Facebook has been in the news a lot recently for all the wrong reasons. Even before a whistleblower shared documents with the public that Facebook knew that its apps (including Instagram and WhatsApp?) were causing eating disorders and mental illness, it was general knowledge that Facebook has become a place for practicing conspiracy theories, anger, and name-calling. At its worst, social media can function like a self-feeding outrage machine that leads to arguments between loved ones and "unfriending" family members.
The nastiness has led many people to quit Facebook (or Twitter, etc.), while lawmakers and other leaders debate creating laws to manage algorithms, control online speech, or otherwise "fix" social media so they "do no evil" (as Google's slogan once said). If these apps are evil, people are asking, how do we get rid of them or control them better?
At the same time, Facebook has been an amazing gift for my church. When Covid hit, I jumped on our church's Facebook group and started asking a question of the day on weekdays. I thought it would give us something to reflect on for the 2-3 weeks (insert laugh track here) that we were isolating from each other. After a few weeks, we started posting a weekly "Mental Health Check" image we borrowed from another church that encouraged people to share a colored heart or emoticon to express how they are doing. These prompts started long conversation threads, personal sharing, a lot of "I never knew that about you," and digital prayers and signs of support. I have heard from multiple people that they have learned more about other church members in a few months on Facebook than they did in a decade of talking in person at church.
Twenty months later, we are still doing daily questions and weekly check-ins, not just because Covid continues to impact our lives, but because they have become a vital part of our community building and loving one another. If Facebook is evil, how can it do such good? I'm disgusted by the news of how social media companies have manipulated their systems to generate clicks and eyeballs while knowing it was actually hurting people, but simply deleting it would also remove me from my church's online group that has been a real source of hope and healing for me. How do we make sense of this?
In the book of James in the Bible, the author takes a large section of the letter to address a related issue -- the tongue -- and their reflection is helpful for us, I think. By "tongue," they are referring to speech and warn that our words can do great good or great harm. They write: "With it [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so" (James 3:9-10).
Though the author specifically calls the tongue "a restless evil"immediately before this, I think these two verses instead argue that it is a neutral object or a tool and how it is used can be evil or good. God's intent, the author is saying, is for our words to proclaim truth and praise and help for other people. When we use them to tear people down or hurt them, that is an abuse of the tool God has given us. The evil doesn't come from the tongue or words, but in how we use them. In other words, evil comes from within us, not the tongue.
Sound like anything else in the news? Facebook, Twitter, and "the socials" are not evil or good in and of themselves. The evil or good comes in how we use them (and how their programmers craft them to trigger us). Like many things, they can bring out the best or worst in us, but we have to be aware of what we are doing with them. Do my comments and posts "bless the Lord and Father" or do they "curse those who are made in the likeness of God"?
We can get too caught up in wondering whether an app -- or book, or show, or whatever -- is good or evil. Instead, James invites us to ask, "How can I use this to praise God and serve others instead of cursing and hurting?" Perhaps we can't use something for good, and then we should get rid of it.
Until I can't use it for good, I'll be posting grace, hope, and love on Facebook.com/pastor.ari. Hope to see you there.
From the Gray,
“So casually cruel in the name of being honest.” -Taylor Swift, “All Too Well”