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How Churches Can Break the Social Media Prism
Part Four (and the final installment) of a Christian commentary of Chris Bail's "Breaking the Social Media Prism"
(The following is my lightly edited manuscript for the final part of my commentary on Chris Bail’s “Breaking the Social Media Prism”, which released on February 7th, 2022. As with all my other manuscripts, this does not reflect any additions or changes made during recording. Breaking the Digital Spell is available wherever you get your podcasts, including YouTube (embedded below), or you can listen online here!)
(As a minor editorial note, because many clauses of the book’s thesis statement of the book have both been quoted in prior episodes and are quoted multiple times over in this episode, I have not listed those individual citations to keep the citation list from being bloated. Refer to page 10 of the book.)
A Brief Recap
1.1: In the last episode of Breaking the Digital Spell, we covered chapters 5 and 6 of the book, which focused on the two biggest effects the social media prism has on our society: the amplification of extremists, and the muting of moderates. The social media prism distorts our identities and bends our identities and, when it comes to our political identity, the resulting effect is a phenomenon known as “false polarization”, where everyone believes everyone else is more extreme than they truly are. There are surveys that show the average Republican thinks the average Democrat is more extreme than there are actual liberal extremists in America; those same surveys show the average Democrat thinks the average Republican is more extreme than there are actual conservative extremists. Caught in the middle of the mis-perception crossfire are the moderates, who believe that both sides have gone off the deep end and that there are increasingly fewer people willing to have nuanced political stances and dialogue. However, moderates remain the largest voting bloc in the country by far, even though on social media they seem all but invisible. This is because social media amplifies the extremes of both parties, making it seem like there are more extremists (and that people are more extreme in general), and social media empowers extremists - aka trolls - to harass those who do not agree with them. Combined with the fact that most political extremists and online trolls lack real-world significance and find deep and meaningful value in their online status and relationships with online trolls, and you have the perfect storm for moderates to vacate social media and extremists to fill that vacuum. And, as Bail notes, barring any unexpected developments in the social or technological landscape, we can expect this problem to get worse. The social media prism will continue to make extremists more extreme. The social media prism will continue to make moderate voices more and more invisible - and easier for trolls to attack. What we are left with is a vicious cycle of false polarization where people are not as extreme as they appear to be, but everyone operates as though the other side is too far gone down the rabbit hole to be saved.
1.2: In the first three episodes, we have been heavy on problem and little on solution. In this episode, we are going to be heavy on solution and (hopefully) little on problem, and my hope here is that this episode caps off a heavy topic and situation with some encouragement that this situation is not without hope. I am going to break this episode down into two parts, the first of which covers chapters 7-9 of Breaking the Social Media Prism and concludes our commentary on the book itself. I am going to interact with Bail’s proposed solutions and evaluate them on their own terms before moving on to Part Two, which is going to be a critique of the entire book from a Christian perspective and offer some solutions that only Christianity can provide to the problem. Part of the reason why I love this book so much is that even though Bail is not a Christian author, and obviously this book is not a Christian book, his work harmonizes with Christianity very well. My stance in critiquing the book later is not from the standpoint of “this is where you’re wrong”, but rather “we have something that can actually make your argument stronger, and your solutions more effective”. Now with that out of the way, let’s dive into the last three chapters of Breaking the Social Media Prism.
Should I Delete My Account?
2.1: The first thing that we need to address is likely a question that you had if you listened to the last episode (or something you may just be feeling in general): if social media is having these truly awful and terrible effects upon society, and the way I see others and the way others see me, should I delete my account? That’s actually the title of chapter 7, where Bail addresses probably the most natural question that arises after hearing so much bad news about social media. I want to preface this section by saying that, if you’re a Christian listening to this, I recently did an episode called “On Esther, Daniel, and Exile in Digital Babylon”, where I offered a framework unique to Scripture that comes to a few similar conclusions as Bail does, even if for different reasons. One of the reasons that Bail and I share in common is that we both have our issues with the “addictive psychology” framework of social media put forward by several leading ex-Silicon Valley technologists. If you’ve seen “The Great Hack” or “The Social Dilemma”, you’ll know exactly what I mean here: we ought to get off social media because these social media companies have successfully hijacked human physiology and psychology and made us addicted to their products and services, which makes us susceptible to misinformation and outrage from bad actors who want to take advantage of our collective addictive state. The problem with this framework is not that its core claim is false: Bail readily agrees that Silicon Valley has done some tinkering with our brains, and that in this addictive state we may be more prone to ideas or information that we would never encounter outside of endlessly falling down social media rabbit holes. The problem with this framework, as Bail claims, is that there is just very little evidence that any of the claims of these “ex-Silicon Valley apostates” are true. There is very little evidence that shows that Big Tech has made us more susceptible to misinformation and polarization simply by virtue of using their products. More specifically, there is very little evidence that social media algorithms - these nebulous enigmas of modern technology - are directly facilitating radicalization themselves.
2.1.1: Bail cites a few recent studies on YouTube and extreme content to show that while extreme content does exist on YouTube, the algorithm’s role in radicalizing people doesn’t come from serving people increasing extreme content in a vacuum, but from further serving people what they’re already choosing to seek out. In fact, one recent study showed that the amount of time people have spent watching extreme content on YouTube has gone down quite a bit. But to pursue this particular question further, Bail and his team organized a separate study in 2017 that attempted to study how people may be swayed by foreign misinformation and disinformation campaigns. Using a very robust data set of 1,200 Americans, Bail and his team were able to study who interacted with known Russian IRA accounts and whether those interactions actually changed public opinion in any meaningful way. I’ll let Bail explain the results: “Once again, our research findings challenged the prevailing wisdom: we could not detect any significant effects of interacting with IRA accounts on any of the political attitudes and behaviors we studied. Moreover, we found that the people who interacted with IRA accounts were mostly those who already had strong partisan beliefs—precisely the type of people who would be least likely to change their minds in response to trolling. This finding fits into a broader trend that many people don’t know about: most mass media campaigns have minimal effects. Political campaigns are not a hypodermic needle that injects opinion into the masses. Instead, most people ignore the campaigns—and the few who do engage with them already have such strong beliefs that their overall impact is negligible. It is still possible that fake news and foreign misinformation campaigns can influence voting behavior. But studies indicate that even the most sophisticated targeted campaigns to persuade voters in the 2016 election probably had little or no impact—and possibly even a negative impact upon voters who were mistargeted.” While Bail does concede that it is always possible that fake news can have a negative impact on an individual, he notes that the research just does not match the grandiose, sweeping claims made by these ex-Silicon valley tech entrepreneurs. Social media addition is certainly real, but this addiction does not seem to be contributing to radicalization and polarization.
2.1.2: Another problem with the claims of these ex-Sillicon Valley entrepreneurs is that, if their diagnoses are correct, the solution would be to force social media companies to change their algorithms to make them less addicting. But setting aside what we just talked about for a second, we need to ask: what incentive do these companies have to make these changes, and if they made these changes, would they even work? For the former question, we have to reckon with a fact that, despite their obvious harm and damage to the public, social media companies are businesses and, like every other business, they exist to make a profit for their shareholders. They’re not nonprofits or charities, and while we can and should discuss whether the interests of shareholders ought to be the most important interest for a for-profit company (and whether those interests are even good interests to begin with), we can’t fault these big-tech companies for not operating in ways that go against the grain of their very existence. Many of the changes these technologists and entrepreneurs propose would strike at the very heart of how these companies make money for their shareholders, and even if one company bit that bullet and made those changes, all it does it open the door for a competitor to come in and do the same thing. But not only do social media companies not have financial incentives to make these changes, there is plenty of evidence to show that these changes wouldn’t really fix anything to begin with. Think about it: the whole premise of Bail’s book is that the social media prism does something to us based on something that is already inside of us. Social media did not give us our desire to, as Bail says in his thesis, “present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them, and revise our identities accordingly” - this is something that existed as a part of human nature before social media and would continue to exist even if social media disappeared from the planet. Big tech cannot fix human nature, and if, to quote Bail again, “the root source of political tribalism on social media lies deep inside ourselves”, then we cannot expect social media companies to be the primary solution, because social media companies are not the primary problem. I said in the last episode that the chief engine fueling false polarization is social media, but like any engine, social media requires a fuel source to operate. We are the fuel source; we are the problem.
