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I once heard a phrase used in a philosophy discussion, “We’re swimming in streams.” It is a phrase that describes the concept of a worldview and the way we operate within that worldview. The way we unconsciously perform daily life. The thing that we think of as normal and the thing that is confronted when culture changes. That’s why I’m saying streams, plural. Because my normal is not your normal, but more so my normal today (2020, COVID-19) is not my normal yesterday (pre-COVID-19). I am trying to adjust to a stream change and I am not even sure which worldview stream I need to be swimming in.
It’s not that my view has changed, but it’s that my world has changed. My view of the world is the same, but I’m not too sure what the world looks like. Things are changing fast, physical distancing is becoming normal, and electrons racing back and forth have become our means of communication.
Living with this unsettled world-change is just that, unsettling. As one minister put it “We’re all building the plane while flying it.” That is, we are trying to decide how to be a church, how to gather, when we can’t do it in person. We’re trying to use online communication to substitute our ‘normal’ world. Or maybe we’ve just found ourselves somehow already swimming in this online river because that’s what everyone else is doing, right?
Our world has changed. We need to understand our new world.
Another reason we’re swimming in streams is because we are. Livestreams, to be more precise. Since moving most of my world online I have been flooded with stream after stream. Churches have decided (or happened upon) streaming content as an alternative to our regular church activities. In a sense all online content is streamed. Some of it is live and some not. My daily swimming in this new world of streams consists of engaging with online content streamed to my computer. It has become the major source of our out-of-home engagement with the world.
There’s one final reason we’re swimming in streams, and it’s the last word of the phrase. Streams are traditionally small rivers, but can broadly refer to a continuous flow of liquids or gasses. This definition helps us recognise that in this new world we’re being confronted with a continuous flow of online content. When we open up social media platforms we are instantly bombarded with a stream of content. And we can’t get away from it. The platform is designed to pump out as much content as possible to keep you engaged for longer so that you might see more advertising so that the platform can remain financially viable.
Our new world is full of online streamed content. We need to understand what this content is.
Let’s keep looking at social media platforms because they provide the majority of the content we are streaming.
Social media platforms are profoundly secular. They need to appeal to the majority for the sake of staying culturally relevant and they need to be profoundly visual to attract and retain viewers. These strategies are all driven by their need to remain viable and so they need to attract advertisers to get money.
The problem with appealing to the masses is that the masses have suppressed the truth about God and so desire sin (Rom 1:21–23). The problem with being profoundly visual is that its attractiveness distracts us from hearing; the very way God has chosen to reveal himself to us in his word (Deut 6:4; Rom 10:17; 2 Cor 5:7). The problem with secular advertising is that the majority of its focus appeals to our sinfulness, expressed in materialism (Col 3:5; Heb 13:5). This is the environment of the content that we’re streaming.
But we still haven’t understood what the content of our new world actually is.
Now, I’m not against social media platforms, I have multiple accounts on multiple platforms. I’m trying to draw our attention to the mechanics behind these platforms. But what I have drawn our attention to so far aren’t so much mechanics as they are necessities. That is, to ‘make it’ as a social media platform you need to – at the very least – be relevant, visual, and financially viable. The mechanics I specifically want to focus on is content manipulation.
Content manipulation is how social media companies stay relevant, visual, and financially viable and I bet you have experienced it. Just look on your Facebook newsfeed or open up YouTube and you will experience it. The content streaming onto your screen and then into your brain has been chosen by algorithms that are designed to retain your attention – you know those suggested videos? – and most of the time they get it right.
But it’s more than just manipulating the content you receive through targeted suggestions, it’s that online content is manipulated because it is edited. The content has been manipulated prior to publishing to present my best angle, or the best version of myself, or to hide some ugly feature, or to delete the way I said that thing because it didn’t come across right.
We are getting closer to understanding the content of our new world.
These two ways social media is manipulated, through suggested and edited content, means a lot of our content should be described as propaganda because it is presenting biased information for a particular purpose or ideology. Even that photo you posted the other day could be classified as propaganda because you probably took several photos and chose a particular version, maybe applied a filter to make it look better, or at the very least you made a comment about the photo to shape the audience’s view of what you have shared.
If you disagree with me about social media being full of propaganda, that’s okay, I have Russia on my side.
