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Tobacco and Twitter: What One Can Teach Us About the Other

Tobacco use was once so prevalent and socially acceptable that we could hardly imagine a world without it. Now it’s by and large exiled from polite society, having been rightly identified as a health risk.

Yet we tend to forget: there was a period in United States history when licensed physicians were used to market cigarettes. Some members of the older generations may even recall when the Surgeon General endorsed the health benefits of smoking. The wholesomeness of one style of tobacco use over another was so widely debated in the public discourse that a person’s social class or moral character might have been generalized from tobacco preference. Our culture has changed so much since then I had to check twice to correct my misspelling of tobacco.

I wonder if we might eventually find ourselves in a similar situation with social media. It has happened, and some would say that the ship has long past sailed, that churches have become enamored with social media. The supposed benefits to outreach are extolled by many to the point of workshops being crafted to teach less savvy parishes how to engage with social media platforms of every kind. There are many who see social-media prowess as equivalent to relevance with younger people. Surely COVID has driven the use of social media by churches to new heights, especially during that desperate scramble of March 2020 to hold on for dear life during lockdown. The tool of pseudo-connection at a distance seemed a godsend to many.

It’s tempting to think that social media has no downsides, yet nothing in this life that is all gain and no loss, except maybe for faith in Jesus. So there must be some limit to the goodness and wholesomeness of using a megacorporation’s advertisement delivery platform to share church content.

By that description you might think that I mean to characterize all social media as tools to show ads, and you would be right. The core business of social-media companies is the sale of space in which products and services can advertise to the users of that site. This wouldn’t be a serious concern if that was all they were.

It turns out that social-media companies couldn’t generate enough revenue with general ad sales, so these companies began to sort through all the information they had about their users — from their demographics, to their post’s content, to what items they commented on or liked. This became a surprisingly complete, if invasive, profile of the user, and it allowed these companies to tell their customers, the companies buying ad space, that they would only show their companies ads to users that care about the companies’ wares.

Again, this might not be of grave concern if that’s all these companies decided to do, but they did not stop there. Gradually these megacorporations began to manipulate the content being seen by their users. Ads began to be unavoidable, imitating the shape and style of genuine content. Some sites even change when or if a user sees content from certain other users.

Consider these devices:

  • Engagement metrics.
  • Algorithm driven suggestion.
  • “Like and subscribe.”
  • The push to check back on an image or post to see “how well” it’s doing in terms of likes and shares.

These have all been carefully crafted by corporations to act as addictive dopamine loops, increasing our time on their sites and thus delivering more ads to us for their profit’s sake. In response, we began to study the effects these new interaction paradigms might have on us. The study of how destructive para-social media can be is both clear and shocking.

Meanwhile, with ever-increasing cries of “It’s necessary,” we’re placing even more of our churches’ outreach and digital presence onto these manipulative and destructive for-profit websites. I shudder to see shades of ages gone by when certain vulnerable persons were lured into churches with the promise of a meal after the service. “Doing what must be done” to fill the pews has always been a trap, and I believe we have fallen into it once again.

There should be no “church-endorsed” brand of cigarettes, so to speak, in para-social media.

The allure of the easy and “free” is strong. Yet as the saying goes, “If you are not paying for something valuable, then you are not the customer, you are the product being sold.” The ethics and faithful use of technology like these para-social websites are not questions other generations had to engage. It falls to us to prayerfully consider our participation in social media that so casually manipulate mental health.

We can self-host our video worship. We can create spaces entirely in our control, like a parish website, that contains our whole range of engagement with the world without the dopamine manipulation. We can even make them dynamically engaged with each other and the wider church, if we have the will to work together. The mission of being the church is work worth doing in ways that show in their form, not just their content, what we believe in our hearts.

In the Episcopal Church, our praying shapes our believing because the forms our prayers take have their effect on our hearts and minds. The same is true for the forms in which our digital footprint manifests as it reaches into the wider world. Even if the social-media ship has sailed in the minds of so many church leaders, we cannot abandon the helm of this vessel to the destructive manipulation of megacorporation profits.

We cannot be idle now that we know these sites are harming us and our children. Bending the wheel to a new course is worthwhile, especially now that we know the dangers and the damage caused by para-social media. Just as the influence of tobacco on our social interactions has diminished, so too will the influence of para-social media if we act on what we know. I pray that Christians will be leaders in this change. It’s surely the kind of moral leadership younger generations are looking for from us.

The Rev. Chip Russell is an Episcopal priest living in Norfolk, Virginia. He’s spent more than 20 years searching for ways that faithful people can make a difference in our technology-transformed world. He became a priest after working in the IT industry, which deeply informs his perspective and ministry. You’ll find him spending his free time picking locks for sport, reading science fiction, or engaged in various tech-related hobbies.

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