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Stepping on the Glass of Broken Echo Chambers
Part One of a Christian commentary of Chris Bail's "Breaking the Social Media Prism"
(The following is the unedited manuscript for Part 1 of my commentary on Chris Bail’s “Breaking the Social Media Prism”, which released on November 1st, 2021. Breaking the Digital Spell is available wherever you get your podcasts, on YouTube, or you can listen online here.)
1.1: On October 3rd, writer and author David French published “A Whiff of Civil War in the Air” on his weekly column, The Dispatch. French is an outstanding writer and, as usual, this piece was no different; in my opinion, he is perhaps the single best conservative thinker out there right now. What made this piece different from his usual pieces is that this piece was much darker than normal; as the title suggests, French expresses genuine concern about the possibility of increasing political violence in America, potentially even civil war. What caught my attention was the reason why French is so concerned: as the subtitle of his piece makes clear, misinformation and malice are driving the nation apart. Listen to the first few paragraphs of his piece: On Thursday the University of Virginia released polling results that should shock exactly no one who closely follows American politics and culture. A majority of Trump voters (52 percent) and a strong minority of Biden voters (41 percent) strongly or somewhat agree that it’s “time to split the country.” Why would they even contemplate taking such a drastic step? Well, the poll provides the answers, and they’re not surprising. Competing partisans loathe each other and view the opposition as an existential threat. This also isn’t new. It’s been tracked in poll after poll for year after year. This one found that a “strong majority” of Trump supporters falsely believe there is no real difference between Democrats and socialists. A majority of Biden voters falsely see no real difference between Republicans and fascists. What this poll tracked better than many others is that the mutual loathing is based more on emotion than policy. In fact, the poll found that majorities of Trump voters expressed support for most elements of the Biden infrastructure and reconciliation plan. Even the least popular plank (supporting unions by banning state “right to work” laws) garnered 42 percent support from those who voted for Trump. Yet broad consensus on the most important legislation now pending in Washington didn’t stop 80 percent of Biden voters and 84 percent of Trump voters from viewing the opposing party as a “clear and present threat to American democracy.”
1.2: Although he never mentions the name of the book in his piece, French’s comment (and the polling results) perfectly reinforces the premise of Chris Bail’s “Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing”. Bail published this book in April of this year and having read it upon it’s release and studied it for these past several months, I am convinced that this book represents a paradigm shift in the way we understand social media and respond to social media’s polarizing effects on society, and for the next several episodes of this podcast I am going to be working through this book and interacting with Bail’s claims, ideas, and research. I am convinced that not only is this book a paradigm shift in how we view social media in general, I also believe the paradigm shift articulated here is one that the church is uniquely positioned to respond to in productive and beneficial ways. In this episode we are going to cover chapters 1-3 of the book. As we go through these three episodes, if any of this interests you, my hope is that you’ll go out and buy this book and read it yourself. I do not want my commentary here to be a replacement for you supporting Bail through purchasing his book and through comprehending his arguments and research for yourself.
1.3: Now, I need to get one thing out of the way up front: Bail, to my knowledge, is not a Christian, nor is this book a “Christian” book. In these next three episodes I am going to try to delineate, to the best of my ability, where Bail’s thoughts end and my translation of them to Christian contexts begins, but I want to acknowledge up front that he may not agree or endorse my conclusions or commentary here in these three episodes. That being said, despite the fact that this isn’t a “Christian” book, I am convinced that this is one of the most important books Christians could read right now, not just this year but over the next several years. The reason I esteem this book so highly is because, bluntly put, I think what Bail writes about in this book is true. I think his research has yielded insight into the nature of social media and social media’s impact on society that Christians should take seriously because, if it is true, it ultimately has it’s origin in God, the author of truth. I find John Calvin’s position on Christians benefitting from non-Christian ideas and thinkers quite liberating: Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. For by holding the gifts of the Spirit in slight esteem, we contemn and reproach the Spirit himself. What then? Shall we deny that the truth shone upon the ancient jurists who established civic order and discipline with such great equity? Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? Shall we say that those men were devoid of understanding who conceived the art of disputation and taught us to speak reasonably? Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration. We marvel at them because we are compelled to recognize how pre-eminent they are. But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God? Let us be ashamed of such ingratitude, into which not even the pagan poets fell, for they confessed that the gods had invented philosophy, laws, and all useful arts. Those men whom Scripture calls “natural men” were, indeed, sharp and penetrating in their investigation of inferior things. Let us, accordingly, learn by their example how many gifts the Lord left to human nature even after it was despoiled of its true good. While I am glad to see that Christians are writing more on this topic and the general awareness of this topic has gone up, I have started to get a little concerned that Christian publishing on this topic has started to run stale and begun repeating itself. Most of the breakthroughs in thinking and writing have come from secular sources, often who have the skillsets and expertise necessary to make those breakthroughs possible. Even if we can’t contribute substantially to this topic, Christians ought to gladly welcome, adopt, and promote new research and new insight into this question and translate it into our own contexts; which is exactly what I hope to do here.