Let’s think about disinformation to take this understanding of social media to the next level. I’m not talking about misinformation, that’s the kind of information that’s just accidentally wrong. For example, misinformation is when your great aunt shares a post that says “Like this or you will never be able to see my posts past [insert date].” That’s misinformation, your great aunt was misinformed. Disinformation “is the deliberate creation and sharing of information known to be false. It’s a malign narrative that is spread deliberately, with the explicit aim of causing confusion or leading the recipient to believe a lie.”
You may remember some of the drama surrounding the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2016. There were allegations of Russian interference which has since been proved to be true. The way that Russia manipulated the election was through disinformation across social media platforms basically by producing targeted memes. They sought to influence people through highly targeted propaganda, and it worked! You may have even consumed some of their content. Have a look at the website in the sixth footnote and see if you recognise any of the images.
Russia has understood that the world of social media is a world of propaganda. They used this understanding to “execute the move of the century in helping to get Trump elected. It was sheer genius on their part.”
Now, I’m not saying that sepia-filter-picture your friend posted of their dog is akin to Russia swinging the US election. But that photo of your friend’s dog could still be viewed as propaganda, to some extent, intentionally or unintentionally. It is manipulated content: a chosen moment of time with a sepia filter, presented from a biased perspective: their love for the dog, for a particular purpose: to impress their friends with a cute photo.
That photo you shared the other day is also not the same thing as Russia’s intelligent memes, but it doesn’t capture the full extent of the moment. It captures a carefully selected blip of the moment, which means it’s not the full truth, and even the blip it has captured has likely been edited in some way.
We need to understand that the world of social media is full of propaganda. We need to increase our awareness as we engage with social media. Not everything is as it seems.
If you’re consuming edited and suggested content on social media as if it’s the full picture of life, as if there is no agenda to it, and as if it doesn’t powerfully shape your thoughts, then you’re not consuming the truth. If you’re viewing it as truly social, a legitimate replacement for physical interaction, then you’re not consuming the truth.
If you’re approaching social media with a healthy level of scepticism by treating much of it as propaganda, which has the power to influence your thinking and potentially harm you, then I think you will be consuming the truth. Propaganda itself a bad thing. But it can be used very powerfully as Russia has shown us.
I’m not saying that everything on the internet should be classified as propaganda, that would make nothing propaganda. I’m suggesting that because social media platforms are culturally relevant, highly visual, and financially viable through advertisement, all driven by the mechanics of content manipulation, they contain much more propaganda than your average website and they possess a much greater power to influence you, your friends, and even a nation – for better or for worse.
What’s the point, though? Well with many churches having a greatly increased online presence and people stuck at home consuming online content there are two implications we need to draw.
Firstly, churches need to be aware and wise about the stream they’ve decided to swim in. It is a dark and dangerous world where we need to be highly attentive and very careful. But it’s a world that desperately needs the light of the gospel. Which is why it’s fantastic that so many are pushing the gospel into this online world. We need to be careful we aren’t submitting the gospel to the normal ways social media operates through being culturally relevant, highly visual, and financially viable through advertisement. We need to make sure we’re presenting the gospel as truth, and not as propaganda. Let the gospel shine clearly in this dark world!
Secondly, the person consuming the content needs to be aware of how it is shaping them. Any influence upon us needs to be always appropriately conditioned by and submitted to the authority of Scripture. But if we’re unaware of the amount of propaganda in this world of social media then we will fail at conditioning and submitting it to Scripture. The consumer of online content needs the gospel to penetrate powerfully through their screens and into their minds, which is why it’s wonderful that so many churches are providing online content when online content has become the stream we’re all swimming in.
For more information on disinformation see this YouTube playlist produced by a Christian: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLjHf9jaFs8XVAQpJLdNNyA8tzhXzhpZHu
 https://sydneyanglicans.net/news/were-all-building-the-plane-while-flying-it, accessed 2 April 2020.
 https://yalereview.yale.edu/computational-propaganda, accessed 2 April 2020.
 https://danielmiessler.com/blog/the-unbelievable-fragmentation-of-america-with-russias-help/, accessed 2 April 2020
Angus Martin is a redeemed son of God, husband to Olivia, and father of some wonderful kids. He is committed to biblical ministry and faithful evangelism because he longs to see people saved. He loves escaping the concrete jungle of Sydney as much as possible.