2.1.3: Now at this point, you may be thinking “okay, even if social media isn’t as dangerous for me as some of these guys claim, shouldn’t I still get off it to help me if I struggle with false polarization or feelings of intense opposition to my political opponents?” Bail notes that those who got off social media did report feeling less anger and hostility towards the other political party, and for what it’s worth, I think Bail and I both would agree that taking a break from social media is not a bad place to start if this is something you actively struggle with. Bail’s interest, however, is less in the individual response to social media and more in the societal solutions to the problem, and he argues (and I agree with him) that at this point, a mass exodus of social media is not a likely solution to the problem. For one, there have been several cultural moments, such as the 2018 #DeleteFacebook movement, that tried to compel people to leave social media en masse, and while there were plenty of people who did get off Facebook, they didn’t leave Instagram - which had been owned by Facebook for several years by that point - and even if they got off social media completely, it wasn’t long before most of them returned. For most of them, the reason is simple: social media has reached a saturation point where the average person cannot completely avoid interacting with it in some way. The only people who can truly go “off the grid” at this point are people with either enough privilege and power to have people do their social media work for them, or people with a strong support system of family members and friends who collectively agree to build alternate social systems so they can all stay off together. Outside of that, social media has become a staple medium not just for entertainment and fluff, but for keeping up with friend and family members, looking for jobs (for some careers and industries, a social media presence is non-negotiable), staying on top of the news, and more. New home listings and rentals are often first posted on the Facebook marketplace, and then quickly claimed by whoever happened to see them first. Some hobbies or interests thrive on social media, and even the best pro-analog lifestyles, such as the one advocated by Cal Newport in his excellent book “Digital Minimalism”, make caveats that social media can be great for hobbies or other interests, and that carving out social media use just for those things is not a bad idea. Whether its to maintain your life or maintain your weekend hobby (or anything else in between), society has fundamentally re-ordered itself around the permanence of social media in some form, which means that society must completely re-form itself in order for social media to leave the equation. That re-formation will not just require moving away from existing social media structures, but creating new structures that people can transition towards as they leave social media behind. And this raises another problem: writing in the 80s, Neil Postman commented in his landmark classic “Amusing Ourselves to Death” that it doesn’t really matter if you stop watching television if all your friends, family, and coworkers are watching television: you’re still going to be shaped by television just by virtue of doing life with those who continue to be shaped by the medium. The same is true with social media: even if you think that life will be better for you if you get off social media personally, you are still going to have to interact with a culture and society that is being distorted and bent by the social media prism, and you’ll continue to be distorted yourself in the process. The only way to escape social media is to escape it with a group of individuals who commit to building strong social circles and social bonds outside social media, but an episode on the philosophy of “localism” is an episode for another time.
2.1.4: Bail ends this chapter with an obvious conclusion: if social media cannot be improved from the top-down by social media companies and, to a related extent, government involvement and regulation, the only other way it can be improved is from those who use it: by us. This is the premise from which Bail lays out his suggestions for fixing the social media prism in the next two chapters. Let me say right off the bat that there is a sense in which he is absolutely right - if social media can be fixed, but it can’t be fixed from the top down, the only remaining solution is that it be fixed from the bottom up. Many of his proposals that I am about to cover are quite good in and of themself. But, to put a teaser in for later in the second part of this episode: if, as Bail says, “the root source of political tribalism on social media lies deep inside ourselves”, how exactly can we fix social media if we are simultaneously the reason why it is so broken? Is that something we are truly capable of doing by ourselves?
Hacking the Social Media Prism
3.1: Let’s move on to chapter 8: hacking the social media prism. How can we reduce polarization in American society? Bail gives us a very explicit starting point: The latest research suggests that Democrats and Republicans also overestimate how much people from the other party dislike them. When we think that people in the other party dislike us more than they actually do, it makes us more likely to dislike them. A key strategy for reducing political polarization is to find ways to help members of opposing political parties correct the misperceptions they have about each other. If previous research is our guide, closing the perception gap between Democrats and Republicans should be a top priority for reducing polarization. Now hearing this raises an obvious question: what is the “perception gap”? Simply put, the perception gap is the chasm created by false polarization; it’s the distance between how extreme people perceive others to be compared to where people actually are. As I mentioned earlier, the average Republican believes the average Democrat is more extreme than there are actual liberal extremists, and vice-versa for Democrats. This chasm between perception - the sense that the average Democrat or Republican is extreme - versus reality - that the number of both conservative and liberal extremists are a minority of the population - is the essence of the perception gap, and Bail says the first step to hacking (or “fixing”) the social media prism is to close this gap between perception and reality. In fact, Bail himself makes clear that the need to close the perception gap as the first step to addressing political polarization is one of the most important things you could take away from his book. This is a lengthy quote but I want you to hear him in full: “One of the most important messages I’d like readers to take away from this book is that social media has sent false polarization into hyperdrive. In chapter 5, I presented data from nationally representative surveys, as well as stories of individual social media users, to explain why extremists enjoy an outsized role in discussions about politics on social media. In chapter 6, I showed how the gap between perception and reality also causes widespread apathy or political disengagement among moderates—which only increases the amount of real estate that extremists occupy on our platforms. Though I only presented evidence from the United States, the power of social media to distort the political landscape is even more evident when we use a cross-national perspective. In 2016, a group of fourteen scholars examined the gap between perceived and actual polarization in ten countries. Though the researchers found mixed evidence about whether consuming information in legacy media (for example, television news, newspapers, and magazines) contributes to the perception gap, they discovered that online news consumption was the strongest predictor of false polarization in nearly every country. Social media also exacerbate the mass media’s contribution to false polarization. Journalists often use social media to monitor public opinion, and this distorts their reporting on polarization even further. It’s a vicious cycle.”
3.2: So, how can we break this cycle? Can this cycle be broken at all? Bail proposes three strategies for hacking/fixing the social media prism, and we are going to look at each of these strategies individually. The first strategy, “Seeing the Prism”, is as straightforward as it sounds: we need to teach people to see how social media bends and distorts our identities. The second strategy, “Seeing Yourself Through the Prism”, is a bit more complicated: we need to learn how to see how social media distorts us and how we portray ourselves online is often not the same as how people interpret us online. The third strategy, “Breaking the Prism”, builds on the first two strategies to suggest how we can begin taking baby steps to meaningfully reach across the aisle and close the perception gap through finding common ground - perhaps even on social media. Let’s start with the first strategy, “Seeing the Prism”. This is the starting point - the other two strategies hinge on this strategy and its success. We concluded the previous episode in this series with a quote from earlier on in the book that I said would be foundational for this episode, and that quote was “The social media prism exerts its most profound influence when people are not aware that it exists.” Now it’s time to really dive into that quote and unpack it, and that’s exactly what this strategy is all about - helping people perceive the social media prism and, in doing so, diminish its effects. Now, as straightforward as it sounds, it’s not as easy in practice as one would hope. Even before the pandemic forced us to quarantine in our homes and increase our distance from one another, conservatives and liberals (both politically and theologically) were beginning to talk to each other less and less. In the real world, people do not often discuss politics with those they disagree with, and if they do, it’s often on confrontational or uncivil terms. Online, it’s even worse - the social media prism amplifies the presence of extremists and mutes the voices of moderates, meaning you’re far more likely to engage with a political extremist or troll than to have constructive dialogue with another moderate or someone on a different end of the spectrum. The number of opportunities that we have to correct our misconceptions of each other are decreasing, but the good news is that it is possible to have our misconceptions corrected about the other party - in fact, there is good evidence that shows that making people aware of those misconceptions goes a long way towards depolarization, regardless of the topic. This is another lengthy quote but needs to be given in full: “research indicates making people aware of misperceptions has a strong depolarizing effect. In a 2015 study, the political scientists Douglas Ahler and Gaurav Sood asked 1,000 Republicans and Democrats to answer questions that cued common stereotypes associated with each party. For example, they asked Republicans to estimate what percentage of Democrats are Black; atheist; union members; and gay, lesbian, or bisexual. Next, they asked Democrats to estimate how many Republicans are evangelical Christians, age sixty-five or older, reside in the South, and earn more than $250,000 a year. Remarkably, these scholars found that respondents overestimated the actual proportion of partisans in each of these categories by an average of 342 percent. In a follow-up experiment, the researchers corrected these misperceptions, showing respondents the actual number of people from the opposing party who fit into each category. People who saw this information reported more favorable attitudes toward the opposing party than those who did not. A series of subsequent experiments by the psychologists Jeffrey Lees and Mina Cikara revealed that the depolarizing effect of correcting misperceptions extends into broader policy issues as well—such as attitudes about redistricting for electoral offices or anonymous campaign contributions.” I’m going to go into this more later in the second part of this podcast, but I can’t contain my excitement here: if you’re listening to this and you’re a pastor or ministry leader, you should feel empowered to make media literacy a part of your core discipleship curriculum. I’ve said this countless times over this podcast, and I’ll even say it again later in this episode, but media literacy is the biggest gaping hole in our discipleship, and if you’re concerned about polarization and division among your own congregation and your own people, you have every reason to be confident that tackling this subject and helping people see the social media prism will help bring your people closer together. Taking the time to make people aware of the social media prism - which absolutely falls under the category of “media literacy” - can pay dividends far beyond dealing with political tension in your congregation. But I’ll get more into that later. For everyone else, the first strategy involves being familiar enough with what the social media prism is and how it works before moving on to the next strategy, because you need to be aware of the existence of this thing and what it is before you begin to see how it changes you.