2.1: Which, at this point, let’s dive in to the book itself. Bail opens up his book with the story of a man named Dave, one of the many individuals he interviewed for his work and one of the many stories Bail will tell in the book. Dave’s political beliefs are all over the political spectrum, but being generally conservative and living in a liberal part of the country, Dave dislikes talking about politics offline because he knows it likely won’t persuade his liberal friends and family members. On social media, however, Dave looks entirely different - instead of being reluctant to talk to people opposite of him politically, getting into arguments with liberals and Democrats is all he does, sometimes spending entire evenings doing so. Dave regularly calls out liberals for only having “one side of the story”, but Dave’s information intake consists almost exclusively of conservative sources, and more right-leaning conservative sources as that. Based on this, cultural sense would suggest that Dave is stuck in an “echo chamber” At this point I think the vast majority of people are aware of this idea: essentially, an echo chamber is a closed circle where the only opinions and perspectives you hear are ones that confirm, reinforce, or validate your existing beliefs. A person who is stuck in an echo chamber is not interested in other viewpoints, and the only time they’ll tolerate them is if they’re straw men you can knock down. Because everything you hear already validates or reinforces what you already believe, there is little incentive to think critically about what you believe because from your point of view, everyone whose opinion truly matters already agrees with you. As Bail writes, “the problem, the story goes, is that our ability to choose what we want to see traps us inside echo chambers that create a kind of myopia. The more we are exposed to information from our side, the more we think our system of beliefs is just, rational, and truthful. As we get pulled deeper into networks that include only like-minded people, we begin to lose perspective. We fail to recognize that there are two sides to every story, or we begin listening to different stories altogether. Echo chambers have their most pernicious effect, common wisdom suggests, when people like Dave are unaware of them: when people think that they are doing research about an issue, but they are actually just listening to what they want to hear. When we encounter people from the other side, their views can therefore seem irrational, self-serving, or—perhaps most troubling—untrue. If we could only step outside our echo chambers, many people argue, political polarization would plummet.”
2.2: It’s hard to overstate how much sway the “echo chamber” idea has in our culture. As Bail details, this idea existed long before social media came into existence, but rapidly gained acceptance and urgency in the late 00s-early 10s with the ascendancy of the social media and the Internet’s advancement through developments in smartphones. We all have likely heard at some point that if we don’t do something about the “echo chamber” problem that it will lead to the fragmentation of our society into clustered information silos, and that it’s up to social media companies to change their platforms and their algorithms to mitigate this threat. But Bail contends that, while the echo chamber story seems to make a lot of sense, that there’s actually something else going on here, and that while focusing on “breaking our echo chambers” seems like the right thing to do, it may actually come back to bite us.
2.3: This is the point where Breaking the Social Media Prism begins to diverge from the vast majority of books about technology and social media. Bail, who is a professor of sociology and public policy at Duke University, is concerned with the kind of increasing political polarization in our country and how social media is related to this polarization, but from a sociological angle, not a tech angle. Bail, together with colleagues from Duke University from a wide range of disciplines, founded The Polarization Lab, which is doing some exciting experimental work on social media and with social media companies to better understand how people are influenced by misinformation on social media. In fact, on the Polarization Lab website, you can actually use some of these tools yourself, at least if you have a Twitter account - there is a link to the website in the show notes and I really encourage you to check it out and play around with it when you can. Bail writes that “This work has led me to question the conventional wisdom about social media echo chambers, but it has also inspired me to ask much deeper questions. Why does everyone seem so extreme on social media? Why do people like Dave Kelly spend hours arguing with strangers, even when they don’t think it will change anyone’s mind? Is using social media a temporary addiction that we can shake—like smoking—or is it fundamentally reshaping who we are and what we think of each other? No amount of data science wizardry can answer these questions. Instead, I wanted to see social media through the eyes of the people who use it each day. This is why our lab spent hundreds of hours interviewing people like Dave Kelly and carefully reconstructing their daily lives on- and off-line. And it’s why I’m going to tell you the story of a recently bereaved extremist who lives in a motel where he wakes up and falls asleep watching Fox News—and a moderate Democrat who is terrified about school shootings but worries that posting his views on social media might cost him his job.” I hope you can begin to get a glimpse of why I speak so highly of this book - this is a perspective on social media that has not been substantially studied up until this point. This is also a book that is driven by stories of everyday people, stories that may resonate with you because you may know and relate to the people Bail interviews in your own life. In my review of the book for the FaithTech Institute, I wrote that “for a book with a significant amount of research and work behind it, Breaking the Social Media Prism is far more down to earth than one would expect it to be”, and that’s because a lot of the heavy lifting here comes through the stories of ordinary people. This is a book that anyone can pick up and very quickly relate to, which is usually not the case for books like this.
