Wednesday, October 6, 2021
It's Wednesday, October 6th, 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, And this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
New Bipartisan Alarm Over Facebook and its Dangers — Secrets Revealed and Investigations Gain Momentum
Sometimes, many of the issues we have to consider breakdown along very clear ideological lines. The worldview issues are immediately clear. You have a clash of two different worldviews. Sometimes, at the intersection of that worldview collision and politics, you have a left-right debate, or you have even in the United States, primarily a Democrat versus Republican debate. Sometimes, it doesn't breakdown that way at all. And those issues are often the most interesting. Just consider this, in a Senate hearing held just last Thursday, you had one of the senators from the left, a Democrat, and a senator very much from the right, a Republican, who agreed on one thing. They agreed on one thing with urgency. And that is social media as an empire is out of control and Facebook is at the very head of their concerns.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, Chairman of the Subcommittee, he's a Democrat from Connecticut, very liberal. He said, "It has hidden its own research on addiction," speaking of Facebook, "and the toxic effects of its products." Meanwhile, in the very same hearing before the United States Senate, in this case, a very important Subcommittee, you had a Republican Senator, very conservative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee speaking directly to Facebook who said, "You've lost trust. And we do not trust you with influencing our children into." So Senator Blumenthal, Senator Blackburn, they don't agree on much these days in Washington. They agree, and so many others agree with them, that Facebook and other social media platforms have a very, very toxic effect on many people and perhaps their policies actually accentuate those toxic and harmful effects.
And it's not just on individuals. It's not just psychological. It's not just like a social. It also has to do with American politics. And one of the things we now know is that in the social media revolution of our day, the politics is often toxic, not so much by Americans talking to each other or even past each other, but by sometimes even robotic bots. And furthermore, even intentional trolling farms that are doing nothing more than trying to create what we now know as clickbait. But it has not only the effect of people opening articles and looking at them, there are messages that are absolutely incendiary. They are designed to be incendiary and they have no relationship to truth. That's not even a concern. They're trying to get attention and that attention comes with an agenda.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal broke a massive story and it came with the leak of an incredible amount of insight information from Facebook. The big question was how did the Wall Street Journal get this information? And it at least indicated it had come from an inside source or at least someone who formerly was inside Facebook at the time these materials were collected and was now a so-called whistleblower. In today's parlance, that means someone who is calling attention to something that is wrong, that needs to be addressed, needs to be fixed, needs to see the light of day.
In this case, we now know who it was. Francis Haugen identified herself in a 60 minutes interview that was broadcast this past Sunday. Former Facebook employee, and as the Washington post reported, "Haugen, the previously anonymous former Facebook employee who filed complaints against the company last month, makes as good a case as any that now is the time to hold social media accountable." In her words, "When we live in an information environment that is full of angry, hateful, polarizing content, it erodes our civic trust. It erodes our faith in each other." She said that in the 60 Minutes interview. She also said, "It erodes our ability to want to care for each other. The vision of Facebook that exists today is tearing our societies apart and causing ethnic violence around the world."
Now, that's a lot to say, but we have a lot right now being said about Facebook in particular, social media platforms in general. Why is Facebook right now so much on the line? Well, the first reason is because of this massive leak of internal information and it is devastating. In a series of front page articles published in September, the Wall Street Journal ran day after day exposés of what had been revealed about Facebook, effectively by Facebook in its own documentation and internal communications. The first article fell on September the 14th. The headline story, "Facebook Documents Reveal Secret Elite Exempt From its Rules."
In this case, there was reference to Facebook's XCheck program. This XCheck program meant that there are certain people, Hollywood celebrities, American politicians, who are basically exempt from the rules that govern what is and is not acceptable on Facebook. The point is this, Facebook says the rules apply to everyone, but that clearly is not true. Now, conservatives have been concerned for a long time that when you have social media being evaluated by content, that gives not only the potential, but the reality that at least some conservative voices will be silenced. But you also have the case that on the right and the left right now among Democrats and Republicans, there's an understanding that Facebook simply has too much power. An article at the Atlantic published just two days ago, suggested that Facebook is now like a country. Not only that, but an autocratic country, an autocracy.
