Tribes, Trolls, and the Power of TechnologyJason Thacker November/December 2023
How the digital world is remaking our political order.
Illustration by Mary Haasdyk Vooys
For more than a decade I have worked at the intersection of the two things we are told not to bring up at holiday gatherings: religion and politics. These topics often elicit visceral reactions—especially conversations about politics, which at times take on a religion-like fervor. But while these topics may sometimes be uncomfortable, both are vital to a functioning and flourishing society. And for the Christian they speak to fundamental ways we can understand society in light of God’s design, and ways we can navigate competing visions of “the good life.”
Over the course of the past several decades, however, with the rise of cable news and social media feeds, we have seen radical shifts in how people think, interact with one another, and discuss important topics within the public square. As technology has ushered in monumental social change, the rush toward digitization has produced unintended consequences. These new tools have altered our view of reality, distorted how we see our neighbors, and shaped how we discuss such ideas as social order, free speech, and religious freedom. Despite the countless ways these tools have aided access to information and knowledge, they have also damaged the fabric of our political order through information overload, increased tribalism, and a reordering of our priorities. Christians must take these technological shifts seriously and seek to cultivate biblical wisdom for navigating these challenges as we seek to harness the power of these tools, instead, for the love of God and love of neighbor (Matthew 22:37–39).
For much of the late twentieth century, many assumed that new digital tools would democratize information, leading to greater personal autonomy. They believed that access to more information, without the traditional gatekeepers of government, press, and ecclesial institutions, would bring about a radically different, but ultimately better, life for all. Ideas would be freely exchanged. Everyone would have their own voice, empowered by access to information, which would lead to a more equitable society defined by vibrant dialogue and debate. While some of these ideals may have been partially achieved—and technology cannot be blamed for everything wrong with today’s political discourse—these visions now seem shortsighted given the gluttony of often-polarizing information we can all experience today with just a few taps of our thumb on our mobile devices.
We live in an era of information overload, which Professor Alan Jacobs describes as “a sense that we are always receiving more sheer data than we know how to evaluate.”1 He goes on to note that this pattern of information overload is partnered with social acceleration, which he defines as “the perception that the world is not only changing but faster and faster.” We are engaged in a “battlefield of information,” where we must quickly triage what we encounter before being forced to jump to another, often unrelated topic. This excess of information isn’t making us wiser or more virtuous. Instead, we are often encouraged to prioritize the immediate and to neglect the ultimate, focusing on what will deliver results in the moment (often personal happiness or simple distraction) rather than what may be good for our souls and society in the long run.
Paired with this information overload is the reality that many of the messages we receive are crafted to elicit emotional responses shaped to fit the medium. They are calculated to generate outrage, disdain for our neighbors, or even a lack of concern for particular social issues, and the result is corrosive for the future of our politics and social order.2
These shifts in the type and amount of information we receive each day are dramatically altering our perceptions of how we might engage in the public square. For some this information overload leads to a withdrawal from what they perceive is the overwhelming and tense nature of politics. In each election cycle a majority of Americans do not vote or participate in the political process, and, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, most eligible voters cite “disinterest” as the main reason for not voting.3
For some of us, then, technology and social media distracts from important matters of the polis or inundates us with so much information that we simply choose to disengage.
But for others, these tools encourage overconnection, platform building, and a loss of self-control.
Speculation and the Rise of Trolls
A fascinating phenomenon in today’s political order is how some respond on social media and digital platforms following a major news alert, cultural event, or political moment. The second a breaking news alert hits our phones or time line, we see an onslaught of political talking points, “expert” opinions, and general musings. So much of our immediate, knee-jerk responses are designed to signal our worth to others, cultivate our online followings, or engender support from our ideological bloc.4 Within seconds, thousands of pieces of content, often overly simplistic in nature, are posted—often before the actual details of an event are known. A disturbing example of this is an incident that took place on the National Mall in 2019, in which both social media and traditional media sources completely misread, overreacted, and subsequently botched coverage of an encounter between groups of Black Hebrew Israelites, Native Americans, and Catholic high school boys. As reported later, the viral standoff between a tribal elder and a high schooler, initially believed to be fueled by racism, was more complicated than it first seemed.5
But this isn’t just a problem of the political left or the political right. Social media encourages everyone to record their moment-by-moment reactions, prompting them to post “what’s happening?” for the world to see.
While some individuals may mistakenly assess a situation or react in good faith to false information, social media operates to amp up tensions and, at times, even sew discord to grow their platforms.6 Rarely if ever do these tools encourage deep thinking, and they definitely do not reward those who want to acknowledge their past failures or misunderstandings. By the time someone confesses and seeks repentance for a wrong on social media, the fast-paced, “what have you done for me lately” nature of digital media means that society has often already moved on.