2.4: With this perspective in mind, what happens when people are encouraged to break their echo chambers and to consider “the other side”? If the echo chamber idea is correct, what you would expect to happen is that someone who is caught in an echo chamber will move away from being entrenched in their views and become perhaps more introspective, think more critically, and become more moderate both in belief and attitude. To test this theory, Bail and his team set up a pretty neat experiment involving an unlikely tool: Twitter bots. I am not going to get into the nitty gritty details of the experiment or how exactly it worked (though it’s definitely fascinating), but the short version is that each member of the study was asked to follow a set of Twitter bots that retweeted political content opposite their political leaning; If they were conservative or Republican, they saw content from liberals and Democrats, and vice versa. The content these bots retweeted were from a wide spectrum of political thought, including moderate/left-or-right-of-center voices, extremist voices, and voices in between. After a month, Bail and his team re-assessed the political leanings of those in the study using the same questionnaire they gave out at the beginning of the study. Now, if the echo-chamber framework is correct, what you would expect to happen (and what Bail and his team expected to happen) is that after stepping outside of their political echo chamber for a month to get “the other side”, people would become more moderate or thoughtful about their beliefs and become less solidified in their political views than before the study began. But that’s not what happened: in fact, the exact opposite happened. As Bail and his team concludes, “Exposing people to views of the other side did not make participants more moderate. If anything, it reinforced their preexisting views.”
2.5: There is a chart in the book that summarizes and displays the impact of the study on the political view of it’s participants, and obviously this being an audio podcast I can’t show visibly display that chart here, but I can at least try to describe what it shows. Essentially, for both Republican and Democrats, there is a correlation between the amount of time they saw/interacted with the bots of Bail’s experiments and the impact it had on their political beliefs. While Bail notes that the overall effects were more pronounced on conservatives than on liberals, he says that this could’ve been an issue with the study itself and the number of people involved. However, for both conservatives and liberals, there is a very clear effect that showed that the more they paid attention to the bots retweeting content opposite their political views, the more they became entrenched in their existing political views. For those that were simply asked to follow the bots, or followed the bots but didn’t pay too close attention to them, this effect was still present, but to a significantly smaller degree. The deeper they were involved in the study, the more their views changed. And this held across different subgroups of the study as well, and soon other institutions replicated the results as well. As Bail says: “Our findings were also very consistent across different subgroups in the study. It did not seem to matter whether people were very devoted members of their political party or moderates who were mostly indifferent to politics. People reacted similarly to following our bots regardless of whether they were in strong or weak echo chambers before joining the experiment. The results were the same for people from different racial groups too. It did not matter if people were male or female, were old or young, lived in a city or a rural area—or any of the more than one hundred other variables we analyzed. We also carefully scrutinized the bots to determine if they had retweeted too many extreme messages. They hadn’t. We also weren’t the only ones to discover that exposing people to opposing views on social media could make them double down in their preexisting views. Two years after our study, an independent group of researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Yale replicated our study on a different population and found the same puzzling effect.”
2.6 Bail and his team eventually decide to run the experiment again, but with some critical changes. Instead of increasing the number of participants in the study, they decreased it, and instead of a questionnaire, they conducted in-depth interviews with the individuals before, during, and after the study was complete. The timing of this new study couldn’t have been better either - the study ran during the several major news events of 2018, including the nomination of Brett Kavenaugh to the Supreme Court, Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump, the California Camp Fire, and more. As this study continued, some of these interviews went on for two and a half hours long - Bail and his team got to really know the people they worked with, and they were able to eventually able to learn not just about their political beliefs, but about how they came to those beliefs, and the correlation between their off-line lives and their on-live lives. Eventually, what Bail concluded is that focusing on information in trying to understand political polarization is the wrong thing to focus on. We need to focus on something else - but before I get to that what thing is, I need to take a brief digression and address an invisible elephant in the room that has quietly shaped this entire conversation so far.