In one sense, it's bigger than any country. It includes now billions of people. And furthermore, it has a power that governments find very difficult to constrain. It's interesting here that European governments have sought to get ahead of the United States and this kind of regulation, but that regulation hasn't worked thus far in Europe. In the United States, that Subcommittee hearing in the United States Senate last week was one indication that there is growing bipartisan concern that something must be done. But of course, this just raises the complexity of the question. What exactly is the something that must be done? There really is no easy answer. That's true at least for major governments, such as the government of the United States. Even in that Senate hearing, there was no real indication of what the senators thought they ought to do. Once again, it's interesting. There really isn't a partisan collision on this issue. There is bipartisan concern and there is no easy solution.
Now, I do want to say that by the time parents look at the evidence of the effect of Facebook on teenagers and children, by the time that's taken into consideration, I think parents do have some very clear decisions to make and plenty of information on which to make the right decision. The second article, front page of the Wall Street Journal the very next day on September the 15th, "Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls," its research shows. There you have an enormously important headline. We're told that Facebook knows that its platform Instagram is toxic, particularly for adolescent females or teenage girls. We're also told it's research demonstrates it. That might be the most important of these articles seriously. But on September the 16th, the next day, another front page article, "Facebook Tried to Make Platform Healthier. It Got Angrier Instead."
Next, on September the 17th, another front page article, "Facebook Staff Flags Traffickers, Cartels. Company Response Is Weak." You put all that together and you recognize we're not just looking at one issue. We're looking at an entire constellation of issues. Issues that are big enough to concern governments, concerning the politics within their own societies. But the problem is as small as every single individual life connected in this digital age and in particular, every single young life that is overly impacted and overly at risk when it comes to this kind of social media exposure. But let's leave that first issue about the XCheck program in which we found out that the level playing field of Facebook isn't actually level.
The Most Serious Danger of Facebook: Instagram’s Negative Effects On Teenage and Young Adult Mental Health — Facebook Knows the Extent of the Problem, But Can’t Do Without Your Kids
Let's turn instead to look at the issues that are for us more important than politics. More important than society, or at least certainly more primary. We're talking about the effect of Facebook, of social media in general. But Facebook in particular on young people, children and teenagers, particularly teenagers and young adults and particularly girls and young women. This article tells us, the second in this series, that Facebook knew. It knows that it's Instagram platform in particular, which is very much targeted these days towards growing an ever larger younger audience. We now know that Facebook knew it was dangerous. Internal documents that were leaked to the Wall Street Journal included these words, "32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse." In the same research, the inside document from Facebook said, "Comparisons on Instagram can change how young women view and describe themselves." Addressing the platform Instagram, the Wall Street Journal summarized, "For the past three years, Facebook has been conducting studies into how its photo sharing app effects its millions of young users repeatedly," says the journal. "The company's researchers found that Instagram is harmful for a sizable percentage of them, most notably teenage girls."
One of the slides from an internal presentation at Facebook about Instagram said, "We make body image issues worse for one in three teen girls." Just consider that. One in three. And we're told the slide had summarized research about adolescent girls who experienced the issues. Another slide said this "Teens blame Instagram for increases in the rate of anxiety and depression. This reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups." So Facebook was at least acknowledging internally to itself that it had become a problem. Its Instagram platform in particular had become dangerous. Indeed toxic for many young people. Remember that percentage, one third of teenage girls who were using Instagram indicated this effect.
The commercial aspect of this is very clear with reference to the profit line for Facebook. The Wall Street Journal, which if any newspaper in the world knows how to read a financial statement, said this, "Expanding its base of young users is vital to the company's more than $100 billion in annual revenue. And it doesn't want to jeopardize their engagement with the platform. We're told in the following data point that more than 40% of Instagram's users are 22 years old and younger. And we're told about 22 million teenagers in the United States log on to Instagram every single day."
