Facebook, Evangelism, and the Control of Information
Written by Rhett Burns on June 6, 2018
Adam Ford has sold the Christian satire news site, The Babylon Bee. Launched in 2016, the Bee employs The Onion-style satire to spoof American evangelicalism—its popular pastors, authors, and fads—while taking occasional jabs at our larger secular culture. It has been mostly funny and wildly successful. So why did Ford sell? He gave several reasons in a post at his personal website, the most interesting of which is his concerns regarding the centralization of the internet in the hands of Facebook and Google. Ford writes:
“As a follower of Christ, I am primarily concerned with glorifying God, loving my neighbor, and spreading the gospel. I’ve thought about this deeply and carefully, and I think the centralization of the internet is one of the greatest threats to the spread of the gospel, and the well-being of mankind, that we face today. Maybe the single biggest threat. It is tyranny over information. It’s a handful of people who are hostile to the Christian message and the plight of the individual deciding what’s good and bad, true and false. It’s never been seen before on this scale. I am no conspiracy theorist; never have been. From where I sit, this danger is as clear as day” (emphasis mine).
Those who care about the spread of the Gospel have touted Facebook as the new Romans roads, an unprecedented opportunity for world evangelization. This assertion is not without some merit. Like the Roman road system of the first century, the Facebook platform is built and available. It is inexpensive and widely used. For example, for a fraction of the cost of a television network, content creators can harness some of its broadcast power by using Facebook Live to broadcast to the social media platform’s 2.2 billion active monthly users. In Turkey, where I used to live, cellphone users interact with their phones over seventy times per day, or once every fifteen minutes, and everyone from elementary school aged children to elderly farmers has a Facebook account. This presents an incredible opportunity. So why is Ford so concerned?
We are accustomed to thinking about the blessings and dangers of various uses of technology. This is as old as technology itself. Plowshares can cut the ground to feed a man or to cut the man to murder him. The internet can be a place for rigorous academic research or a lustful den of pornography. You can share the Gospel via Facebook Live or waste an hour of your employer’s time just scrolling through your friends’ food photos. These are issues of use versus misuse or abuse. Important as right use is, that is not Ford’s point. It is not how we use Facebook, but how Facebook uses us.
Ford’s contention is Facebook and Google represent a centralization of the internet. They control information, which is a subtle, yet brutal, tyranny. Based upon their own whims, worldviews, and values, in accordance with their algorithms, Facebook and Google can suppress or highlight certain viewpoints. For example, what shows up on your news feed is the result of a carefully constructed, ever-changing, mysterious algorithm that “shapes the social lives and reading habits of over 1 billion daily active users.” Because these companies are hostile to Christianity, their information duopoly represents a legitimate threat to online evangelism and journalism. Publishers who rely on Facebook’s unique ability to promote their content to vast audiences become dependent on Facebook’s good graces to stay afloat. Likewise, users are subject to news feeds that are carefully curated by a mysterious, always-changing algorithm. Both publishers and users need to be aware of the subtle dangers of ceding too much power over information to Facebook in order to wisely use the platform.
To return to the above analogy, Facebook is not the Roman roads system. The internet is the roads system, and Facebook is one strategic road. But it is a toll road, and the price is high and incalculable. It is incalculable because we do not yet know the long-term effects social media is unleashing upon us: What is it doing to our interpersonal relationships? How is it feeding tribalism? What new political realities are being fostered? What is it doing to our attention spans and ability to make and follow cogent arguments? How is it contributing to the rise of the Victim Class and what will the ramifications be? It is high because we are handing over bookoos of personal data in exchange for some semblance of friendship and community. Ostensibly a social network, recent revelations of its practices show it to be a data-mining corporation, engaging in mass surveillance for profit.
Does this mean Christians and Christian media organizations should get off Facebook and Google? Ford says Yes, even going so far as to say he has moral objections to being on their platforms:
“I have come to a place where I no longer feel morally OK being a part of the Facebook and Google machine, and because of their surveillance-capitalism business models, just existing on their platforms makes me a paying customer.”
I’m not yet convinced of the immorality of existing on these platforms, though I have strong objections to their mass surveillance and data collection enterprises. I could see myself cutting ties with Facebook soon, concluding it’s wiser to just be done with it. But doing so would not make me morally superior to someone who stays. The key is to exercise wisdom, and part of exercising wisdom is to know the dangers. At the very least, Christians on Facebook should be aware they are walking an expensive toll road, one where the toll price is not given up front, not currently known, and subject to change. Oh, and there are bandits lurking in the shadows.
Used with wisdom, however, Facebook remains a powerful tool for getting a message out, including the Gospel message. Christians should not discount that fact. Used as a tool, Facebook can be utilized for the spread of the Gospel. But once an entity becomes dependent on Facebook for its success, Facebook has leverage to manipulate and shape content to its worldview. By dependent, I mean relying on the high-volume of web traffic Facebook provides to the degree that a publisher begins to tailor its message to suit Facebook’s algorithm (and the worldview of its programmers). A measure of indifference to Facebook’s benefits is required to maintain independence and integrity.
Ford’s exit from Facebook and Google’s platforms represent his complete indifference to their rewards. He has started The Christian Daily Reporter, a Drudge Report-style news aggregator independent of any gatekeepers and void of any social media presence. In a recent essay at The Hedgehog Review, Alan Jacobs advocated for owning and maintaining one’s own digital space apart from platforms like Facebook. Christians should be thankful for these efforts at building independent spaces on the web. If (when?) the toll price for using Facebook becomes too high for our consciences, we will need alternative roads to travel with the Gospel.