Distorted Beyond the Funhouse Mirror
Part Two of a Christian commentary on Chris Bail's "Breaking the Social Media Prism"
(The following is the unedited manuscript for Part 2 of my commentary on Chris Bail’s “Breaking the Social Media Prism”, which released on December 6th, 2021. Available wherever you get your podcasts, or you can listen online here.)
1.1: When we last left off on Chris Bail’s Breaking the Social Media Prism, we discussed how focusing on information in trying to understand political extremism, tribalism, and misinformation is the wrong place to begin focusing on. Information is certainly important and a part of the puzzle, but it’s not the driving force behind these behaviors and the present state of our polarization in our society. Instead, Bail argues that there is something deeper driving political extremism and tribalism on social media: our identity. We ended the episode with Bail’s thesis for the book and it’s worth re-stating here again to set the tone for this episode: I will argue that our focus upon Silicon Valley obscures a much more unsettling truth: the root source of political tribalism on social media lies deep inside ourselves. We think of platforms like Facebook and Twitter as places where we can seek information or entertain ourselves for a few minutes. But in an era of growing social isolation, social media platforms have become one of the most important tools we use to understand ourselves—and each other. We are addicted to social media not because it provides us with flashy eye candy or endless distractions, but because it helps us do something we humans are hardwired to do: present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them, and revise our identities accordingly. But instead of a giant mirror that we can use to see our entire society, social media is more like a prism that refracts our identities—leaving us with a distorted understanding of each other, and ourselves. Bail is concerned with approaching social media and political polarization from the perspective of the everyday people who use it, and not from the narrative of ex-Silicon Valley technologists and entrepreneurs who helped design the very technology and platforms that are now supposedly the sources of the problem. Based on Bail’s complex and in-depth studies with individuals in several studies, Bail is convinced that the driving force behind social media polarization is a question of identity, not information, and I am convinced that the theological angle here - one that Bail likely doesn’t share or endorse - is that we are not primarily “thinking things” or “brains on a stick”, as James KA Smith says, but instead we are driven by what we love, and not only do we not love what we think we love, we will do whatever it takes to get whatever it is that truly drives our habits and our behavior. God did not create us with our minds being the “mission control” of our entire being, but as embodied beings with hearts, minds, and bodies that are complexly united together to form an identity greater than the sum of these individual parts. What we love is driven by our identity, and our identity is more than just what we think or believe - it’s what we want at the deepest parts of ourselves.
1.2: To recap the experiment that set this all off, Bail and his team of researchers from Duke University conducted a study seeking to understand what drives the adoption of politically polarized beliefs and behaviors on social media, and to understand what role “echo chambers” play in that process. Common cultural wisdom suggests that people who get more polarized or radicalized in their political beliefs are caught in self-reinforcing echo chambers of uniform perspectives and opinions with little diversity or pushback, and that if people were to just step outside their echo chambers to get “the other side”, that it would hopefully result in people adopting more moderate views and behaviors. However, the exact opposite happened - when the participants in Bail’s study were exposed to “the other side”, it reinforced their pre-existing political beliefs, and the more involved they were on social media, the greater the hardening effect that it had. This effect was observed for both Republican and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, men and women, and held true across racial, geographical, and many other lines of data as well. “Stepping outside the echo chamber” did not result in people becoming more moderate in their views - it drove them to adopt stronger versions of their pre-existing political leanings.
2.1: Bail contends that social media’s worst effects are not in the presence of abundant misinformation and disinformation (though there is plenty of that to be found and that is a problem worth addressing). Instead, Bail believes the biggest source of social media’s worst effects are found in how it distorts our understanding of ourselves, and our understanding of each other. But in the quote you heard a few minutes ago, I actually ended the thesis statement early - there’s more to what Bail has to say: The social media prism fuels status-seeking extremists, mutes moderates who think there is little to be gained by discussing politics on social media, and leaves most of us with profound misgivings about those on the other side, and even the scope of polarization itself. The distorting effects of social media does not simply just distort our view of one another - it distorts our understanding of just how much distortion is going on at all! The consequences of these distortions are far from minor, either - these threaten not just the peace and purity of the church, but threaten the civic stability of American society as well.