It has now even become routine for some in our society to make a living—or at least a name for themselves—from cultural warring and trolling political enemies. Politicians and political action committees post out-of-context clips and deliberately mock their opponents. Thoughtful, honest discourse about important issues is pushed out of the public square as we seek to “own the libs” or take back America from “the deplorables.” As Pastor Jonathan Leeman has noted, “the political Left and Right used to talk and reason with each other. Now they just shout.”7 Public debates about social and policy issues are no longer about listening to our neighbors and engaging on the issues that matter. Instead, they are more like yelling matches of talking points and cheap shots. Even though people rarely change their minds based on someone’s online musings, we are nevertheless encouraged—and even rewarded—to post more content and to keep our eyes fixed on these time lines.
Is the goal of these large technology companies really to empower and inform users? Or might they have an ulterior motive rooted in increasing their bottom line and expanding their user base?8
Technology and a Christian Vision for the Political Order
Christians who truly seek to be well informed, who want to honestly discuss the important issues in today’s public square, would be best served by cutting back screen time. Instead, we should connect with those around us and make a good-faith effort to understand and interact with those with whom we disagree. Loving God and loving our neighbor means standing for the vulnerable, pursuing justice, cultivating deep friendships across the ideological aisle, and championing free speech. These are among the most important aspects of the Christian political life. Shouting matches, half-baked opinions, and extended monologues through digital means do little to further the kingdom of God or to fulfill our calling as Christ followers (Matthew 22:37–39).
While technology can be, and is, often used for good in society, these benefits are often outweighed by the deleterious impact of these media on our public square. Social media is not uniquely dangerous, and is by no means inherently bad, but the ways in which our sinful hearts use and misuse these tools can be especially harmful to matters of politics and social order. Instead of seeing the value of local, embodied relationships and communities, we now often prioritize fringe identities and a global focus. We’re able to bypass the difficulties of real relationships with those in our communities and instead embrace a performance mentality. We trade authentic relationships for “connections” with others around the world. This shift from the messiness of real relationships and community to instantaneous and, at times, fringe connections with others who think and act like us has untold effects on how all of us navigate complex social issues. If it’s difficult to talk with the person right in front of you, there is a real temptation to just pull out your phone and connect with others who think the way you do, act the way you do, and make you feel the way you want to feel.
These tools, unfortunately, do not help us see the value and dignity of our neighbors; instead, they encourage us to view them as lifeless avatars and nothing but the sum of their ideas. Other people become a means to our own end, rather than part of the end itself, which is our responsibility, in Jesus’ words, to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:37–39).
There is no doubt that social media and other forms of technology are deeply altering how we understand the political issues of our day, how we communicate about them, and how we view each other as fellow image bearers of God (Genesis 1:26–28). But instead of our throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the wiser approach is to slow down, to prioritize people over politics and relationships over followings.
1 Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Guide to a Tranquil Mind (New York: Penguin Press, 2020), p. 12.
2 Marshall McLuhan in his well-known work Understanding Media unpacks this idea that “the medium is the message.” The platforms and mediums we utilize naturally prioritize certain types of information and encourage medium-specific ways of communicating with others.
3 “Census Bureau Releases 2020 Presidential Election Voting Report,” Feb. 17, 2022, Press Release CB22-TPS.14, retrieved from www.census.gov.
4 For more on these identity issues and technology, see chapter 4 of Jason Thacker, Following Jesus in a Digital Age (Nashville: B&H Books, 2022).
5 Caitlin Flannagan, “The Media Botched the Covington Catholic Story,” The Atlantic, Jan. 23, 2019.
6 Jeremy B. Merrill and Will Oremus, “Five Points for Anger, One for a ‘Like’: How Facebook’s Formula Fostered Rage and Misinformation,” The Washington Post, Oct. 26, 2021.
7 Jonathan Leeman, How the Nations Rage: Rethinking Faith and Politics in a Divided Age (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2018), p. 3.
8 For more on the ways that social media platforms profit off our posted content and attention, see Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019). I also address the role of technology companies in the public square in a forthcoming article: “Does Content Moderation Cultivate Virtue Online? Toward a Vision of the Digital Public Square Rooted in Free Speech and Religious Freedom,” Journal of Christian Legal Thought, Fall 2023.
Article Author: Jason Thacker
Jason Thacker serves as assistant professor of philosophy and ethics at Boyce College and a senior fellow in Christian ethics at The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He is the author of several books, including Following Jesus in a Digital Age and The Digital Public Square: Christian Ethics in a Technological Society.