3.3: The second strategy, “Seeing Yourself Through the Prism”, assumes that you’re aware of the social media prism and how it distorts and bends our identities. It also assumes that you have the humility to be willing to admit that how you conduct yourself online is not how people perceive you, and an openness to correction and change. Now, I’ve not mentioned this yet because I was saving this for this section, but Bail has done more than write about these strategies for hacking the social media prism - he and his team has also created a set of free tools that you can use to help you with these three strategies. I mentioned in the first episode of this series a website called polarizationlab.com, which is a website that Bail and his team created for people to [quote] "learn more about how our own behavior is perceived by others, how to avoid trolls and other extremists, and how to identify other users with whom we can find common ground.” For this strategy, Bail invites you to head over to that website and use some of its tools to see where you fall on the political spectrum based on your social media activity, with the caveat that very few people can correctly predict where exactly they fall on the spectrum. So, as I work on this episode, I am going to do just that. One of the first tools that shows up is called “What Do Your Tweets Say About Your Politics?”, and so I log in to my Twitter account and, after a couple of minutes, the website gives me a score of 3.646. The scale breaks down as follows: a “0” is “most liberal” and a 10 is “most conservative”, meaning that I am slightly left-of-center just based on my social media activity. Now - I want to recall that, two episodes ago, I said I put all my cards on that table and that, if you aggregated all my various political stances together, I identify as mostly right-of-center, but according to the tools on Bail’s website, the opposite is true - apparently, I fall left-of-center based on what I actually tweet about. Now, the same result page that gives me this data also makes clear that the model that calculated my score is one model among many models, but that if I was surprised by my results (and I admit that I am), I ought to take their political ideology quiz. It’s a very short quiz, and the instructions say that I need to choose between a pair of statements that best aligns with my views on a given topic even if neither statement best represents my views. There are a couple that I can agree with wholeheartedly, and there are some that I had to begrudgingly choose and wish I could add some caveats and nuances. But, the results surprise me once again: this time, I am just slightly - barely - right of center, as I had said that I thought I was. But to add a third surprise to the mix: neither the average Republican nor the average Democrat was very far from where I landed in terms of my beliefs. Granted, I leaned more towards Republican (again, just barely enough to count), but it would not take but one or two different answers to those questions for me to be just slightly closer to the average Democrat. From there I could go on to see whether I am interacting with a political troll - a tool that is super interesting in itself and something you ought to check out for yourself - but for the purposes of this second strategy, I’ve learned two valuable things about myself. Working in reverse, according to the brief political ideology quiz, I am very much right-of-center like I claimed originally, but my social media activity - if the model is accurate and correct - pins my political beliefs as being left-of-center. The second of Bail’s strategies is understanding how to see ourselves though the social media prism, and I have to freely admit that I am surprised that the way I portray myself online does not align completely with where my actual political beliefs are at. To quote Bail, “understanding how people on social media see you—regardless of who you really are—is very important. Research indicates becoming more aware of how your political views relate to those of others can have a depolarizing effect no matter where you fall on the spectrum. Realizing that the identities we are trying to project are not consistent with the ones other people see may help us realize that other people are not always what they seem either. The key thing I urge you to consider is whether the version of you that is projected through the prism is what you want other people to see. If it isn’t, don’t despair. More than a century of social science suggests that we are very bad at seeing what we look like through the eyes of others. We believe we know what other people think of us, but we are often very wrong.”
3.3.1: This leads into a very important appeal that Bail makes to moderates. If we need to learn how to see ourselves through the prism, we need to learn how to see ourselves based on our absence in the prism as well. Recall what Bail said in the prior episode that moderates often withdraw from social media because, as a part of the prism’s distorting effects, we come to believe that there are not very many other people like us, since all we see are trolls and extremists. But seeing ourselves through the prism ought to show us that social media mutes our voices and makes us invisible when, in actually, moderates are the largest political bloc in the country and vastly dwarf the number of extremists. Bail says that between the two biggest effects of the social media prism - the amplification of extremists and the muting of moderates - that the latter effect is the more serious of the two, and that the best path forward for fixing the social media prism’s effects are not for the trolls to be silenced, but for the moderates to speak up. As Bail says, “the lack of moderate voices on social media may contribute more to political polarization than the abundance of extremists on our platforms, because the absence of the former enables the latter to hijack the public conversation. I beg the moderate Democrats and Republicans who read this book not to delete your accounts: we need you. Look, I get it—I don’t want to have uncomfortable conversations about politics with my relatives at Thanksgiving dinner any more than you do. And like everyone else, I present a carefully manicured version of myself on social media. No one who reads my Twitter feed will learn what I am watching on Netflix or other information that is unbecoming to a college professor. But all of us must carefully balance the desire to preserve our self-image with the consequences of these choices for the public good. We all need to think carefully about the issues we consider to be important enough to weigh in on. Moderate people need to decide which issues are so important to them that they won’t allow extremists to speak on their behalf. We all need to balance our desire not to upset friends, family members, or colleagues with the urgent need to beat back polarization on our platforms.”  Now, I am going to say that just because social media may need moderate voices does not need that social media must have moderate voices. I am going to say (and I hope Bail would agree with both) that polarization on social media does not just originate on social media, but overlaps with polarization that is generated through other avenues (such as cable news) and a manifestation of polarization that exists in other spheres and spaces of public society. There may be other avenues for moderates to help reduce polarization that do not require getting back on social media if they do not want to, and - at the risk of sounding too blunt - no specific social media platform absolutely needs to be saved by moderates from being swallowed up in its own polarizing effects. There is nothing inherently worthy about Twitter or Facebook or TikTok as companies or platforms that mandates moderates to intervene for their stability and well-being. It may very well be true that increasing the presence of moderates on social media may fix many of the social media prism’s worse effects, but the social media prism itself is not something that must absolutely be saved - at least, by people working on it from the inside. There will be those who have the fortitude and conviction that they need to add their voices inside of social media, and there will be those who can accomplish depolarizing effects through working around or even against social media. Polarization is a war that is waging on multiple fronts, and as severe as the social media front is, there are other vital areas we need to pay attention to as well. One area that Bail does not address (and I don’t fault him for because it’s outside the scope of the book) is what kind of depolarizing effects moderates could have by committing themselves to the health and stability of local political systems, such as volunteering to help run an election or participating in a voter registration drive. I would venture to say that, done well and wisely, an increased emphasis on participating in local politics could do far more to depolarize the American public than the majority of social media activity. Regardless, I do agree with Bail’s general point - an increase in moderate voices on social media would go a long way to helping fix the social media prism - but where I might disagree with him is the emphasis to which moderates are obligated to enter that fray.