2.2: Initially I had planned to cover chapters 4-6 of Breaking the Social Media Prism for this episode, but I am going to split that section of the book into two episodes because I think it’s worth discussing how social media distorts our image and the effects of that distortion separately. A couple months ago, I gave a presentation on Bail’s book to the staff of the church I work at, doing a very condensed version of the material I wrote in my review of the book for FaithTech. One of the questions that popped up was whether or not Bail’s research - specifically, the distorting effects of the social media prism - applied to anything else besides politics. Do the distorting effects of social media apply to “motherhood Instagram”, or “Reformed Twitter”, or “plastic model kit Reddit”, or any of the countless other subgroups among Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, YouTube or any other social media platform? While I want to caveat that not all Internet subgroups are created equal and that each platform may distort different things in different ways, Bail’s research does generally apply to social media usage wholesale, and not just to politics. Put another way: it’s not possible to not use social media and not have your identity and the identities of others distorted in some way, because the source of these distortions are not based on the content of social media, but the mediums themselves.
2.3.1: In the first season of this podcast, I looked at how changes in technology in media lead us to change what we value because mediums are not value neutral. To reiterate Neil Postman, “A technology is merely a machine. A medium is the social and intellectual environment a machine creates.” How a medium asks us to use it and engage with it reveals what that medium values, and we come to value what those mediums value the more we use it. As a society uses a shared medium, society comes to value what that particular medium values, and to have expectations and desires based on the expectations and desires of a dominant shared medium. Television, for example, values what Postman described as “discourse via images”, and a society “discipled” (so-to-speak) by television also came to value “discourse via images”. While this is an episode for another time, it shouldn’t surprise us at all that the long arc of social media bends towards video and that Tik Tok is rapidly ascending to the point Facebook (I refuse to call the company “Meta”) is desperately trying to pivot that direction as well. Tiktok and YouTube are extensions of television; everything that television values, Tiktok and YouTube value as well. Truth, an accurate or comprehensive portrayal of reality, is not something a medium has to value. Television values entertainment and production value; if something is true, that’s simply a bonus, not a prerequisite. All mediums, even the printed word and books, are guilty of this to a degree, but some are certainly more guilty of this than others. All social mediums value content and engagement above all else; whether or not that content or engagement is true or not is a bonus, not a prerequisite. In short, distorting reality is a feature of social media, not a bug.
2.3.2: But much of conversation surrounding what exactly is “distorted” on social media and how to fix that distortion has been centered around the content of social media, specifically misinformation and disinformation. Like I talked about in the last episode, while misinformation and disinformation are things that absolutely need to be addressed in their own right, to focus specifically on information or “content” assumes that the human person is fundamentally a “thinking thing”, or a “brain-on-a-stick”, or that the “mission control” of the mind has received the wrong information and has now veered off course as a result. Lost in this discussion is the question of whether or not these mediums, by their very design, are driven towards distortion regardless of the truthfulness of it’s content. Also lost in the discussion - and hopefully will get some traction with Bail’s work in his book - is the question of whether or not our minds and our intellect are the most serious things being distorted here. As Bail argues, the most severe impact of social media’s distorting effects are not upon our intellects, but upon our identities - how we view ourselves and how we view others. As Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith has argued, we are not driven by what we think - we are driven by what we love, and what we love comes to shape our identity. If our identity is being distorted by social media, our loves are being distorted as well.
2.4: My point in bringing this up at all is to say that I agree with Bail that focusing on misinformation as the primary cause of polarization and tribalism is not enough; we are driven by our identities, which is much deeper and more comprehensive than simply what we think or believe. But, while Bail focuses on political identity in his book, I actually think that his insight into social media as a “prism” that distorts and bends our identity extends to much more than just our political identity or affiliation - it can apply to essentially anything. So for the rest of this episode, I want to focus on the two main ways that social media functions as a “prism” and how this applies to American politics, but also to American evangelicalism as well: after all, this is a podcast about how technology and media change the way we think about God and the way we love our neighbor.