3.1: Early on in the book, Bail sets himself and his work apart from some of the more prevailing narratives about social media and political polarization in our day. If you’ve seen documentaries like “The Great Hack” or “The Social Dilemma”, you may be familiar with it: essentially, these massive tech and media companies have figured out how to hack into human psychology to make ourselves addicted to their platforms or services, and because we are addicted to them, we are susceptible to influence from them by bad or foreign actors. While I personally think rather highly of Tristan Harris and Aza Reskin and the work of the Center for Humane Technology (their podcast, “Your Undivided Attention”, is really good), there is no denying that a lot of the discourse surrounding social media’s impact on society right now is coming from people, like Tristan Harris or former Facebook employee Sean Parker, who helped design the very technology that now addicts us and are now warning us about the Frankenstein’s monster they and other released on the world. And here’s the thing - there is plenty of truth in this. This framework of social media, known as the “addictive design” framework, does have a lot of merit and truth to it - the reality that Facebook and Google and Apple have employed design choices intentionally designed to tap into our biological responses to pleasure are very well documented. The problem, as Bail rightly contends, is that even though there is merit to this view, it ends up explaining too much. As Bail says, “Studying social media from the perspective of the people who use it is also important because they are conspicuously absent from public debates debates about social media and political tribalism. Instead, our current conversation is dominated by a handful of tech entrepreneurs and software engineers who helped build our platforms. These Silicon Valley apostates now claim the technology they created wields unprecedented influence over human psychology—technology that not only traps us within echo chambers, but also influences what we buy, think, or even feel. . . This narrative is very seductive for anyone searching for a scapegoat for our current situation, but is it really true? Though social media companies are by no means blameless for our current situation, the evidence that people are simple dupes of political microtargeting, foreign influence campaigns, or content recommendation algorithms is surprisingly thin.”
3.2: Bail and I both agree that the addictive design framework cannot explain everything that is going on here, despite the fact the addictive design framework has a reached a rare pop-culture status akin to “smoking is bad for you and those around you”. But where I think he and I may part ways is on what this framework gets wrong. Bail contends that this view of social media is deficient from a sociological perspective (and I don’t think he’s wrong on that); I contend that this view is deficient on a theological perspective. All of this talk about information and content reinforces a view of humanity that reduces us to being what Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith calls “a brain on a stick.” Essentially, the center of our being is our mind and our thoughts, which govern the choices we make and is the most important center for understanding ourselves and each other. Whenever we talk about content consumption or information being the driving force behind social media, we are saying that what drives us to use social media at all is because we are primarily driven by what we think. But is this actually true? Is this actually how God created us? What if we aren’t driven by information, or content, or about what we think - but about what we love?
3.3: In his outstanding book “You Are What You Love”, James K.A. Smith proposes the idea that we are not creatures driven primarily by our thoughts. Instead, as God has created us as embodied beings with a body, mind, and heart that are complexly intertwined together, we are driven by what we were created to do with this body, mind, and heart: we were created to love, and we are driven by the things that we love. And the shocking twist here is that sometimes we don’t truly and actually love the things that we think we love - if we want to look at what we truly love, we look at our habits and our disciplines, and the direction these habits and disciplines take us. As he says early on in the book, “While paging through an issue of a noted Christian magazine, I was struck by a full color advertisement for a Bible verse memory program. At the center of the ad was a man’s face, and emblazoned across his forehead was a startling claim: ‘YOU ARE WHAT YOU THINK.’ That’s a very explicit way to state what many of us implicitly assume. In ways that are more ‘modern’ than biblical, we have been taught to assume that human beings are fundamentally thinking things… we view our bodies as (at best!) extraneous, temporary vehicles for trucking around our souls or “minds”, which is where all the real action takes place. In other words, we imagine human beings as giant bobblehead dolls: with humungous heads and itty-bitty, unimportant bodies. It’s the mind that we picture as “mission control” of the human person; it’s thinking that defines who we are.