3.4: But, for the rest of this section, I am going to move forward with his appeal, because Bail’s third strategy - aptly titled “Breaking the Prism” - assumes that you want to work to help de-polarize our social media platforms and how to go about doing that. By this point, it ought to be clear that if you want to reach across the aisle relative to where you’re at politically, the first thing you should not do is try to break your own echo chamber. Do not go out and follow the biggest outlets and pundits from the other side - you run the risk of only walking away more confident and confirmed in your pre-existing beliefs! Instead, Bail suggests several different baby steps that you can take that will increase your ability to meaningfully connect with someone on the opposite end of a position as you are. The first of those steps involves understanding a concept called the “latitude of acceptance” - seems like a fancy term, but I promise you’ve either heard of it or experienced it firsthand yourself. The term “latitude of acceptance” simply the range of ideas and arguments that we may not agree with ourselves but will still accept and tolerate as reasonable alternative positions, and the closer an idea is to our “latitude of acceptance” the more open we are to being persuaded by them. If we want to build bridges across the aisle, we need to not only discern our own “latitude of acceptance” for any given topic, but also be willing to speak to other people and aim for their own latitude of acceptance, rather than lobbing the most extreme or provocative version of an argument into their midst and expecting it to respond favorably to it. And this doesn’t just extend to arguments or ideas - it also extends to attitudes and presentation as well. How someone conveys an idea or argument may not make that argument more truthful or correct, but it certainly can make it more persuasive. Bail uses the example of a liberal Rachel Maddow viewer encountering an argument from someone like Rush Limbaugh (who, I should note, passed away right before this book was published). The odds of someone who is a fan of Rachel Maddow being persuaded by someone like Rush Limbaugh (or, to use a living example, someone like Sean Hannity or Tucker Carlson) is low - both individuals are known for being provocative, and aside from being off-put by their personalities, the version of a particular argument or idea will likely be an extreme version of that argument because that’s what draws viewers to their shows. But, that same core argument - presented in a milder way and from a person who is not combative or incendiary - might fall within that “latitude of acceptance” in a way the same core argument would not from a firery pundit. Building off this concept, Bail suggest that another baby step forward is to learn what someone on the other side cares about, and then pay attention to how they talk about it. A key component to persuading someone is being able to not just speak about issues or ideas they’re interested in, but to use the language, concepts, and arguments they already recognize and use themselves. It’s a hokey quip, but the phrase “now you’re speaking my language!” is more than just a statement of excited agreement - it’s a statement admitting that we are more likely to get behind an idea if that idea is conveyed similarly to how we talk about an idea. Unfortunately, the best way to learn about how other people talk about an idea is to listen intently to them, with a posture of gaining understanding rather than listening to defeat or refute their argument. In our polarized landscape, the notion of suggesting that we actively listen to people on the other side is seen as an invitation to compromise at best, or an invitation towards promoting Nazism or flat-earth theory or something else at worst. American society, especially within the confines of social media, must regain the lost art of listening, and that starts with the foundational principle that listening to someone is not an endorsement or agreement of who you are listening to. It is possible to listen to someone actively, patiently, and intently - and then disagree with everything they’ve said! The difference is that your disagreement with them, at that point, isn’t based on straw man, or a caricature, or a misunderstanding based on ignorance. One of the best ways to confirm whether you’ve truly listened to someone is whether or not you can re-state that person’s idea or argument and they validate that “yes, that’s what I am saying”. A good source of our current polarization - not just politically, but even theologically - is that because we often do not listen to each other, we do not learn how to talk to each other along lines that we find intelligible to us. Paying attention to how people talk about an issue is not something that can be done overnight - it will require constant observation and patience, neither of which are current media ecosystem encourages or rewards. But, if you reach a point where you can dialogue with someone using their own language and arguments as a context for conveying your own ideas, you are already miles ahead of most in terms of being able to persuade someone or, at the very least, make an idea or position more plausible and respectable than it had been before. De-polarization does not mean making Republicans into Democrats and vice-verse - de-polarization simply closes the perception gap that Republicans and Democrats seem further apart from one another than they actually are. Another baby-step strategy is to tap into the fact that even though may have passionate political opinions, most Republicans and Democrats don’t like to talk about politics as an ordinary topic of conversation. Here is an interesting quote from Bail that, while referencing a study from an earlier chapter (and I’ve not included in any of these episodes), may give you a surprising insight into how much people enjoy talking about politics in general: “Remember those studies that I mentioned in chapter 4 that documented a steady increase in the number of Americans who say that they would feel uncomfortable if their child married a member of the other party? The political scientists Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov, and John Ryan decided to scrutinize such trends more carefully. They conducted an experiment in which some people in a nationally representative panel of Americans were shown the classic question social scientists used to gauge interparty animosity—the one about their child marrying a member of the opposing party. But other people in the experiment were asked how they would feel if their child married someone who “talks about politics rarely.” Though people with extreme views still reported feeling uncomfortable with the idea of their child marrying someone from the other party, the vast majority preferred a child-in-law who does not discuss politics, regardless of their political party.” Bail suggests two tactics in light of this information: find different starting points for connecting with people across the aisle, and avoid bringing up controversial political leaders by name. That first tactic is easy enough to understand - whether it’s in a hobby, or love for a particular sport, or someone you attend church with, all of us likely know people who are different from us politically who have shared interests in other areas. While we shouldn’t try to politicize topics, interests, hobbies, or activities that are not inherently political, we should not underestimate how much impact we could have at depolarizing individuals through our character and conduct in those shared spaces. One of the best ways to dispel the myth that Republicans and Democrats have nothing in common is to share things in common together, and when political topics or situations inevitably come up, use those shared connections as a starting point for discussing a topic - provided you do so in a way that is gracious, patient, and understanding. The second tactic - not mentioning specific leaders or pundits by name - is a little bit trickier, but again, you may be surprised at how little people want to talk about polarizing leaders and how little trust people have in polarizing leaders overall. This is another quote from Bail that may surprise you: “According to a 2018 Pew Research Center study, only 4 percent of Americans have “a great deal of confidence” in elected officials. Only 15 percent have a great deal of confidence in journalists, and 4 percent have high confidence in business leaders. What about university professors like me? Only 18 percent of Americans have a great deal of confidence in us. And the handful of opinion leaders who are heroes to people on one side are most often enemies to those on the other. Looking back over hundreds of hours of interviews that my colleagues and I conducted for the research in this book, I can say one thing with extreme confidence: the worst way a Democrat could begin a conversation with a Republican would be to ask why that person voted for Trump (similarly, the worst way a Republican could begin a conversation with a Democrat would be to criticize Obama or Joe Biden). If you do not recognize that someone could vote for Biden and still be offended by people who criticize the police—or that someone could vote for Trump but have grave concerns about climate change—then you are missing an important opportunity to structure conversations around issues instead of the polarizing individuals who too often define them.”
3.5: Now, none of these strategies and tactics have a 100% success rate. It’s entirely possible that, with the best of intentions, you still receive the kind of uncivil response you’re hoping to avoid by taking these small baby steps. Other times, you may make some promising progress and, for reasons entirely unknowable to you, the conversation breaks down and never recovers. The question is not whether these strategies and tactics that Bail lays out are guaranteed to work; it’s a question of whether they’re the only thing that can work. Some people are not interested in being persuaded. Others may be, but social media’s obstacles get in the way. While Bail prescribes this strategy for use largely in the context of social media, I think he would agree that these baby steps and tactics for “Breaking the Prism” work just as well outside the social media prism as well - and may even be more effective. In fact, Bail notes that there are some topics or issues that ought to be avoided on social media, and are better left discussing in-person or in more interpersonal contexts. Regardless, Bail believes that there are meaningful steps that we can take to close the perception gap in how we view other people, and how people view us. We can’t count on Big Tech to close that perception gap for us - that will only happen when people on the left, right, and middle learn to see how the social media prism has exacerbated our perceived differences with one another, and after learning how to see ourselves through the prism first, take small steps to break the effects of the prism through finding the common ground that social media suggests does not exist.
A Better Social Media
4.1: But even though Bail thinks that Big Tech can’t fix the perception gap, Bail does believe that new social media platforms and experiences might result in healthier, less polarized spaces if they’re built differently from the ground up. This is the premise for the final chapter of the book, “A Better Social Media”, and for this chapter, I am going to do something that may come as a total shock for you: I am not going to talk very much about this chapter. There are two reasons why I’m choosing not to do this, and the first reason is this: much of what Bail has to say in this chapter involves the role of anonymity in healthy social media use, and that is a topic that I could very easily devote an entire separate episode towards evaluating and discussing. Given the scope of this episode, and how much time and attention it would take to handle that conversation in a fair and productive manner, it was easier for me to decide to bypass addressing it here - perhaps I will revisit it a separate episode in the future. But even more importantly than that: the bigger reason why I am not going to discuss this chapter is because the whole point of these four episodes is to convince you to buy the book and read it. In doing a commentary on this series, I’ve tried to strike a balance between covering the book in-depth while leaving plenty of material for you to read and discover for yourself. This final chapter of the book is one of the most intriguing and interesting chapters of the book, and I don’t want to taint Bail’s ideas here by introducing you to them through me. His ideas and suggestions are best left to be read in his own words, and as I said at the beginning of this brief series, I am fully convinced that this is one of the most important books that Christians can read right now, and part of the reason why I undertook this whole endeavor is because I want to put this book on the radars of as many people as possible in the hopes they’ll pick it up for themselves. But, just to whet your appetite, here is a quote from that chapter that ought to entice you to spend $20 and read the chapter in full: “What is the purpose of Facebook? The company tells us its mission is to “bring the world closer together.” But the platform began as a sophomoric tool that Harvard undergraduates used to rate each other’s physical attractiveness. What is the purpose of Twitter? Its motto is to “serve the public conversation,” but it was reportedly built to help groups of friends broadcast SMS-style messages to each other. What is the purpose of Instagram? We’re told it is to “capture and share the world’s moments.” But the app was originally called “Burbn” (as in the drink) and was built to help people make plans to hang out with their friends. What is the purpose of TikTok? I’m not even going to go there. Hopefully, my point is already clear: Should we really expect platforms that were originally designed for such sophomoric or banal purposes to seamlessly transform themselves to serve the public good? Should we be surprised when they create the kind of leaderless demagoguery from which anyone can invent a kind of status, no matter how superficial or deleterious to democracy? Is it any wonder that people find themselves so rudderless on social media, when there is no common purpose for posting in the void?”