3.1: There are two primary distorting effects to talk about: distorting our identities, and bending our identities. Now, that may sound like two different ways of saying the same thing, but I’ll make that distinction between the two clear here shortly. Let’s start with “distorting” our identities. Bail contends that much of the root cause of polarization and tribalism stems from two factors: isolation, and our tendency to misread our social environments. The first one is relatively easy to grasp: when we live in isolation from one another, a relational distance between us naturally grows, and from that distance can often come misunderstanding, confusion, or other responses as we seek to “fill in” the gulf of relational information that we are missing. In the beginning of chapter 4 of the book, Bail tells the story of a social psychologist named Muzafer Sherif [MU-za-fer SHER-eiyf] and two experiments he conduced in the 70s involving some young boys at a summer camp. Sherif took a group of campers, who had never met each other, and assigned each of them an arbitrary “team” that they would belong to, thinking that by merely giving them a collective group identity, and “us” versus “them” mindset would arise and the two groups would begin to act with hostility towards each other. The first time he tried this experiment, it failed. But the second time he tried the experiment, it was a rousing success - as Bail describes it, the resulting carnage was eerily reminiscent of Lord of the Flies. What was the difference between the two experiments? In the first experiment, the boys were grouped into two different identities, but the two groups shared the same physical space. In the second experiment, the boys were grouped into two different identities, but kept the two groups physically isolated from one another. The only times the two groups saw each other where when it was mealtime and when the camp organizers brought them together to play team games - and it didn’t take long for the group dynamic during team games to show up in the dining hall either.
3.2: In the vacuum of relational isolation, something had to fill that space, and in the case of these groups of boys, Bail notes that in isolation, their manufactured identity took on a life of it’s own as it filled that relational void. In the second experiment, one group of boys was named the “Eagles” and the other was named the “Rattlers” - entirely arbitrary, entirely meaningless, entirely interchangeable identities. And yet, in isolation, both groups of boys came to see these completely vapid identities as something that gave them a very deep meaning and significance, not only for how they saw themselves, but for how they understood the “other” group. The ensuing in-group/out-group dynamic didn’t need to be based on a philosophically robust or ethically rigorous system in order for it to become valuable and important enough for the two groups to see the other group as a threat to their existence and well being - even though, as the first experiment demonstrated, the boys were prone to harmonious cooperation when they weren’t separated from one another. The implications should be apparent here: if this antagonism and hostility could emerge among a group of boys at a summer camp with a silly arbitrary group identity, how much more antagonism and hostility could arise between two political parties who are becoming further and further isolated and walled off from engaging with one another? As political scientist Liliana Mason remarks (as quoted by Bail): perhaps we should not be so surprised that political parties—armed with sophisticated campaigns, media professionals, and long periods of time to coordinate their activities—can create such deep-seated animosity between Republicans and Democrats if similar animosity can be created so easily with completely arbitrary identities such as Eagles and Rattlers. And if these same political parties are so effective at inflaming our passions, perhaps we should not be surprised that their power seems to increase when we find ourselves trapped within echo chambers—not unlike summer campers on opposite sides of a lake in rural Oklahoma. Now, just to be clear, I am not saying that American politics are as shallow as being called an “Eagle” or a “Rattler” at a summer camp. Obviously, there is more to being a Republican or Democrat than there is being named after an arbitrary animal in a sociology experiment. But, if a collective identity and isolation was enough for two groups of boys to grow unreasonably hostile to each other without being based on any ideology or conviction whatsoever, what will collective identity and isolation result for two groups who are based on political ideologies and convictions? Unlike the “Eagles” and the “Rattlers”, there are actually things at stake at the issues Republicans and Democrats differ on - how big will the fire burn when the gasoline of isolation and group identity is poured on top of it?