3.4: The vast majority of the discourse surrounding political misinformation, polarization, and extremism fundamentally operates with this view of the human person. Because the “mission control” of the mind has received the wrong information, people are sucked into conspiracy theories or become radicalized into holding extreme or unreasonable political positions, which translates both into choices in the polling booth and also in everyday life and interaction with one another. Our media ecology further reinforces the view that our minds are the most important things - from our phones and the Internet as a whole to the design of apps, services, and platforms, we have been empowered to believe and act as though our minds are of outsized importance in relevance to our bodies. With the amount of information, data, and content that is thrown to us in our ordinary use of our phones alone, is it no wonder that we would focus so much on information given how much information our minds are now able to process with the tools in our hands?
3.5: But, the view that our minds are what drives our decision making is wrong. It is not how God created us. God has created us with the ability to think, but we are not primarily things that think. Instead, our thoughts, our bodies, and our emotions are intimately interconnected to each other in ways that we cannot untangle, and the combined output of what we think, how we move, and what we feel translates into what we love - and what we love, we want, and we will do anything it takes to get it. That’s not just James K.A. Smith’s opinion - that seems to be Christ’s opinion as well: “Jesus doesn’t encounter Matthew and John - or you and me - and ask, “What do you know?” He doesn’t even ask, “What do you believe?” He asks, “What do you want? This is the most incisive, piercing question Jesus can ask of us precisely because we are what we want. Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow. Our wants reverberate from our heart, the epicenter of the human person. Thus Scripture counsels, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it” (Proverbs 4:32).
3.6: When it comes to dealing with tribalism, polarization, or extremism - of not just politics, but even of theology as well - asking “what do you know?” or “what do you believe?” is the wrong question to start on. Something much deeper is driving us, and often times what drives our behavior is not what we think it is. But if the driving force of tribalism, polarization, or extremism isn’t information, or theory, or content, or arguments, or statistics, or data, or research, then what drives these things? Bail answers this question in the thesis of his 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. We think of platforms like Facebook and Twitter as places where we can seek information or entertain ourselves for a few minutes. But in an era of growing social isolation, social media platforms have become one of the most important tools we use to understand ourselves—and each other. We are addicted to social media not because it provides us with flashy eye candy or endless distractions, but because it helps us do something we humans are hardwired to do: present different versions of ourselves, observe what other people think of them, and revise our identities accordingly. But instead of a giant mirror that we can use to see our entire society, social media is more like a prism that refracts our identities—leaving us with a distorted understanding of each other, and ourselves. Focusing on information is the wrong place to start. We need to focus on identity - the sum total of what we think, feel, do, and most importantly, what we love.
3.7: I hope you can connect some dots on why I speak so highly of this book and why I have spent so much time with the book this year, not only in writing a full length review of the book for a Christian organization but also why I am doing a run of episodes on this book. If Bail’s research is correct, and his conclusions about his research are correct, then not only is Breaking the Social Media Prism a paradigm shift in the way we understand social media, it’s a paradigm shift for the church in how it responds to social media. In other frameworks for understanding social media - whether it be the addictive design framework of the “echo chamber” framework that Bail compellingly argues against - the church has little in the way of pushing against those tides. For every theologically and biblically faithful blog post, podcast, or YouTube video published in a week, there are thousands published every day full of lies and distortions about Scripture, our history, and our faith. The scale of the Internet simple does not allow for pastors, church leaders, or writers to possibly respond to every piece of media or individual that contests against the Christian faith. For every addictive app or device that is deleted or curtailed, three more are waiting to take it’s place, and the ease in which it takes to set up boundaries or limitations (either through a device or outside of device) makes it just as easy to break those boundaries and limitations and be thrown back into the throes of addiction. Self discipline and sound teaching are important, but at best these aspects of the church can only construct a wall to avoid drowning amid a culture that is downing in addiction and misinformation. But if the driving force behind social media is identity and our desire to understand our identity against the identity of others, then suddenly the church goes from being able to be defensive at best to having the best reason to be as proactive as possible, because the remedy to this situation is found in the thing only the church can uniquely provide to the world - a new identity, a supernatural identity, the identity of being made into a new creation in Jesus Christ through the Gospel.
 French, David. “A Whiff of Civil War in the Air”. https://frenchpress.thedispatch.com/p/a-whiff-of-civil-war-in-the-air
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 273–275.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (pp. 3-4). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 9). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 20). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 21). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 10). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
 Smith, James K.A. You Are What You Love (p. 3). Brazos Press.
 Smith, James K.A. You Are What You Love (p. 1-2). Brazos Press.
 Bail, Christopher. Breaking the Social Media Prism (p. 10-11). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.