A Theological Roadmap
5.1: I’m going to let that quote stand as the final word on our commentary on the book itself, and now we are going to transition into the second section of this episode: some critiques and suggestions of my own from a Christian point of view. Like I said at the beginning of this episode, these critiques are not meant to bash Bail himself. My stance here is that I see Bail’s work and I believe that Christianity offers some unique perspectives that can not only strengthen and improve upon his arguments, but even strengthen the effectiveness of many of his solutions. Bail, to my knowledge, is not a Christian and likely will not endorse the content of the remainder of this episode, but I believe that - despite not intending to write a book for Christians - that Christians stand to gain immense from Bail’s work. Just to give a roadmap of where the rest of this episode is going to go: we are first going to start by looping back around to a claim Bail makes earlier in the book (and I mention earlier in the episode) and start with an examination of the doctrine of sin: how our disordered loves distort our identities, our belongings, and our worship, and as a result of our sin against God, we are broken in ways that we cannot fix ourselves. I am then going to move to the Gospel and discuss what the Gospel is (and also what it’s not) and what the Gospel does to us, specifically how the Gospel gives us a new identity in Jesus Christ. After that, we are going to look at how the Gospel saves us not just individually, but saves us to belong to a collected group of people who have been saved through the Gospel: the church. Part of that discussion will include detailing what the church is (and what the church is not) as well as what the church ought to be - in explicit to contrast to what the church is usually and most often is not. But, when the church is functioning as it called to function, it has immense potential to play an active role in de-polarizing individuals, and I am going to revisit Bail’s three strategies for closing the perception gap and show how the church is uniquely positioned to execute these strategies within its own walls.
5.2: Lets loop back around to one particular quote from Bail, a part of his thesis statement for the book: “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.” By this, Bail means that we are not primarily driven by information, but by identity, and a focus on Big Tech’s role in facilitating and empowering the spread of misinformation misses the bigger picture of what is actually causing polarization to increase. When Bail says that the root source of political tribalism on social media lies deep within ourselves, he is talking about our hardwired social desire to “present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them, and revise our identities accordingly.” This is something that humans have always done, and humans continue to do on social media, but the social media prism not only allows to do this at a scale that we can’t really tolerate, but it distorts and bends our identities in directions that amplify extreme positions and extreme attitudes. Here is my critique of Bail on this point: he is absolutely correct in his diagnosis of the problem, but he does not go far enough. He is absolutely correct that the root source of tribalism lies deep inside us, and he is also correct that the reason for this is not strictly because of misinformation or echo-chambers, and that we are not primarily “thinking things” driven simply by what we believe. However, I’d argue that Bail stops short of just how deep the roots of political tribalism lie within us, and that if Bail were to explore the true depth of those roots, he would not only strengthen his case for why we are the reason for political tribalism and polarization, but it would call into doubt the extent to which we can fix the social media prism ourselves.
Theological Contribution #1: A Doctrine of Depravity
5.3: But let’s trace the depths of those roots before we get to that point. Christianity teaches that mankind was created in the image of God, and in our original state we were created morally blameless and in open fellowship with our Creator, who gave us a pure, untainted creation to both steward and enjoy. But, ignoring the full breadth and depth of the pleasures and delights God gave them and focusing on the one single thing they were commanded not to do, our first parents ate from a tree they explicitly commanded not to eat from, and this one single disobedience, they lost both the moral blamelessness as well as their open fellowship with God - and introduced a whole host of consequences they couldn’t have possibly imagined. The Westminster Confession of Faith summarizes well everything that happened as a consequence (and as a quick note, all the references to this Confession both now and going forth have been lightly edited for clarity - it’s not the easiest thing to read aloud in places): “By this sin they fell from their original righteousness and communion with God, and became dead in sin and wholly defined in all the faculties and parts of soul and body. They being the root of all mankind, the guilt of this sin and the same death in sin and corrupted nature was imputed [meaning “credited to” or “charged to”] and convey to all their posterity, descending from them by ordinary procreation and childbirth. From this original corruption, where we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions.” While I stand by a Reformed understanding of the doctrine of depravity (hence my use of a doctrinal standard here in this episode), every branch of Christianity and every denomination of Protestantism has a concept of both “sin” and “the fall” which resulted in the brokenness of creation and humanity; while not everyone might word the consequences in the same way, it has been a foundational Christian belief from the beginning of the church that humanity is sick with sin, and this sin manifests itself in our lives in multiple ways. One of the most foundational effects of sin is that we do not love the things we ought to love; we were created to love the Lord our God with our whole being, and from this rightly ordered love build our identities as being the children of God who delight in knowing and loving God. Instead, we love things that may destroy us, or our neighbor, and from our disordered loves we build disordered identities for ourselves. In knowing and loving God, we ought to desire to be like him, seeking to imitate his goodness, love, justice, mercy, patience, kindness, and truthfulness with respect to our creaturely limitations. Instead, we desire to be like those who bear the identities that we love, and we take on the attributes of those our hearts truly valuable above all as being the greatest good, whether that is a desire for fame, power, beauty, knowledge, cruelty, riches, success, comfort, or anything else that has taken our Creator’s place in our hearts as being the one thing that we must have at all costs. The term for this is “idolatry”, the worship of created things rather than our Creator, which stands at the front of the law of God in the 10 Commandments: You shall have no other gods before me. From our rejection of our identities in God, our rejection of the joy of fellowship and belonging with God, and our rejection of the rightful worship of God and the worship of the idols of our loves comes the basis from which God’s judgment against us stands, not only having broken one of his commandments, but having broken all of them.
5.4: Political tribalism, extremism, and trolling are all fruits of the inherent sinfulness of man. Tribalism is a distorted love for those who are like us, based on a shallow and incomplete identity that we choose for ourselves, and a willingness to engage in hostility and hypocrisy in order to remain a part of this “inner ring”. Applied to the social media specifically, we turn away from the God who knows us perfectly and instead pursue shallow relationships based on online statuses in our broken and sinful attempts to know and be known. Rather than delighting in being fully know by the God who created us and delighting in loving him as we were created to, we pursue love and acceptance that is conditional, fragile, and even in its best forms, flawed and incomplete. Extremism is a distorted love of righteousness, holiness, and purity, defining these things not in character and being of the God who truly is those things himself, but in temporal allegiances or ideals centered around a desire to maintain power and control. Trolling is a disordered love for evil, a very simple and pure manifestation of sin and our love for our deeds of darkness, both a hatred of the truth and a hatred of our neighbor. The social media prism itself an example of sin in our world, in that the things that we create ourselves cannot ultimately fix the brokenness inside of us and can often be an avenue through which sin and evil is further compounded and empowered - in many ways, the social media prism’s amplification of extremists is an amplification of evil in our world and our lives. And even though the social media prism is a uniquely modern problem, tribalism and political extremism are certainly not unique to modern American society - these are problems that every society has had to deal with in their own ways. Even trolling, a term that came to designate an Internet activity and Internet problem, has always existed in some form or fashion relative to the technology and media options available at the time. A Christian doctrine of depravity not only explains the thorough brokenness and evil caused by the social media prism, but also sets the stage for our inevitable failure to fix this brokenness ourselves, no matter how much progress or improvement we may make. The reality of political tribalism, extremism, and political violence is a shared human experience across time, geography, cultures, and languages. None of these are problems that arise because of a lack of technological progressivement or advance, much like hunger pains arise from a lack of food; these are problems that persist despite technological advancement and, as Bail makes quite clear, appears to get progressively worse the more technological progress we make. Ultimately, we cannot fix the social media prism ourselves, because the root cause of political tribalism and extremism on social media is much deeper than Bail gives it credit, and if Christianity’s account of the sinfulness of man is correct, we cannot fix ourselves, much less fix others or the society around us, simply in our own strength and effort. Springing forth from the sinful nature we inherited from Adam, his guilt - and our own contributions of guilt in our individual sin against God - remain upon us.
