Many people believed that at last the old adage ‘there is no such thing as a free lunch’ had been proven wrong. On the internet you could get lots of free things. Free emails with Google, free social media with Facebook, free online bookings and shopping. It was wonderful, it was all free.
How wrong we were! We have now learnt there was a hidden cost all along. The Cambridge Analytica scandal made widely known the truth which insiders had long understood. You were paying for such ‘free’ services with your personal data.
Without you being aware your likes and choices, your views and contacts, everything you did on the internet was being sold on. You may have wondered why you received such accurate adverts on Facebook? Now you know.
But there is a related and more important problem; more important especially for Christians who believe in the importance of facts and truth.
Worse than fake news
Along with the revelations about how the internet giants have been pedalling your personal data for their own profit have come the stories about fake news. Politicians, celebrities, the rich and famous and increasingly ordinary people have realised you can write your own news on the internet.
Regardless of its accuracy or even any attempt to adhere to facts your posts can be widely read and highly influential. Such fake news has, we are told, influenced the US elections and the Brexit vote. But there are more subtle manipulations of the truth which are having large and destructive influences.
Roger McNamee, a tech expert, early Facebook investor and friend of Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder) recently wrote in Time (January 28 edition, 2019): ‘The [Facebook] business model depends on advertising, which in turn depends on manipulating the attention of users so they can see more ads. One of the best ways to manipulate attention is to appeal to outrage and fear, emotions that increase engagement.
‘Facebook’s algorithms give users what they want, so each person’s News Feed becomes a unique reality, a filter bubble that creates the illusion that most people the user knows believe the same things. Showing users only posts they agree with was good for Facebook’s bottom line but some research showed it also increased polarization and, as we learned, harmed democracy’.
A young woman reading her Facebook page thinks the news she receives is objective. She thinks she is receiving the full range of relevant information. But she is in fact receiving such highly targeted information designed to confirm her prejudices. She wants to feel good about her views and so Facebook keenly endorses them, patting her on the back and telling her what a knowledgeable and insightful person she is. Her Facebook News feed is carefully titrated to re-enforce her prejudices.
So she goes to a meeting at University and hears a Christian proclaiming that marriage should only be between a man and a woman. She is outraged. She has never heard such a scandalous view. Facebook has taught her for years that any kind of relationship is as good as marriage and only loonies and dangerous zealots might think otherwise. She and her fellow ‘snowflakes’ proclaim they are ‘deeply offended’ and petition the University to ‘deplatform’ this ‘bigot’ so their sensitive ears won’t be distressed by such deplorable views.
The Source of lies and deceit
Every day users of Facebook and other social media are being manipulated by the sophisticated algorithms of deceit, which carefully avoid facts and arguments which might challenge their views and make them think. They are shielded from alternative positions and worldviews and thus are utterly unprepared to meet Christians who articulate such arguments. Norms which had long been taken for granted, such as that a man is a man and a woman is a woman, have been pushed aside and put out of the sight of most younger people today.
Truth is being undermined for a whole generation who are exposed to this highly sophisticated manipulation of their thinking. And we know who lies behind this don’t we? Not Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg (Facebook Chief Executive) but the father of lies himself.
From the garden of Eden to this day, Satan’s major strategy in his campaign against God has been to twist and misuse the truth. Facebook and other social media provide powerful and highly effective tools which he is using to deceive multitudes of people, blurring right and wrong and undermining the Scriptures.
For Satan such internet technology has provided novel outlets for his ages-long strategy of deceit and distortion of the truth. But he has long been able to use other outlets to achieve the same ends hasn’t he? Including pulpits.
In his second letter to Timothy (4:3) Paul warns him to be faithful in his preaching and teaching because ‘a time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions and will turn away from listening to the truth’.
How many ‘big-name’ preachers has this been true of? Preaching to masses at conferences with honeyed words, with Facebook-like targeting of their message to the existing views and prejudices of their audience? Their talks may be highly popular and receive rave-reviews, but is this simply because they have carefully avoided saying anything which might upset?
How often do local church preachers pander to the prejudices of the congregation? They can gain cheap plaudits by lambasting Roman Catholicism or condemning homosexuality to a staunchly evangelical congregation. Preachers need to follow Paul’s exhortation to be faithful and proclaim the whole counsel of God, to be zealously faithful in promoting all of God’s truths.
It is easy to quietly pass over statements in the Scripture which might upset your hearers. It is hard to knowingly proclaim truths which will anger some of your congregation. It is much easier to be a ‘Facebook preacher’.
Alan Thomas is a professor and consultant in psychiatry and elder at Newcastle Reformed Evangelical Church.