industry of news bulletins and podcasts that are emerging. As disciples of Jesus, who are well aware of the “empty and deceptive” philosophies that the world flaunts, we cannot be lazy to evaluate our media diet (Col 2:8). We need to take our media diet seriously.

Creation of digital antibodies

If the digital bloodstream is infected, we can’t just ignore it. We need to pump antibodies into the system. That means more quality content, not less. We live in a digital Babylon. Don’t fall into the mindset that running away is the only answer. But as God said to the Jewish exiles in the heart of Babylon: “Seek the well-being of the city to which I have sent you into exile, and pray for it to the Lord, for in its well-being you will find your well-being” (Jer 29:7). As digital exiles, we should strive for the well-being of our internet home and make it a better place for human life to flourish.

Create alternative content. If you want your people to spend less time on soul-destroying websites, podcasts, or YouTube channels, come up with better alternatives.

Create a short mid-week podcast where your congregation can dig deeper into topics important to discipleship. Create email musings that bring God into the busy environment of the email inbox. In our congregation, this approach has proven to be a great gateway for returning people who have left.

Start a blog linked to a weekly newsletter that encourages people in their faith and directs them to opportunities to meet in person.

Create weekly or daily podcast devotionals that go through the books of the Bible.

Create a weekly email newsletter that covers interesting parts of the Bible or examines the technical and biblical part of the sermon.

Create a commenting platform that helps people engage with current events.

Model the fruit of the Spirit in the online world

In your online discussions, model how to politely disagree with the opinions of others, how to argue without demeaning, and how to be an example of a Christian who doesn’t get carried away by bombastic newspaper headlines. This is desperately needed because online discussion is characterized by “hatred, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension” – the very kind of behavior that Paul warns will “not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:20-21).

Convince the importance of community

Promote physical community of believers as a more enriching and satisfying experience than online gatherings. Worshiping alongside Christians at different stages of life, investing in the lives of others, praying for each other, counseling each other, sharing a meal in the family of a fellow believer – these are less polished but more satisfying forms of community than what happens only on monitor screens.

Jesus is calling us to be something bigger than being a social media machine constantly pointing out misinformation, sex-hungry content, and bombastic headlines. Instead, he invites us to follow him. Adapt to his thinking. To follow in his footsteps. Enjoy the beauty of the good world he created. Let’s help our people see the greatness of Jesus’ vision, resist the digital Babylon around them and work for their welfare at the same time – show our whole society a better way forward.

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Author: Patrick Miller Source: The Gospel Coalition Date: September 5, 2022 Photo: Wikimedia Commons – illustrative

The article is in Czech

Tags: lost mother Facebook

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