3.3: There are entire episodes that could be done on the reality of isolation and how it is deeply connected to many of the problems we see in society today. Even before the pandemic occurred, American culture was becoming increasingly “buffered” through the presence of screens and mediating technology getting in the way of our ability to interact in person with one another, especially with those who are different for us. One of the most critical things our society is going to need to do - if it’s going to have any chance of reversing the trajectory we are on - is to to learn how to have face-to-face dialogue with people that we disagree with. But, at the same time, we shouldn’t believe that reclaiming conversation and our ability to converse in person with people who are different than us will fix every problem or issue that we have, because we are prone to misreading what people think of us even in interpersonal contexts. According to Charles Horton Cooley, we develop our concept of self by watching how other people react to the different versions of ourselves that we present in social settings. This idea recasts identity not as a jersey we wear, but as the outcome of a complex process of social experimentation. We constantly present different versions of ourselves, observe which ones elicit positive reactions from others, and proceed accordingly. The problem, though, is that we are not always very good at evaluating what people actually thing about us, and if we aren’t careful, we can get locked into behaviors and mindsets that become self-fulfilling prophecies based on what we think other people think about us - even if we have absolutely nothing to go on to justify those perceptions. And I’m just describing how this problem plays out in interpersonal communication - naturally, when something as disembodied as social media enters the picture, the problem compounds even more. Not only do we have even less information to go on - we lack body language, tone, and other interpersonal communication markers, for example - we have the ability to construct a self-representation of ourself that is carefully manicured and precise (on a good day). This quote is lengthy but I think it’s necessary to quote in full: “In addition to giving us more control over our presentation of self, social media also allow us to monitor large parts of our social environment with unprecedented efficiency. Our news feeds—which provide frequent updates from everyone we follow—are not simply a convenient way of getting information about issues that we care about. They also enable us to make social comparisons with unprecedented scale and speed. A team of psychologists led by Erin Vogel studied how frequently people make social comparisons on and off social media. The researchers found that people who use Facebook engage in far more frequent social comparisons than those who do not. In related research, the psychologist Claire Midgley conducted a series of studies in which she observed people using Facebook. Midgley also tracked the frequency of social comparisons people make, as well as who they compare themselves to and what effect this has on their self-esteem. She found that social media users tend to compare themselves to people who are more socially distant from themselves and also those who have higher status. After people make such upward comparisons, Midgley discovered, most people experience decreased self-esteem.” But what if decreased self-esteem wasn’t the only thing people experienced? What if those comparisons were based around political identity, and instead of decreased self esteem, the result was an increase in misunderstanding about the people who are different than us, and different in ways that are bad or even dangerous?
3.4: I had mentioned earlier that the scope of this discussion would include more than just politics, and I think this is a good point to apply these insights to the current state of American Christianity, specifically American Protestantism. Simply put, if group identity and isolation are two ingredients necessary to having a distorted understanding of yourself and those around you, then it’s not hard to see how much of the fragmentation and in-fighting of American Protestantism is fueled by secondary or tertiary group identities that are relatively walled off from active dialogue and relationships with one another. Just to put all the cards on the table: I consider myself both politically right-of-center (if all my various stances were to be aggregated and averaged into one general location) and theologically Reformed, specifically of the Calvinist tradition of the 16th century. I will be the first to admit that few corners of American Protestantism are more unhealthy than current Reformed culture, especially as conveyed through social media - just over the past several years, I’ve had to distance myself from individuals that I used to align with theologically or looked up to as a role model because their character and conduct has descended into polarized tribalistic madness. But in that, I need to give a pretty heavy caveat - my understanding of that unhealthy culture is a distorted understanding of that culture. I am only judging what I see because of the comparisons I make of others through social media; in fact, in my smaller and more personal offline Reformed contexts, my evaluation is quite a bit different (and significantly more positive). This isn’t to say that my evaluation that some teachers, influencers, or institutions are dangerous isn’t correct - it’s to say that my understanding of