Theological Contribution #2: The Gospel
5.5: This is where the Gospel, the Good News, comes in. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the announcement, the proclamation, the declaration of everything Jesus Christ has accomplished and everything Jesus Christ is going to do in light of his accomplishments. The term “Gospel” has its roots in Roman culture and the Roman military system, where after a victorious battle, before the army returned to the city, a herald would be sent ahead to announce the victory of the Roman army and, in light of this victorious battle, the city and its residents ought to prepare themselves to celebrate the return of the Roman soldiers and take heart that their safety has been secured for them. In the case of Jesus, the Gospel of Jesus is the announcement that Jesus Christ has conquered Satan, sin, and death itself through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead. Having lived a perfect and sinless life in complete obedience to God, in which our first parents failed to do, Jesus Christ was unjustly condemned as a sinner to die a death that he did not deserve, and in fulfillment of all the types and shadows of the Old Testament, Jesus Christ goes to the cross as the sinless sacrificial lamb of atonement. Being both fully God and fully man, Jesus Christ not only dies the death of a man representing men, but being fully divine, he is able to bear the full wrath of God reserved for us as a punishment for our sin - in both body and soul, Jesus Christ stands in our place as our substitute as an atoning sacrifice that we did not deserve. But not even an unjust crucifixion spurned on by Satan, nor the weight of the sin of man, nor even death itself could destroy Christ - having been buried in a grave for three days, he physically rose from the dead with a resurrected body, and in doing so signaled the beginning of the end of Satan, sin, and death. The Gospel, then, is the announcement that Jesus Christ has not only defeated all our enemies - the sinful nature deep inside us, the record of the debt of our sin that stood against us that we could never repay, the brokenness of creation and the death we and everyone we love will face, and our chief spiritual enemy responsible for it all, Satan himself - but it’s also the announcement that, as a result of his victory, Jesus Christ has secured for us a righteousness before God that is apart from being conditioned upon our fulfillment of the law, and that without his righteousness the wrath of God remains on us as we pay the penalty for our sin. But it’s not only an announcement of everything Jesus has accomplished; it’s also an announcement of everything Jesus is going to do because of his accomplishments. Jesus has defeated Satan, sin, and death in the sense that the Allied forces defeated Nazi Germany on D-day; although the outcome of the war has been determined, the battle will continue to rage on as the end closes in. A short time after his resurrection, Jesus physically ascended to heaven and now sits at the right hand of God the Father, serving as our mediator and high priest until he comes again. When he does, Jesus will bring about V-Day against all his enemies, having secured their defeat on the cross and now bringing that defeat to its final conclusion. Not only will Jesus defeat Satan, sin, and death, never to exist again, Jesus is going to make a new creation, a new heavens and a new earth, perfect and greater than anything our minds can comprehend.
5.6: In light of Christ’s victory on the cross and his impending return, what should our response be? Christ’s terms are simple: we are to repent of our sin and place our faith in him as our Savior and Lord and receive from him the righteousness we cannot secure for ourselves. In repenting of our sins, we turn away not just from our individual sins, but from all forms of sin and all forms of participation with Satan and his kingdom. We admit that we cannot attain a righteousness of our own and agree that our sin deserves eternal death and separation from God. We believe that Jesus Christ has attained a righteousness that can save us through his life, death, and resurrection, as the Gospel announcement tells us. We confess that Jesus Christ is our Lord, resigning any attempts to play God in our lives and placing our allegiance to Christ and his coming Kingdom above any other allegiance, including our countries, our families, our heritages, or any other defining identity that we have. To seal this new identity that we have as those who belong to Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit as a deposit and down-payment affirming that we have a new identity, and that we can enjoy a small taste of the life waiting for us now. This new life consists of a new heart, given to us by the Spirit, that loves Christ and desires to know and obey him. Although we remain in a world where Satan, sin, and death rage on, we know that just as their days are numbered and the outcome of the war has already been determined, the same is true for the sinful nature and desires that compete with our new identity and desires, as well as the physical death that awaits us as well. Just as Christ has been victorious over both, we will share in his victory as well. As long as we draw breath, the Gospel announcement compels us to respond, and we can respond in one of two ways. We can reject the Gospel, and pay the full penalty for our sins and experience eternal destruction, or we can accept Christ’s terms put forth in the Gospel, and receive not only his perfect record of righteousness in replacement of our record of sin, but receive a new identity and a small taste of the unimaginable life that is to come for those whose central identity has ceased being in themselves, a country, a political party, a philosophy, a lifestyle, or anything else other than being defined by Jesus Christ.
5.7: The Gospel, then, is not a self-help message. It is not generic encouragement or good vibes. It is not manifested merely in kindness and generosity in a vacuum. The Gospel is not a political platform or voting guide. The Gospel is not a program on how you can clean up your life, or how you can make the world a better place, solve whatever social cause you’re passionate about, etc. The Gospel is an announcement of what Jesus Christ has done, which is something you couldn’t do: save yourself from your sin and defeat the greatest enemies in your life. Our response to the Gospel is predicated entirely as a response to this announcement of what Christ has done and what Christ is going to do because of his victory, and it is through this Gospel proclamation that God transforms us and gives us new identities and new lives built on that new identity. This new identity that we have in Christ does not mean that we abandon our secondary identities; what it means is that those secondary identity can never become the primary identity through which we see ourselves. All our other identities - our family status, our education, where we live, what political affiliations we have, our hobbies or other interests - are moons which orbit around and are defined by our identity in Christ. Furthermore, in this new identity in Christ, it is who you are that determines not what you do; it is because you belong to Christ now that determines how you ought to live for him. Much of the preaching and evangelism in American Christianity today has inverted this: if you do X, Y, and Z for God, then you will be a Christian. Instead, it ought to be that because you are a Christian through repentance and faith in Christ, you ought to do X, Y, and Z in accordance with your new identity.
5.8: Why am I going on so long about all of this? When I say that Christianity offers some unique perspectives on Bail’s work that can not only strengthen and improve upon his arguments and even strengthen the effectiveness of many of his solutions, I do not mean any version or variant of Christianity that one can find out in the wild today, but only one that is robust, thorough, and entirely centered on Christ and his work. Counterfeit forms of Christianity, be it the self-help moralism variant, the political voting bloc variant (for both conservatives and progressives), the various Charismatic, Baptist, or Reformed prosperity gospels, or a cultural lifestyle variant cannot do what biblical Christianity can do. Doing a full theological overview of what exactly constitutes the breadth and depth of said biblical Christianity is neither possible nor helpful here; my only point is to demonstrate that a theologically rich and abundant Christianity is the only possible starting point for improving on Bail’s solutions. It should be said that good theology does not guarantee holy and righteous behavior any more than holy and righteous behavior is automatically an indicator of good theology, but just as our identity in Christ is the basis for understanding how we live for Christ, our theological foundations are the basis for our ethical foundations. This is the pattern for how God deals with his people in the Old Testament, how Christ conducts his ministry in the Gospels, and how Paul and the apostles exhort Christians in the rest of the New Testament, and it must be the pattern for us today as well. This is especially relevant as I transition to the third major theological topic I want to cover: when we respond to the Gospel with repentance and faith, our new identities are not given to us in isolation, but to belong to a larger body of people, the church.
Theological Contribution #3: A Doctrine of the Church
5.9: For this section, I am going to go back to the Westminster Confession of Faith (again, with some light editing for clarity), but I am going to go slightly out of order. When the Bible speaks of “the church”, it speaks about it in two senses: a visible sense, and an invisible sense. Normally, we would begin with the latter, but here I am going to start with the former: the visible church “consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children, and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ and the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”  In other words, the church is the public community of those who profess the Christian faith and, collectively acknowledging Christ as their Savior and Lord, physically gather together to worship him as he has instructed us and physically scatter into the world as his ambassadors and representatives. Just as our identity in Christ becomes our primary identity over the secondary identities we have, the church is a group of people united to each other in that identity over and against all their various secondary identities. The church, then, ought to be a wide and diverse group of people who acknowledge their differences and disagreements but collectively agree that Jesus is more important, and we know this because this reflects Christ and his disciples during his earthly ministry. Jesus’ 12 disciples were far from culturally uniform or homogenous; for example, among the 12 disciples you had Jewish fishermen, a Greek-born physician, a Roman tax collector and a member of the Jewish zealot party, a radical sect of Judaism that wanted to violently overthrow the Roman government. These 12 men had little in common (and often much in direct competition with each other); only a greater identity in being a disciple of Christ could bring together a group of men around a shared identity that transcended all other identities. In the same way, the church brings together hundreds, thousands, and millions from all over the world from different backgrounds, stations of life, professions, education levels, income levels, and more because of a shared identity in Jesus Christ.