Now, an interesting note here is that only about 5 million American teenagers login to Facebook. Facebook is evidently where their parents go. They go to Instagram and they go there to compare. We are told that this is one of the most dangerous mental health aspects of Instagram for especially young women and teenage girls, because the comparison is extremely harmful. The Wall Street Journal summarizes, "The features that Instagram identifies as most harmful to teens appear to be at the platform's core." The next paragraph, "The tendency to share only the best moments, a pressure to look perfect and an addictive product can send teens spiraling towards eating disorders and unhealthy sense of their own bodies and depression." This according not to external analysis, but to March, 2020, internal research at Facebook."It warns that the Explore page, which serves users photos and videos curated by an algorithm can send users deep into content that can be harmful." The research inside Facebook said, "Aspects of Instagram exacerbate each other to create a perfect storm."
Now supposedly, teenagers have to be 13 in order to be on Instagram. But as we know, there are ways around that. But just to make very clear how intent Facebook is on getting younger viewers addicted to its platform, understand that Instagram had announced months ago that it was going to be releasing a new platform for children under age 13. The companies backed off of that given the criticism. And of course, what is now an avalanche of data coming, not from outside the company, but we know from inside the company. Another interesting aspect of the research that was conducted and released inside Facebook is the fact that there are significant discrepancies were told between the amount of time people say they use social media and the amount of time they actually do. Which means the problem is likely a lot worse than what is documented here because people tend to underestimate in some cases, significantly to underestimate the amount of time they actually spend on social media.
There is more in the research that came out just in terms of this second exposé. We're told, "Facebook's researchers identified the oversexualization of girls as something that weighs in the mental health of the app's users." Clearly the main vulnerability here is young women and teenage girls, but Facebook's internal information, as reported by the Wall Street Journal, includes the fact that teenage boys also aren't immune. As the story in the Wall Street Journal tells us, "In the deep dive Facebook's researchers conducted into mental health in 2019, they found that 14% of boys in the United States said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves. In their report on body image in 2020 Facebook's researchers found that 40% of teen boys experienced negative social comparison."
Now, did you hear that? The number jumped from 14% to 40%. 4 out of 10 adolescent boys reporting on their experience of Instagram said that physical comparison on the platform caused them insecurities as well as their female friends. Now, as we know, adolescence itself is a time of vulnerability. It's a time of anxiety. It is a time of endless comparison. It turns out that the platforms of social media are simply an explosive that blows that up to unparalleled proportions, reaching percentages of the young population that go far beyond, I think, what most parents might even imagine in their worst nightmare.
So, What Is the Christian Responsibility — But Human Dignity Is At Stake Of The Social Media Crisis
Other investigative reports revealed, for example, that what's going on outside the United States includes what many people didn't even have on their screen. For instance, we are told that in some countries, drug cartels do their business on Facebook platforms and have even ordered hits. That is, murders on the platform itself. The Wall Street Journal cited one team of investigators who "identified key individuals, tracked payments they made to hit men and discovered how they were recruiting poor teenagers to attend hitman training camps."
The next sentence, "Facebook messages showed recruiters warning young would-be hires about being seriously beaten or killed by the cartel if they tried to leave the training camp." That according to a former officer. The Washington Post just days ago ran an editorial that declared it's time to stand up to Facebook. This was a message primarily addressed to government authorities in the United States. But again, easier said than done. Consider the scale of what we're dealing with here. This is not just Instagram. It's not just even one particular platform on Facebook. It is the fact that Facebook itself has become something like an absolute new reality in human history. It is now what connects so many human beings.
Just consider the fact that earlier this week, when Facebook suffered an interruption of service, billions upon billions of dollars of commerce simply evaporated. A lot of wealth simply disappeared. A lot of businesses now are taking place on Facebook. An awful lot of economic activity, political activity, social activity. Disconnecting as a society is no easy challenge. It's probably not even a possibility because if Facebook ceases to exist, something else will come to take its place.
And as you're looking at the pattern politically right now, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of what was originally known as the Facebook, before it became Facebook. He repeatedly comes before Congress to say, "We apologize something bad happened. We're going to fix it." But this documentation indicates this is beyond anything Facebook can simply apologize for now. We are looking at a major threat to human dignity. This is where Christians understand. This is a far larger issue than the Wall Street Journal as it's concern. We come to understand that human dignity means that human beings made by God are made to relate to one another as human beings. Not to objects, not to abstractions, not merely to names on social media, not just to pictures, highly curated about experiences that are distorting. And for that matter, fundamentally false in terms of reality.
