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    Can Social Media Be Tamed?

    Tobias Rose-Stockwell’s Outrage Machine details how algorithms promote fear and outrage. Can the monster be tamed?

    By Joshua Sander

    July 9, 2024

    There’s a reason people often compare anger with fire. While in itself morally neutral, anger can be used for great good or incredible destruction. Outrage – the anger we experience when we feel someone has violated a moral standard – has been the driving force behind wars, lynch mobs, riots, and reformations. Outrage has a long history, but within the last few years, the West’s relationship with outrage has changed, and not for the better. Something has gone wrong, both collectively and individually, with how often we experience outrage and how we deal with it.

    In Outrage Machine: How Tech Amplifies Discontent, Disrupts Democracy – And What We Can Do About It, Tobias Rose-Stockwell analyzes this change in Western society’s relationship with outrage and explores how the modern media machine has amplified anger, divided communities, and led people to adopt polarized opinions on every issue and news event.

    Like the mythical hydra, the “outrage machine” has many heads: print and digital news media, smartphones, politicians, complete strangers, family and friends. The body of the hydra, connecting each of us with these disparate components, is social media, which “has distilled, streamlined, and accelerated our participation in this spectacle of news better than anything that came before it.”

    Rose-Stockwell devotes most of his book to explaining several social media features that exploit the human attraction to content that promotes fear and outrage. One is the collection of computer algorithms that run social media sites. These algorithms tend to promote content that will make users afraid or angry – in turn prompting them to engage with the content, share it, and respond to it in inflammatory ways. Thus users give more and more of their limited attention to social media sites and, crucially, to the advertising that drives the revenue streams of the operating corporations. Though social media didn’t create the problem of excessive outrage, it has greatly exacerbated it.

    What is the origin of the problem, then? As Rose-Stockwell correctly identifies, it’s not the algorithms; it’s us. We – the users – drive outrage through our engagement and interaction with content. But in identifying how we might solve this problem, he falls short.

    His suggestions, which occupy only two brief chapters at the end of the book, are pragmatic, partial, and sometimes clichéd. Some of his more unsurprising advice is to spend less time online, to reduce exposure to toxic outrage by unfollowing and blocking accounts that foster it, and to be mindful of how much news we are consuming. Other advice goes a bit deeper. We must remember, he points out, that the level of news coverage a negative story receives is not necessarily proportional to its actual importance. Also, we must learn to disagree with others more agreeably, trying to discover the values underlying their arguments rather than making assumptions about their motivations or beliefs or resorting to ad hominem attacks. Finally, we should authenticate the information we believe and spread to others.

    While they’re certainly helpful, Rose-Stockwell’s proposed solutions only address the surface-level manifestation of a problem that extends much deeper. Only when we address the deeper problem of original sin, and particularly the sin of pride, can we find a lasting solution. Granted, even the least prideful can still be tricked by false or exaggerated news stories. However, most of our issues do not stem from guiltless confusion, but rather from our personal vices. Pride turns our desire to know the truth into a desire to be always seen as right. Pride warps our desire to be loved and accepted by our communities into a desire for attention and praise. Pride corrupts our desire for justice into the belief that we can destroy those who oppose us. The tempter, whether in the form of a serpent or an algorithm, can make acting pridefully seem very pleasing to the eye, but ultimately it is we who decide to eat the fruit. It is we who decide to share or produce content that that violates Paul’s command in Ephesians to avoid unwholesome talk in all its forms. And though judgment is promised for those that lead others to sin, the one led into sin cannot then look at God and excuse herself by saying, “The algorithm deceived me, and I posted.”

    Aside from his advice for individuals, Rose-Stockwell’s hope lies with the idea that humanity will find its way out of our current “dark valley.” He believes that we will see with the further development of social media the same historical process that followed the invention of devices like the printing press, radio, and television: rapid and widespread adoption; a time period of unforeseen problems – often due to faster-spreading disinformation and propaganda – that are largely ignored until they reach a breaking point; and a more healthy integration of the technology into society after government, industry, and others work to mitigate the problems it causes.

    Though he warns that the final stage of healthy integration is not inevitable, he remains optimistic, as do I. Presumably, whether by choice or through regulation, this would entail tech companies stripping social media of the outrage-prioritizing newsfeed algorithm, adjusting the current metrics that reward and encourage the production of outrage-inducing content, and rethinking the share features that allow us to instantaneously spread such content, adding our own angry reactions for others to see and become outraged at as well.

    On an individual level, we may find more appropriate boundaries and guidelines for social media use, but just as with the printing press, radio, and television, other technologies will come along that will exploit our pride even more effectively with the potential for even more damaging results. Much like the demon Jesus describes in Matthew, returning to its former host with seven spirits even more wicked than itself, if we merely exorcise social media from our lives without then cultivating humility in our souls, our final condition will be worse than our first.

    In building and exercising humility, we will realize that our opinion need not be heard on every issue, that it is good to accept and admit when we are wrong, and that we should not seek the attention of others merely out of a selfish desire for influence. Perhaps most importantly, we will remember that those who disagree with us are fellow human beings made in the image of God, whom Christ died to save. Humility will also direct us to prayer rather than doomscrolling or despair-posting when we see distressing news over which we have no control. Instead of shouting into the online void, we will quietly place both our concerns and the larger issue itself into the Lord’s hands with a childlike trust.

    When we allow humility to transform us into holier people, we may be able to participate in social media in ways beneficial for our souls and the common good. Bookending his work with two personal stories illustrating hopeful possibilities for social media, Rose-Stockwell describes how it helped him rebuild a dam for farming communities in Cambodia and facilitated community support for his family after a California wildfire destroyed their home. I also have seen good fruit come from social media, connecting those who require help through prayer and material support with those willing to give that help. A friend of my wife recently faced medical complications surrounding the birth of her child. She and her husband used social media to ask their friends and acquaintances for help, and people responded by offering prayers and raising thousands of dollars for the medical expenses and lost income. I myself have built and maintained many meaningful relationships through social media – I met my wife on Twitter. We have a weekly movie night with several mutual Twitter friends, catching up on each other’s lives and spending time together. At our wedding reception, these friends traveled from all around the country to celebrate the day with us, even though we had never previously met them in person. Social media has also allowed me to hear and learn from the perspectives of people with different experiences on a number of meaningful issues.

    These positive aspects of social media can give us hope for a better future with a healthier, more wholesome relationship with technology. To get to the heart of the matter, however, we must go deeper than Rose-Stockwell does and cultivate hearts that are humble. The technologies we use to communicate and foster relationships will change, as will the tricks of those who use them to harness the vices of their users for money or influence. Considering this, we would do well to listen to T. S. Eliot, who reminds us that “the only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”

    Contributed By JoshuaSander Joshua Sander

    Joshua Sander is a PhD candidate in history at The University of Alabama researching the relationship between church and state in the post–World War II United States.

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