5.10: Now, in describing that, I am intentionally painting a cheerier and rosier picture than what exists in reality. On paper, the church is the public community of those who profess the Christian faith and, collectively acknowledging Christ as their Savior and Lord, physically gather together to worship him as he has instructed us and physically scatter into the world as his ambassadors and representatives. In practice, it is often the total opposite of that. Many churches that exist today are little more than good-ol-boys social clubs, or are plagued by an obsession or focus on some secondary doctrine or social cause, are driven by a form of Christian nationalism (mostly far-right but far-left versions of Christian nationalism exist as well) or defined entirely by being “not those kind of Christians”, whatever that means in particular to them. My father is a pastor, and I work for a church and am pursuing a calling in vocational ministry; I know very full well that what the church should be on paper is often not what it is in reality. The advent of the #churchtoo and deconstruction movements are heartbreaking to me because many of the stories and experiences recounted in these spaces are not surprising or shocking at all; even though I believe high things about the church, I have to reckon with the reality that the church is capable of severely wounding and hurting people, and this can’t be hand-waved away as though it were just a few bad apples in the batch causing these problems. It’s hard to look out on the landscape of American evangelicalism and the American church and believe the Lord is present amid any of this mess. But, this is where the second sense of “the church” comes in - the invisible church. Going back to the Westminster Confession of Faith, the invisible church “consists of the whole number of the elect that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under the headship of Christ”.  It may seem like splitting hairs here, but the distinction between the invisible church and the visible church can be summed up as this: not everyone who belongs to the visible church, or claims to be a Christian, is actually and truly a Christian. The invisible church is a subset of the visible church, just as Israelites who truly worshiped and feared the Lord was a subset of the visible nation of Israel. It is entirely possible for a visible church to have no relation to the invisible church, to claim to belong to Christ but to have nothing to do with him, to claim to love him but who will acknowledge on the last days that “I never knew you.” But, even when the visible church is at its lowest points, there will always be a remnant of the invisible church preserved. As the Westminster Confession of Faith puts so well, “the purest churches under heaven are subject both to a mixture of truth and error, and some have so degenerated as to become no churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan. Nevertheless, there shall be always a church on earth to worship God according to his will.”  When we talk about the church, we most hold both understandings of the church together in tension. It is messy, and uncomfortable, but we cannot jettison one for the other.
5.11: Now, you may be thinking “how can the church play an active role in de-polarizing individuals if you just admitted that it’s often no different than the rest of the polarized world?” This is a very fair question to ask. Hopefully by now, it’s clear that when I say the church can play an active role here, I am not meaning every single church in America, right at this moment, can make a difference here, but only those churches who are, right at this moment, truly and actually based around a shared identity in Christ and practically display that with their worship and their lives. It goes without saying that countless churches and pastors in America are caught up in the social media prism and are currently having their identities distorted and bent by the social media prism, and those churches and pastors are in no position right now to positively contribute to this situation; the first thing they ought to contribute would be their own repentance. Churches that gather around a political identity, or a shared way of life, or some other secondary identity cannot do what churches that gather together to worship Christ as being greater than all things can do. Churches that have substituted their shared identity in Christ for a shared identity around something else need to be reminded of the Gospel proclamation and respond with repentance and faith in Christ as it’s Savior and Lord, and subjugate every lesser status or identity as being secondary to Christ and his kingdom. For churches whose greatest identity is their identity in Christ, and who are marked by the kind of radical hospitality, generosity, forgiveness, and grace that can only come from the transformed lives of those who have responded to the Gospel, there are no limits to how they can contribute to de-polarizing their congregations and their communities. In fact, Bail’s strategies for breaking the social media prism are strategies that can make our churches more powerfully display the transforming power of the Gospel as well.
Seeing the Prism in our Churches
6.1: Let’s get started. For the remainder of this episode, we are going to look at Bail’s three strategies that we outlined earlier for reducing false polarization and closing the perception gap and how churches are uniquely positioned to apply these strategies to their churches and discipleship process and explore what kind of benefits these may have among our congregations and communities. To briefly recap: Bail contends that the social media prism has sent “false polarization”, or the belief that people are more extreme and divided than they truly are, into overdrive. In its wake, a chasm called “the perception gap” is created, which is the distance between how extreme people perceive others to be compared to where people actually are at in their beliefs. As I mentioned earlier, the average Republican believes the average Democrat is more extreme than there are actual liberal extremists, and vice-versa for Democrats. This chasm between perception - the sense that the average Democrat or Republican is extreme - and reality - that the number of both conservative and liberal extremists are a minority of the population - is the essence of the perception gap. Bail says the first step to hacking (or “Fixing”) the social media prism is to close this gap between perception and reality; I say that this first step has immense value even outside of social media, and churches who implement these strategies will not only help in terms of discipling their members on how to conduct themselves on social media, but how to conduct themselves among their family members, in their workplaces, and in other activities in the midst of their communities as well. The first strategy, “seeing the prism”, is the most straightforward of the three: we need to teach people to see how social media bends and distorts our identities. The church can tackle this strategy in a variety of ways. At the most foundational level, there will always be a need to call people back to their identities in Christ after a week of experiencing the distorting effects of not just the social media prism, but living in a sinful and broken world. While we may talk about other aspects of our faith and practice beside the Gospel, we never “graduate” from needing the Gospel or move on to more advance topics without going back to the Gospel. Building on top of that, churches must begin incorporating media literacy and media ecology education as a subject within its core discipleship programs. In fact, these topics need to be given the same level of attention and deliberate focus as marriage discipleship and financial discipleship, because when marriages fail or finances are not being stewarded correctly, everyone in the church feels that impact. Everyone in the church is also presently feeling the impact of having neglected media literacy education - it has been the biggest gaping hole in our discipleship for decades now. We are starting to see the needle move ever so slightly at the publishing level, as there has been a recent spike in books on these topics over the past several years, but the true root of this change cannot come from the top-down; it must come from the bottom up, with individuals doing this work in their individual contexts. Pastors and ministry leaders: you have every incentive you could possibly want right now to tackle this topic head on. You know it’s a problem. You know it’s interfering with your discipleship and ministry efforts. You know it is choking the effectiveness of your evangelism and outreach. You know you need to talk about this, and the good news is that you have every possible reason to pursue this topic head-on for a sustained period of time. You’re not being unfaithful to your calling. You’re not promoting a worldly solution to spiritual problems. You are dealing with perhaps the single biggest collective weed that is choking not only the seed of faith in your people, but corroding your people’s ability to be the salt and light in the world that Christ has called them to be. Recall from earlier: just making people aware of misconceptions can go a long way to depolarizing individuals and has the potential to snowball into other areas as well. If you’re dealing with spiritual or theological division in your church, you must teach your people to see the prism distorting their perceptions of each other. If you’re dealing with political or cultural tension, you must teach your people to see the prism distorting their perceptions of each other. It will not be easy, and you will almost certainly step on toes and speak to idols in your congregation, but you not only have secular support for this work through Chris Bail and several other researchers, but this is absolutely within your calling to shepherd the flocks assigned to you by the Lord. And, just to be clear - this isn’t something that lead pastors need to take on entirely by themselves at the congregational level. Youth minsters, family pastors, college pastors, and all sorts of other leaders and the church can and should play a part in this. Youth ministers, consider taking your students through Brett McCracken’s “The Wisdom Pyramid” - I did a short episode several months ago on what happened when we took some of our students through it - or consider taking mature high school students and parents through Jean Twenge’s “iGen”, one of the most important books anyone connected to youth ministry could read and know about right now. College pastors, consider a book like Alan Noble’s “Disruptive Witness”, a cutting-edge book on evangelism and apologetics and how social media and smartphones are posing brand-new obstacles to sharing and defending the faith. Family pastors, consider Cal Newport’s “Digital Minimalism” and how parents can model for their children a truly sustainable and life-long vision and framework for tech usage and media consumption. Lead pastors, or pastors in churches with older congregations, you cannot go wrong with Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death” - a book that is written about television but almost always applies to social media as well, or Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows”, written before the smartphone era but applying just as much to us today as it did when it first came out. It may feel as though that this topic has been neglected for so long that it’s too late to begin plugging this hole, but if this episode or this entire series is any indication, there has never been a better or more urgent time than now to begin this work, and to begin this work slowly and imperfectly is far better than doing nothing at all. Regardless of what your people may specifically need and how you might need to tackle it, you must get your people to see the prism, and if you can get them to meaningful see the prism and acknowledge its existence, your potential for true growth and change begins to grow immensely.
