Hess served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation and is executive director of the Council for Sustainable Healing.
When the news broke last week that Elon Musk had struck a deal to acquire Twitter, the reaction among many was predictably dire. Hofstra University associate professor Kara Alaimo, for instance, forecast on CNN that the Twitter sale “may be the death knell for the social media platform.” And under the ominous headline, “Twitter Under Elon Musk Will Be a Scary Place,” Greg Bensinger suggested that when Musk insists Twitter be an “inclusive arena for free speech,” what he really means is “free speech for people like Mr. Musk.”
This New York Times editorial board member went on to portray Twitter’s new owner as a paragon of racism, sexism, and wealth — with Alaimo further speculating that public figures “won’t want to be associated” with a platform that isn’t “inclusive” and which is known to spread “questionable” content.
These are precisely the concerns, of course, which have motivated well-intentioned efforts over recent years — accelerated since the election of President Donald Trump — to use moderation on social media platforms to encourage people to have the right kinds of conversations.
About the election. About the pandemic. About sexuality and gender. About climate change.
If only we could help people embrace the right information and “diligently combat misinformation” — so the argument goes — then we could ensure people (and society as a whole) would be moving forward in “healthy” and “safe” ways.
It’s understandable that many found this line of thinking comforting and reassuring, especially amidst the political, social, and health turmoil of recent years. But equal numbers have found it all a bit creepy, prompting some of us to crack open "Brave New World" or "1984" for the first time since high school.
There’s nothing wrong with strongly advocating one’s convictions about truth to all the world — an unabashed specialty of Christians everywhere. But when any particular view gets enshrined in a state or other corporate or media entity with the power to dictate thought and action for millions of lives, that’s a whole ‘nother story.
Which is why many of us see news of Twitter’s new ownership as something to celebrate, not a sign of impending doom, and why some people who had left the platform wasted no time in returning.
Thanks to new ownership, I\u2019ve decided to come back!— Mark R. Levin (@Mark R. Levin) 1650919976
New opportunities for voices of faith online. In recent years, many millions of right-leaning and religiously oriented Americans have admittedly given up on social media. Completely.
Rarely a week goes by that I don’t hear of some other friend bragging about deleting all their social media accounts. And can you really blame them?
From rampant animosity to mounting censorship to creeping pornography, online social engagement presented lots of risks — and seemingly few benefits. Yet ironically, as people of faith have fled social media in record numbers, they’ve also made it an even more barren landscape intellectually and spiritually.
Perhaps it isn’t yet time to flee into our ideological bomb shelters? Indeed, in this very moment in time where blue checks on Twitter threaten a mass exodus, could it be time for normal Americans to move in the opposite direction—reclaiming ground they had been ceding in “the new public square for discourse and engagement,” as Utah state Sens. Stuart Adams and Mike McKell called social media last year?
I sure think so. And I’m definitely not the only one encouraging you to “stop deleting your Facebook” (and Twitter). Referring to the “small trickle” of efforts to communicate hopeful messages through social media, Elder David Bednar encouraged an audience of Latter-day Saints in 2014 to “help transform that trickle into a flood” in a way that could “sweep the earth with messages filled with righteousness and truth—messages that are authentic, edifying, and praiseworthy.”
Such counsel echoes the earlier wisdom of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who wrote in 1927 that when a need arises to “expose … falsehood and fallacies” or “avert the evil” around us, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
It’s not just Christians, of course, who have things of great worth to share with the world. Imagine what would happen if everyone had a chance to share what they found to be good, true, and beautiful with the world. What a world that would be!
Sensible social media concerns. We don’t, of course, live in an Edenic intellectual world where everyone opening their mouth has something beautiful to share. And in that, we should take seriously reminders that “Twitter has never been a place for rational, nuanced speech” and cautions about inadvertently “silencing many people” and pushing away “thoughtful users” who “aren’t going to voluntarily keep using a platform on which they’re bombarded with abuse.”
Clearly, some kind of healthy moderation will always be helpful anywhere ideas are exchanged—be that online or in person. But no amount of policing can replace our own collective exercise of virtuous exchange—including both practiced civility and decency in our sharing, and enough humility and curiosity to listen as others do the same.
Yet this is more — not less — important in a time when our civic atmosphere becomes especially strained and harsh. What better time for voices of peace and kindness to be heard? Near the chaotic and anguished beginning of the pandemic, President Russell Nelson taught that light can “shine ever brighter” precisely amidst “the increasing darkness that accompanies tribulation.”
Throughout virtually all of human history, that sharing of goodness has happened personally — one by one. House by house. And door by door. Occasionally in a synagogue — or perhaps standing on a wall in a city.
What would these ancient teachers have thought about possibly standing up on a Facebook wall? Would they have scoffed and turned away in disgust at the vitriol that some people post back in response?
Will rhetorical threats stop us from sharing our hearts?
I hope not. Because the risks of sharing goodness are worth it. That experience of being able to bring uplift and encouragement into someone else’s life is worth whatever cost.
None of this, of course, means we need to become “social media experts or fanatics” as Bednar later cautioned — adding, “we do not need to spend inordinate amounts of time creating and disseminating elaborate messages.”
It’s also true that the addictive, entertaining elements of social media have threatened to eclipse meaningful activities in people’s lives. If you are one of the many, who open social media first thing in the morning — as soon as they turn off their mobile alarm — before they even get out of bed, maybe think more about the proper time and place to engage in social media. Ask yourself who you want your first interactions of the day — and last interactions at night — to be?
If you are one of the many with an unhealthy relationship with social media, by all means, take a detox, a fast, a vacation for as long as you need. If you’re one for whom social media has fed unhealthy obsessions or cravings — even tempting you to initiate toxic relationships—put in place strict safeguards, perhaps a joint account with someone else you trust and love. If you’re one for whom social media has become a nexus of toxic social comparison—and a regular way to “grind down” your own self-esteem — use this as an opportunity to step back and consider seriously what and where your worth comes from.
Yes, the risks and dangers of social media are real — especially in excessive, unbounded, unguided ways. Christopher Cunningham once cautioned about the strong pull of our surrounding culture to make “peeping Toms” of all of us, as we look in on people’s lives with obsessive fascination — alternatively craving aspects of someone else’s lives and then “reveling in another person’s sin, crimes, escapades, or misery.”
That doesn’t have to be how we act though! Because we can also choose to “rejoice not in iniquity” (wrong-doing, injustice, sin, evil),” and to instead “rejoice in the truth.”
A truth so precious that it’s worth every sacrifice to share, with anyone who will listen.
Anywhere. Including online.
Even in 280 characters.