myself as someone who confesses Reformed theology in the classic Calvinist sense is likely going to be skewered heavily in a context of hundreds of other people who claim to confess Reformed theology, but my perception of what they actually believe and how they behave offline is heavily incomplete. Now, if I can’t reliably perceive my own status and identity among the theological tradition I identify in, how much more so can I not reliably perceive my own status and identity among the myriad of other theological traditions of American Protestantism? How “liberal” am I compared to branches of Protestantism that are defined largely by committed to conservative political convictions, even if I disagree with many of the features of current conservative Protestantism without identifying as being a liberal myself? How “conservative” (or worse) am I compared to liberal and progressive branches of Protestantism? How “complementarian” or “egalitarian” am I actually when neither side accurately conveys my theological position and I draw from insights found on both sides? How “woke” am I actually simply because I believe that systemic institutional racism exists and that racial division remains a significant problem in American Protestantism? If all I have to go by are the comparisons I make of myself to others on social media, I am going to conclude that hardly anyone else is like me, and that I am relatively alone and isolated in what I believe compared to what I perceive others around me actually believe. My inability to understand myself and my inability to understand myself relative to others creates a vicious feedback loop of increasing perceived alienation and separation from those that I think are radically different than I am - but who in reality may not be as different from me as social media leads me to think they are. Could it be that much of the infighting among American Protestants today are based on an artificially generated misunderstanding of what we actually believe beyond the labels that provide convenient shorthand for us to avoid having to do the work to get to know people that may see things different than we do?
4.1: This is where the second distorting effect of social media enters in: social media does not simply distort our identities, it bends our behaviors towards the distortions of those identities. At the core of our identities is a desire for significance and status - we want to build our understanding of ourselves around things that matter to us. If we highly value marriage, we will desire not just simply to be married, but to have the best marriages possible. If we highly value our jobs or professions, we will gladly work ourselves to the bone to be able to say that we are the best at what we do. If we highly value the success of our children - whether in academics, sports, or some other metric of success - we will orient our entire lives around making sure one particular aspect of our child’s life is as successful as possible. But even deeper than that - if we desire to belong to a group of people that embody something that we value and prize, and if we desire the approval and acceptance of that group of people, we will adopt whatever behavior is necessary for that group of people to consider us “one of them”, even if that is based on a distorted understanding of what that particular group actually believes or desires of it’s adherents. In short, if we want those we respect and revere to consider us “one of them” , we will often do whatever it takes to get their approval, even if it requires beliefs or behaviors that we would never otherwise hold on our own.
4.2: Bail’s description of social media as a “prism”, where our identities are distorted and bent, is more than simply a funhouse mirror at a carnival. Take, for example, a funhouse mirror that gives you giant, outsized legs - you walk up to it and behold, suddenly you have the swolest and thickest legs of any human on planet Earth. It’s amusing for a bit, but you walk away exactly the same way that you came in, knowing that your legs aren’t any larger than they were when you walked into a room. But, as Bail said in the thesis statement for this book, social media is not a giant prism that we can use to see society as a whole. Instead, social media does something more to us beyond giving us a potentially amusing distortion of ourselves - it actually changes the way we behave towards one another. Social media is more than just simply a funhouse mirror; with a funhouse mirror, you observe that you have massive legs, but walk away with the normal sense of how to walk that you’ve had for your whole life. With social media, you observe that you have massive legs, and then you walk away from the mirror convicted that you actually have massive legs and need to walk as though these are how your legs actually look and need to operate - with giant, sweeping steps that are foreign and unnatural to how you’ve perceived yourself up until then. Saying that social media “distorts” and “bends” our identities could be seen as two ways of saying the same thing, but Bail suggests (and I agree) that the distortion of social media changes our perception of ourselves and others, and then bends our identities to conform or respond to those distortions that we perceive. It’s not simply a question of knowledge or belief - social media fundamentally changes our behavior, and it changes our behavior to correspond to the identity that we desire to have based on the identities we perceive of others - identities that are likely very distorted and incomplete.