Teaching Others to See Themselves Through the Prism in our Churches
6.2: Bail’s second strategy, “learn to see yourself through the prism”, is only possible after the first strategy has been accomplished, and may not be something you can implement right away. I am going to recall a quote from Bail earlier that summarizes the key point of this strategy: understanding how people on social media see you—regardless of who you really are—is very important. Research indicates becoming more aware of how your political views relate to those of others can have a depolarizing effect no matter where you fall on the spectrum. Realizing that the identities we are trying to project are not consistent with the ones other people see may help us realize that other people are not always what they seem either. The key thing I urge you to consider is whether the version of you that is projected through the prism is what you want other people to see. If it isn’t, don’t despair. More than a century of social science suggests that we are very bad at seeing what we look like through the eyes of others. We believe we know what other people think of us, but we are often very wrong. I don’t think I need to make too much of a case for how this strategy especially relates to problems and challenges we face in the ordinary, everyday course of being the body of Christ. Conflict and tension between church members is a problem even outside of social media, and a common factor for many of these situations are misunderstandings based on misperceptions of the thoughts, words, and actions or others. Pastors, this is such an easy opportunity to bring up the difference between one’s intentions and one’s impact and how one can have the best intentions behind an action or statement but it has the total opposite impact. How many times have you had to deal with a situation with a member who intends nothing more than to magnify the beauty and riches of the depth of Scripture, but unintentionally hurt or grieved another member by the way they talked about it? How many times have you had to deal with a husband who only intends to comfort and support his wife with his advice or input, but makes her feel belittled in the process? How many times have you had to deal with a parent who intends nothing more than to protect her child from embarrassment or shame, but does so in a way that does the very thing she was trying to avoid? How many of our ordinary, everyday ministry situations arise from people not correctly perceiving how others perceive their speech and their conduct? We haven’t even said a word about social media yet! Have you ever had to deal with a situation where a potential member decides not to join your church because a key leader or member who is the kindest and sweetest person in real life is unintentionally portraying himself as a combative and cold partisan online? Have you ever had to deal with a member in your church avoiding another member because they’re afraid the other person is going to jump down their throat when they disagree about a topic based on what they’ve seen from social media? I could go on and on, but the point here should be clear: we not only need to teach our people to see the social media prism, but we need to teach our people how to see themselves though both the social media prism, and if we can teach our people to do that in our social media usage, it will absolutely carry over into our everyday interactions in the church as well.
Breaking the Prism in our Churches
6.3: This leads us to the third and final strategy: breaking the prism. This is the strategy where churches have a unique advantage and, if a congregation is working through these first two strategies, they’re likely making progress on this one as well. Within the context of social media, third strategy involves taking small, intentional, and wise baby steps to build bridges with people who are opposite of you politically, which include understanding (to the best of your ability) their latitude of acceptance, patiently learning how to speak their language, finding connection points outside of controversial political figures and pundits, and - most importantly - not immediately breaking your echo chamber on your own to “get the other side”. Within the context of social media, these steps are very incremental and, because of the limitations and barriers of social media, things could go wrong and break down at any given moment. Bail notes that it could take a lot of time and effort before a quality connection takes root and you have successfully “reached across the aisle” and the perception gap has been narrowed for both parties. But in an embodied context, many of these digital baby steps are steps that happen in the ordinary course of living and socializing well with other people. Listening to others, learning what is persuasive to them, understanding how to speak their language, finding other connection points beyond a contentious issue - these are all normal behaviors in healthy relationships and healthy communities. If a church is successfully working through the first two strategies outlined here, it will likely involve many of the steps that Bail outlines here for use in a limited online context. When combined with the fact that the shared identity for Christians is not (and should not) is first and foremost Christ, the church has a built-in starting point for navigating disagreements and misunderstandings around secondary issues and secondary identities. Christians should not be concerned with having to defend their identity as a conservative, or a liberal, or some other secondary identity as though it were the only thing that defines them and as if it were the only basis for unity and common ground; Christians have received a supernatural identity in Christ through the Gospel that is able to unite people together who would otherwise have nothing to do with each other. This is why I say that Christianity can strengthen many of Bail’s solutions - Christianity offers an identity that has the power to rise above the arena of competing identities, and Christianity offers a community that, when working as it should, has the potential to de-polarize and close the perception gap just by virtue of participating in that community with that shared identity. Churches that are marked by a commitment to Christ, abundant in bearing the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control of the Spirit, can not only take Bail’s work and apply it in their own contexts, but will see the fruit of that work spread not only to their own communities, but also to how their people conduct themselves online. A body that is building itself up on the truth of Scripture and love of Christ and the love of one another is a body that is closing the perception gap among its people, and as Bail has argued throughout the entire book, closing the perception gap must be a high priority for reducing polarization not just among Democrats and Republicans, but reducing polarization along all of the other areas of life where the social media prism, the all-encompassing sphere of influence regardless of your engagement or disengagement, has distorted and bent our behaviors in opposition and hostility towards one another.
6.4: Now, I want to stress: media literacy, closing the perception gap, breaking the social media prism - none of these things can do what the Gospel can do. None of these things are substitutes for doing difficult work of boldly proclaiming the biblical Gospel, through which the Lord works in the hearts of men and women not to make them simply nicer or better, but to make them a new creation. At the same time, media literacy education and closing the perception gap should not be seen as doing a rival work to the Gospel even if it cannot save souls. We ought to be removing obstacles for the Gospel even as we sow its seed. We must be confronting the idols of the people of God as we exhort them to be the people God has called them to be. We must see polarization not just as a problem that impacts people on social media, but as a problem that impacts people who watch cable news, who listen to the radio, or interact with modern mass media in any substantial way. And - most importantly - we must see polarization as something that is not going to go away with regulations on Big Tech or social media platforms, and that the terminal point for this perpetually increasing polarization is not harmless. I don’t want to end this episode and this series on a depressing note, but we need to reckon with the sober reality that American society cannot on this course for too much longer, and that the eventual outcome of this increasingly polarized state is violence and bloodshed. I opened this series back in October with a quote from a piece that disagreement among Republicans and Democrats is not actually based on disagreements on policy - of which there is often some surprising consensus and overlap - but purely on emotion, and both sides are now overwhelmingly convinced that it’s time to split the country because the other party is a clear and present threat to American Democracy. That was in October; on January 1st of this year, a new poll was published indicating that 1 in 3 Americans now believe that political violence can be justified under the right circumstances; ten years ago, it wasn’t even a full 1 in 5. What do you get when you have two political parties who are overwhelmingly convinced the other party is an immediate threat to the existence of America and 1 in 3 Americans believe political violence is justifiable if the situation is dire enough to call for it? Pastors and ministry leaders, you cannot singlehandedly fix this country, or change a political party at a national level. You can, however, work to make sure that should polarization continue to tear this country apart, that your people stand fast together united to Christ. You can help depolarize your own people so they can have the skills necessary to help depolarize others. You can equip your people to share the Gospel and offer an identity and future greater than an ever escalating power struggle, and offer those caught in extremism and potential violence a way out. I do not want to sound alarmist or conspiratorial, nor do I want to end with a guilt-trip that if we don’t tackle this in our churches now that we may face something worse later on. Instead, my whole aim here has been an attempt to help you see an opportunity that you may not know you have to advance the Gospel and the Kingdom of God among your people and your communities in a way you may not have thought possible. We have the advantage here; for the sake of our congregations, communities, families, and friends, let’s take the work that Bail and others have done for us, and let’s make the most of it.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 95). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 100-101). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 101-102). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 103-104). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 105). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 106-107). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 112). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 113-114). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 128). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter VI, 2–4
 Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XXV, 1
 Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XXV, 2
 Westminster Confession of Faith Chapter XXV, 5
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 105). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.“