We are at a watershed moment where social media is, less and less, an open forum for public discourse. Instead, it is becoming a curated propaganda tool used by social network owners. The unfortunate result of this could be that the speech of Christians online is undermined, perhaps even stifled.
Back in 2010, social media activists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya used networks like Facebook and Twitter to bypass the controls of government censorship to organize resistance to their countries’ leadership. The result led to the so-called Arab Spring.
Now that the power of social media has been demonstrated to evoke grand societal change, social media networks themselves are becoming actively engaged in manipulating content posted on the social web using something called “algorithms.” But this time, social media is being used not for trying to topple terrible dictators; instead they are being used to overcome the influence of the Christian worldview on society. I pray this will not result in the Winter of Christian online free speech.
What is an algorithm?
The Social media experts at Hootsuite explain, “Algorithms are everywhere in computer science and are crucial to the software that runs the world. In social media, the most important algorithms are those that determine which content we see. For example, your Facebook news feed doesn’t show every status update and every photo from every one of your friends. Instead, it displays an algorithmically curated set of content that Facebook thinks is most worth seeing.”
Algorithms have always been part of social networking. What’s changing about these computer formulas is they are being written not only to get the kind of content you want to see onto your news feed, they also are being used now to send you the kind of news feed content the owners of the social networks want you to see because they want to change your deeply-held beliefs.
Last year, about this time, a research report came out about Facebook using their network to study people’s emotions by tweaking the types of stories users see in their news feed using algorithms. Forbes magazine writes, “Facebook manipulated the news feeds of 689,003 people to see if the emotion they picked up through the content on their news feeds impacted the emotion they then displayed on the platform through their own posts. During the week-long test, some Facebook users logged in and found less positive emotional content on their news feed than usual, and others saw less negative emotional content. Facebook then tracked what those users posted after they viewed the manipulated news feeds.”
This demonstrates how Facebook has learned how to adjust their algorithms to show the types of content they want people to see in their news feed in order to get a desired response from network users. Conversely, the newsfeed algorithms also can be adjusted to suppress the types of content that is not desired to be seen by targeted users on the network.
Facebook actively campaigned against traditional marriage.
With the algorithm test completed, this year, on the day of the Supreme Court decision about marriage, Facebook did what seems to be another experiment. Except, this experiment moved from beyond observation toward overt manipulation. According to the Atlantic, “Facebook provided a simple way to turn profile photos rainbow-colored. More than 1 million people changed their profile in the first few hours, according to the Facebook spokesperson William Nevius, and the number continues to grow.”
By giving users a tool to change their profile picture to one filtered with a rainbow and not giving the other side a similar tool, Facebook officially used their power over their network to influence people’s opinions. It is likely (though not proven because Facebook keeps the particulars about their algorithms secret) that the social network also adjusted their news feed to make sure users saw the profile pictures and messages they wanted people to see.
What’s the problem?
Social media providers own their networks. Of course, they can do what they want with them. Nobody is forced to use Facebook. But Christian users who want to voice their alternate point of views on the network may not be aware that they are not speaking out in an unfiltered marketplace of ideas. They are communicating in an algorithmically-controlled social network owned and run by people who disagree with their deeply-held Christian values and have an agenda to change them.
Christian beware: the social web is not “the agora marketplace on Mars Hill” we originally thought it would be. Social media is increasing becoming a tool used to undermine Christian speech.
What can Christians do?
- Continue to communicate. We can’t stop just because the game is increasingly rigged.
- Use direct messages, texting, and face-to-face communications. Don’t rely only on social media.
- Prayerfully communicate to people you want to influence on the social issues of the day.
- Choose your online words wisely. Follow Christ’s admonition to “be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matt. 10:16
- Be social media algorithm savvy. Don’t be deceived by the predominance of propaganda found in your news feed.