4.3: If I perceive that those that are the opposite of me politically not just believe different things that I do, but are actively working against my safety and wellbeing (and the safety and wellbeing of my loved ones), that is not simply going to change how I perceive the “other” group, but how I respond to them as well. To be clear: this isn’t to say that there isn’t a kernel of truth in some of these reactions. In the ordinary course of American politics (and politics in general), there will be winners and losers who gain and lose advantage and privilege, especially in a democratic republic like America. Sometimes those wins and loses are insignificant and made to be a bigger deal than they are; sometimes those wins and loses are legitimate and severe. I am not trying to flatten out every single political issue into being of one equal measure or value, because I certainly do not believe that is true. My general point is that if my default operating position is to assume that the other side relative to where I am at has the worst possible intentions and motivations against me, I should assume the worst possible intentions and motivations against them and, assuming they’ll stop at nothing to achieve their goal of harming me and those I care about, I need to respond with a similar degree of intensity as well. Furthermore, if I believe that my side is “righteous” - that God, or science, or the people whose opinion I value most approves of my belief and my conduct - then it’s not simply a matter of survival, but one of moral duty, to do whatever I can to make sure that the Rattlers or the Eagles, or the Republicans or Democrats, or the complementarians or the egalitarians, or the woke or the anti-CRT, never gain an inch of territory anywhere, ever.
4.4: But compounding this problem even further is the fact that not only does social media bend us towards the direction of the distortion, but that the distortion doesn’t amplify the presence and the voice of the ordinary and everyday people of a particular group, but the loudest individuals of that particular group and the most extreme views within that particular group. The bend in our behavior is towards the direction of more extreme views and more extreme behavior, which is exactly what Bail and his research team concluded in their studies and what we focused on in the previous episode. Exposing people to “the other side” of a viewpoint did not result in more moderate beliefs and behaviors, but more extreme beliefs and behaviors. And when the leaders of a group of people move in those extreme directions, it takes people with them who lead that group or model that identity that gives them status they value. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this has happened to both the Republican and Democratic party over the past six years, with the Republican party moving in whatever direction Donald Trump goes and the Democratic party doubling down on it’s progressive wing on the party, even as it continues to cost them in elections. If being a Republican or a Democrat is the “biblical” thing to do, or the morally right thing to do, you will move in whatever direction the party goes, even if it takes you to places you may not want to go.
5.1: I had mentioned at the onset that I was going to take what was going to be one episode and split it into two parts, because I want to give an entire episode to the consequences of how social media distorts our politics and the implications it has for us, because the consequences are not minor or insignificant. I am going to end this episode on an incomplete point, but not without offering some encouragement for what I’ve covered in this episode. If social media distorts our identities and bends our behavior, is it possible to correct those distortions and our behavior? Yes, there is. Social media may not be a giant mirror that we can use to see ourselves relative to society, but there does exist a mirror that is able to show us who we truly are and give a correct understanding of ourselves relative to the world: the word of God. As James 1:22-25 reads, But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing. In the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we receive an identity that is greater than any identity we could have in this life. We receive the identity of being adopted into the family of God, chosen, loved, justified, sanctified, and one day glorified. In this identity, our goal is not to become the perfect conservative or liberal, father or mother, husband or wife, or to make any other subset of who I am the sum total of my being: in this new identity, the goal is to become like Christ, and in becoming like Christ, I will desire what Christ desires and behave as Christ behaves. Through the word of God, the Spirit corrects our identities and our understanding of ourselves and supernaturally empowers us to live in accordance with this new identity we have in being conformed to Jesus Christ. Even though the church, and Christians today, are rampantly plagued by these distorting and bending effects of social media, the fact remains that the church is uniquely positioned and empowered to offer something that is divinely powerful and able to help those caught in the whirlwind of the social media prism - even people in it’s own pews. The church does not simply have to “take it” when it comes to social media’s distortions on ourselves and society; we have something that is able to directly confront this situation in a meaningful way. But what exactly are we facing here? On the next episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we will examine the consequences of the social media prism on society, and how we can respond to the two most significant side effects of these distortions.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 10-11). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 10). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 44). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 49-50). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 51). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.