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America’s Clergy Has A Social Media Blind Spot
Why is the religious response to social media use so weak?
Social media is both powerful and incredibly dangerous. It can be addictive and makes people—especially teens—unhappy. It aids the spread of disinformation and supports radicalization. It can be used to both flaunt and organize violence. You don’t need me to tell you this.
Many people understand this, and no small number of efforts are underway to do something about it, including some ham-fisted state bans on use among teens. Every year, new bestselling books make arguments for personal abstention or curtailment of social media use, employees or former employees of large tech companies protest business practices, and new nonprofits or university centers pop up to think new thoughts about the future of the internet. Some social media platforms themselves have made changes to their algorithms and their governance structure. In Washington, many members of Congress, not to mention the former President, have threatened to revise Section 230, the law that allows many websites to escape responsibility for most content uploaded to their sites. Facebook has been under investigation by the FTC for illegal monopolization. The most toxic platforms, like Gab and Parler, have even been successfully (though often just temporarily) blocked from users and internet servers by corporations that control the internet’s basic infrastructure.
In other words: public intellectuals are trying to solve this problem. Journalists are trying to solve this problem. So are corporations, and so is the federal government—even organized groups of parents! And yet one group—a group which is normally extremely vocal on matters that affect personal health and social bonds—has been profoundly absent from the public conversation. Where, in all the hubbub around social media, are the clergy?
This absence is quantifiable. The past decade has seen the publication of huge numbers of books about technology and ethics, or social media and ethics, and virtually none of these books approaches the subject from any kind of religious perspective. Newfangled research centers that focus on technological ethics don’t see religious perspectives as worthy of exploration. The AI Now Institute lists 36 associated scholars, none of whom has religion or theology as a research area; The Technology Ethics Center at the University of Notre Dame, a Catholic research university, lists 24 affiliated faculty on its website, only one of whom has any mention of religion or theology in their bio.
This is no small absence, and it is made stranger because the kinds of ills that social media causes are exactly the kinds of ills that members of the clergy so frequently try to ameliorate, both personally and institutionally. If a community is suffering because of a drug ravaging the area, its rabbis and priests and imams will talk about it incessantly, aid those who are suffering, and work with local government to try to stop the problem. If clergy feel that a particular kind of behavior is damaging their community—gambling, drug use, domestic violence, racism—they will regularly excoriate these behaviors when they preach and teach, and they will quietly work with community members and local organizations to help particular people and organizations in need.
But while social media has many of the same effects on communities, it is rarely met with the same forceful religious response. Furthermore, the religious response is itself underdeveloped; public writing about social media is almost never composed from a faith-based perspective. When religious communities do form clear positions on social media, as they have in America’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, it is only enabled by unusually strong social pressure, and it is easier to enact because the goal is straightforward censorship or abstention, rather than the more nuanced and trickier-to-apply message of responsible use. In other words, with the exception of some extreme positions, religious leaders haven’t staked out recognizable positions on this subject at all. They are a virtual non-presence in one of the most important conversations about the health of 21st century society, and the public conversation around social media has been rendered profoundly secular as a result.
Theory #1: Broadcast media is just too useful
It would be easy to chalk this silence up to a technological mismatch; perhaps older clergy members just don’t feel up to the challenge of figuring out what they think about TikTok. It’s also easy to understand that religious leaders are wary of being labelled as anti-technology, further fueling America’s mass exodus from organized religion. While these factors are surely the reason for some of the silence, they cannot explain it all. Instead, I think there are two deeper issues at play. Neither issue is easy to resolve because both strike at the heart of what it means to be a religious leader in the first place.
First, we need to recognize that for many religious leaders, attitudes towards the internet are and always have been shaped by a desire to broadcast religious messages. Whether this means proselytizing per se or simply making ideas more available to coreligionists, the paradigm of internet-as-megaphone has been dominant among religious leaders since the advent of the internet itself. The power of these platforms is one reason why religious leaders are so often early adopters of new media. The first American radio station, KDKA in Pittsburgh, started regularly broadcasting church services just two months after its inaugural program, announcing the results of the 1920 Harding–Cox election. The term “television evangelist” (later televangelist) has been in use since at least 1950. In 1953, in the award’s fifth year of existence, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen beat Lucille Ball , Edward R. Murrow, and Adlai Stevenson to win an Emmy for “Most Outstanding Personality.” Chabad.org, founded by a follower of the Lubavitcher Rebbe—himself a strong advocate of religious radio broadcasts and tape recordings—was one of the first thousand websites ever registered.
This excitement to use new media for broadcast is not new, nor is this excitement’s tendency to steamroll over any criticism about the media itself. Jewish history, for example, records that the rabbis of Late Antiquity had serious concerns about writing down oral traditions. In the Early Modern period, some rabbis also worried about the printing press’s ability to spread information and the way that books could suck power away from local authority figures. Both concerns were ultimately eclipsed by the utility of the new medium. Something similar is playing out around the use of the internet.
Theory #2: Clergy are exactly the kind of people who don’t see the problem
The second issue is a blindspot that goes to the psychological profile of religious leaders themselves. In her book Trick Mirror, Jia Tolentino argues that one of social media’s most tiring effects is that it forces people to “perform themselves” constantly—to project and obsessively manage a stylized and tightly controlled version of the self, and to occupy long hours living inside of that persona. To spend so much time occupying a glossy version of yourself, says Tolentino, is psychically taxing; it puts a person at odds with their actual, unadulterated self, which ends up being neglected in the process. As a result of social media, however, we are now all living in this middle space between the true and public selves.
This space is, for a great many people, hugely and subtly and chronically stressful. But it is not stressful for everyone—and for people who love performing to an audience, who would have wanted to live inside that public persona anyway, it can be quite appealing. Religious leaders, many of whom spend their lives in the public eye, are often predisposed to enjoy precisely this kind of public-facing life; for them, social media is not radically transformative, but simply another stage, or another classroom, or another pulpit. It’s not that clergy don’t experience consequences as a result of this self-performance (as their family members can sometimes attest), but that they are comfortable with the trade-off. From the vantage point of clergy, then, it is easy to forget that not everyone who self-performs on social media is doing so because of a personal predisposition, and that some people would have much preferred to live quieter lives. It is especially hard to recognize this because this preference is exactly not the kind of thing that gets expressed on social media, or even admitted to one’s own self. In other words, clergy are absent from the discussion about social media’s negative effects in part because they are less likely than most to feel those effects personally. Social media creates echo chambers; for clergy, who are often close friends with other educators, this pervasive problem can be very hard to see, and harder still to speak about convincingly.
Religious groups’ weak response to social media has had real consequences. Religious groups are more than capable of exerting political influence, and have done so on matters ranging from human rights to poverty to abortion. On matters of social media, however, their voice has largely been absent. Beyond direct political pressure, however, religious groups continue to play a major role in developing and articulating moral sensibilities, in inculcating ethical values not just in corporations, but in people; again, imagine if religious leaders tried to regulate casinos but never warned people about the dangers of gambling. While corporate behavior matters a great deal, people still do have free will, and it is only people who have the ability to self-regulate and to form supportive communities around better internet habits, to utilize the power of peer pressure to support moderating use. Because people still have widely divergent ideas about what “good” social media usage looks like, clear religious messages would not just be preaching to the choir, but have the potential to be the catalyst that forms a strong ethic around a new technology—in other words, religious moral leadership in its purest form. In fact, that a social media ethic has not formed in the absence of religious messaging suggests that it is irreplaceable. If criticism of social media remains a secular affair, consigned to books and articles and talking heads but not the pulpit, it may never truly take hold.
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