What we're looking at here is that we are suffering an alienation of true humanity in the guise of this technological revolution. We're looking at a generation of young adults, young people, teenagers, adolescents, who it's not actually accurate to say have lost much of the ability to do the face-to-face interpersonal communication. There's a part of human dignity. No, in many cases they haven't lost it because they never gained it. At such young ages they became alienated from that kind of normal human discourse and communication. They find it now intimidating and scary. Social media is less scary than a face-to-face conversation. That should scare all of us, but parents and adults, certainly aren't off the hook. We have to understand that our own ability to sustain those kind of face-to-face conversations, our own ability to treat one another with dignity, our own ability and determination to act with respect in every context, including social media, that is often forfeited in the white hot heat of just trying to get liked or likes. That tells us a great deal. Even by vocabulary of how absolutely dangerous this has become.
We're going to be learning a lot more about this reality. And we're going to be finding out not only what the government of the United States plans to do about this, but other governments as well. This is now a global problem, linking pathologies on the far reaches of the planet with what's probably taking place in a bedroom very near you.
Technology Will Demand Our Soul — A Technological Crisis Is a Theological Crisis
My message to young people is that what we want for you, what God wants for you is not less. It is infinitely more. And it's a more that can only be fulfilled when you being made in the image of God, relate to others also made in the image of God in a way that reflects the respect and love and care and the ability to communicate that God invested in you from the beginning. And finds pleasure in you developing over your lifetime.
As I said, fixing this problem may be beyond anything we know to do right now. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, is quoted in response to a report did in 2018, Facebook changed its algorithm because of concerns about political polarization. The Wall Street Journal tells us, "Facebook's chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, said the aim of the algorithm change was to strengthen bonds between users and to improve their wellbeing. Facebook would encourage people to interact more with friends and family and spend less time passively consuming professionally produced content, which research suggested was harmful to their mental health."
But then consider the very next sentence, "Within the company though, staffers warned the change was having the opposite effect," the document show. "It was making Facebook's platform an angrier place." In other words, Facebook said it was concerned about what was taking place on the platform, it to lower the temperature. It changed the algorithm, but it didn't draw people closer. Instead, it made the social network world even angrier.
That wouldn't have surprised Jacques Ellul. Jacques Ellul was a French theologian in the 20th century and he was a prophet when it came to technology. One of the things that Jacques Ellul reminded Christians of is the fact that we can never talk about mere technology because technology is never mere. In a technological age, technology becomes a God unto itself, a rival deity, and it threatens to change human nature according to its own idolatrous determinations. But Jacques Ellul was also prophetic in warning Christians back in the 20th century that there is no way to speak of technology as if it is something separate from theology.
Eventually, the technology changes the user. Collectively, cumulatively it changes entire societies. We certainly see that right now, but the greatest, the gravest effect is not society at large. It's not the collective, it's the individual. It's the effect of these technologies on individual human lives. But the threat of technology is not just the idolatrous. It is also the fact that technology tends to alienate us. It alienates us in one sense from work. This is one of the insights of the 20th century. As people began to work machines more than to work, say the soil, their work became transformed into engine work or machine work. And thus you see the same thing is taking place, but at a far more extreme level.
When you have the digital technologies that alienate us from time and place, even from space and time. Eclipsing distance, making time, largely irrelevant, alienating us from ourselves, alienating us from each other, creating distance and even an ignorance. And that means not just to people around the world, but to people in the room next door. Perhaps even people in the room with us. But Christians must understand the more basic alienation is the alienation from the creator on the part of the creature. The alienation from the creator is the entire problem summarized by human sin. And in this aspect, sin seizes the opportunity of these ever advancing technologies. That means Christians have to think about technology as a very serious theological issue, a very important Christian task when it comes to our faithfulness in this generation.
That means that this is not just a matter for deliberation in the United States Senate, in Congress, in Washington or elsewhere, it's for our consideration. It's a demand for consideration by your local congregation and every family. And as we know for Christians, it's an ongoing conversation that requires Christian wisdom in an age in which we're being alienated from that, too. Our job as Christians is to resist to fight that alienation.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can find me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.