Of Encounters and Extremists: How Religion Can Contribute to the Common Good on Social Media

By: Anna Floerke Scheid

November 30, 2021

Creating a Culture of Encounter

Last March, just two months after the insurrection at the Capitol, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a document warning that domestic violent extremists “exploit a variety of popular social media platforms… to recruit new adherents, plan and rally support for in-person actions, and disseminate materials that contribute to radicalization and mobilization to violence.”

Five months prior, Pope Francis had issued his own warning about the personal and social consequences of social media abuse. “Digital media can,” Francis cautioned in Fratelli Tutti, “expose people to the risk of addiction, isolation and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality” (FT, 43). In terms of its impact on our civic and political life, social media has the potential to “facilitate the spread of fake news and false information, fomenting prejudice and hate” (FT, 45). Despite the benefits of social media and the ways it facilitates dialogue between people who otherwise might never meet, it clearly has a dark side that must be acknowledged and addressed.

Despite the benefits of social media and the ways it facilitates dialogue between people who otherwise might never meet, it clearly has a dark side that must be acknowledged and addressed.

For example, Facebook’s purported mission is to “give people the power to build community,” yet in practice it can isolate individuals, or funnel them into echo chambers that merely confirm their prejudices against those who hold different moral and political perspectives. Recently, the leaked Facebook papers have confirmed that the company fails to remove upwards of 90% of hate speech on its platform. Indeed, to maximize profit and “push for user attention, Facebook abandoned or delayed initiatives to reduce misinformation and radicalization.” Community is the product Facebook advertises, but it has been making millions promoting a culture of division, delusion, and disorientation. 

Facebook’s vision of community diverges sharply from the culture of encounter that Pope Francis advocates. Francis calls for “a society where differences coexist, complementing, enriching and reciprocally illuminating one another, even amid disagreements and reservations” (FT, 215). This is a culture marked by hospitality and solidarity, rather than isolation and echo chambers. Pope Francis’ appeal to a culture of encounter stands in stark contrast to the misuse of digital technology that contributes to isolation, delusion, hate, and violent extremism.

It is important to remember that those of us who profess Christianity are not immune to these harms: “We should also recognize that destructive forms of fanaticism” wrought by uncritical social media consumption “are at times found among religious believers, including Christians” (FT, 46). Pope Francis issued this warning just three months prior to the deadly insurrection of January 6: an act of political violence meant to thwart the democratic process, punctuated by prayer that invoked Jesus Christ and thanked the “creator God” for “allowing” the insurrectionists to breach security using violence. Indeed, a growing number of white evangelical Christians are being radicalized toward domestic extremism. Community is being built not through shared interests toward the common good but through shared enemies and perceived shared grievances. These grievances are promoted through the consumption of falsehoods deliberately amplified by Facebook’s algorithms. 

Community is being built not through shared interests toward the common good but through shared enemies and perceived shared grievances.

Over the past several months, I have participated in scholarly conversations about the use and misuse of digital technology as part of the Grefenstette Center for Ethics in Science, Technology, and Law Faculty Research Fellows program at Duquesne University. Emerging from my collaboration with this group, I suggest that religious institutions and advocacy groups can contribute to a culture of encounter through practices of building resiliency in those most vulnerable to radicalization and through political advocacy for ethical social media. 

Those most susceptible to online radicalization are experiencing identity crises prior to their social media exposure to hate. Whether we call it “identity vulnerability,” “identity capital,” or a problem of “liquid modernity,” radicalization worms its way into the cracks in a person’s sense of broken identity and manipulates their normal human desire for community. What this means is that the particular hateful ideology an extremist embraces is less influential to their radicalization than their sense of being excluded, marginalized, or deprived of some real or perceived good that makes them who they are. “They’re searching for identity, community, and a sense of purpose,” remarks former white nationalist Christian Picciolini. This search leads the vulnerable person to social media, where those who deal in conspiracy theories and hate are ready to groom them for violence, offering them precisely what they crave: a sense that they belong to a community that offers their lives meaning, mission, and purpose. 

Social media alone does not make extremists. Rather, it provides a space where ideologues can meet those vulnerable to radicalization. While it is important that we advocate for fixes within social media itself, churches and religious organizations can provide an alternative space that contributes to what security studies professionals call “resiliency” among those most likely to experience identity crises. Building resiliency to resist radicalization addresses its root causes: the human need for community, belonging, and purpose. 

Churches and religious organizations can provide an alternative space that contributes to what security studies professionals call ‘resiliency’ among those most likely to experience identity crises.

Religious, ecumenical, and interfaith institutions have a role to play in contributing to resiliency. Indeed, Pope Francis encourages us “to create processes of encounter, processes that build a people that can accept differences” (FT, 219). Religious institutions should provide space and time not only for worship, but for social interactions that enable us to build friendships, and encourage conversation explicitly about those differences that polarize us as well as our real or perceived grievances. People of faith and faith-based organizations can work together to develop processes of encounter that build resiliency against radicalization through compassionate communities that reassure each person that they are loved and valued.

In addition to building resiliency that addresses the root causes of radicalization, religious institutions can advocate for fixes to social media platforms themselves. I recommend that religious congregations advocate—through letter writing, call-in campaigns, and face-to-face lobbying with elected officials—toward two ends. 

First, we ought to advocate for revisions to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. As my Grefenstette Center colleague Seth Oranburg argues in a forthcoming article, Section 230 shields companies like Facebook from liability when its users post hateful content, even though Facebook’s own algorithms amplify that content because it increases engagement on the site, leading to profit. Social justice committees at the parish level and faith-based community activism organizations should advocate for revision of this law. Ensuring that Facebook is legally liable for hate speech, misinformation, and other “indecent” communications on its platform may be one of the most effective ways of changing its behavior. 

Ensuring that Facebook is legally liable for hate speech, misinformation, and other ‘indecent’ communications on its platform may be one of the most effective ways of changing its behavior.

Second, people of faith and faith-based organizations can demand public social media forums, which are long overdue. In the same way that partnerships between the government and the public have produced media in radio and television (think NPR and PBS), it is time for National Public Social Media. If shared political life depends on a free exchange of ideas, and if our public market place of ideas occurs more and more frequently via digital social media, then it cannot be located on the equivalent of private property, which is what Facebook represents. It must be a public common good. While Pope Francis is undoubtedly correct that “Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity” (FT, 43), we can nevertheless generate public social media platforms beholden neither to advertisers nor to profit. National Public Social Media is an important way of building something closer to a culture of encounter online. 

So, people of faith and faith-based organizations: You have your tasks to reduce radicalization and de-escalate social media hate speech. Go forth to build resiliency and to advocate for policies and programs that contribute to a culture of encounter.

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