From the Chapel — May 6: The truth about social media

3 mins read
Our Sunday Visitor chapel. Scott Richert photo

Scott Richert “From the Chapel” is a series of short, daily reflections on life and faith in a time of uncertainty. As people across the world cope with the effects of the coronavirus — including the social isolation necessary to combat its spread — these reflections remind us of the hope that lies at the heart of the Gospel.

Ever since the rise of the World Wide Web, and more so since the appearance of social media, Catholics (and Christians of all types) have tried to figure out ways to use electronic communications effectively to evangelize. It’s a necessary endeavor, because we should be proclaiming the Gospel in all aspects of our life, but the jury is still out on how worthwhile such efforts have been.

Beyond the explicit use of social media to evangelize, however, there’s the question of how Christians should approach what they post on Facebook, Twitter and the like, and how they conduct discussions with others there. Social media has not proved to be a forum conducive to calm, collected discussion and the communal pursuit of the truth. While the medium itself may not be entirely to blame (correlation is not causation), there has been a noticeable decay in concern for the truth in our broader society that has accelerated over the years that social media has grown in prominence and influence.

Anyone who has ever found himself in a shouting match on Facebook can take a step back and see how such unpleasantries usually come about. You post something you find of interest. Someone else comes along, reads the headline and (maybe) the excerpt you’ve posted, and immediately posts a comment. You get a notification from Facebook (interrupting your work or your leisure or your dinner with your family), and you feel compelled to look at the comment right now — and, of course, to reply. And, when you look, if the comment is at all negative, or sarcastic, or misses the point you were trying to get across, you find yourself getting angry or annoyed, and that’s never the best mindset in which to reply to anyone.

If you were talking to someone in person, of course, you could take a deep breath, slow down and try to explain. Or you might not even have to do that, because people are more quick to go negative on social media or in comment boxes on articles than they are when you’re sitting around, having a discussion among friends or family or co-workers.

But what does this all have to do with the question of truth? Isn’t this merely a matter of treating others with respect and civility?

Well, yes — and no. Because once we start heading down this route in a typically unpleasant discussion on social media, we all too often become set in our ways. Discussions become arguments, and human beings want to win arguments, not simply engage in them. And the next thing you know, as comments and replies are flying back and forth through the ether, the temptation to stretch the truth — or even abandon it outright — in order to score a point becomes harder to resist. And not just on your part, but on the part of your interlocutor as well.

How much of that is simply the medium distorting the message? A pretty good case could be made that such distortion is inherent in the nature of real-time, asynchronous, virtual communication (and I have made it elsewhere). For centuries, philosophers and politicians and just plain old folks held drawn-out debates through correspondence that maintained a concern for the truth. The time that it took to receive a letter, read it, think about it and compose a reply allowed tempers to calm and reduced the temptation to lie. That such correspondence had a permanence about it, compared with the ephemerality of electronic communications, undoubtedly had a salutary effect as well.

Over the centuries, rules and rituals developed around face-to-face debates that had a similar effect in reducing the temptation to anger and to untruth. Sadly, such rules are confined mostly these days to high-school debating clubs, and are largely no longer observed in, say, debates between political candidates. They are completely absent, as far as I can see, on social media.

Yet recognizing the limitations of a particular medium, and the temptations that come with it, does not reduce our responsibility; it increases it. As I mentioned yesterday, as Christians we must always take the pursuit of the truth seriously. We can never make it a means to an end, much less abandon it in pursuing an end that is less than truthful. No matter what we’re discussing — religion, politics, the coronavirus and society’s response to it — we have an obligation to pursue the truth, and to stop ourselves from distorting it or abandoning it.

That doesn’t mean that we’ll always agree with those who comment on our Facebook posts or reply to our tweets. And such disagreements won’t always be reasonable ones between two people who are seeking the truth. Because the reality is that there are a lot of people for whom the truth no longer matters, and social media seems to bring out the worst in such people.

But we cannot let it bring out the worst in us, even if that means that we have to abandon or curtail our use of the medium in order to continue to stay true to the ultimate message — Christ himself, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.

Scott P. Richert

Scott P. Richert is publisher for OSV.