The rise of online extremism, and what Christians can do about it

The internet seems to be awash with extreme opinions. This is very much true of the Christian internet.

Theologically and politically marginal views have more prominence and influence than they once did. Why is this, and what can we do about it?

I don’t know why you got on social media in the first place. Perhaps it was to keep up with old friends or to share photos of the kids with your family. Maybe you wanted to connect with people who were fans of the same band or had the same hobby or just to look at videos of puppies.

But once you were on there, it probably didn’t take you long to notice that the conversations online were not all lovely chats over the back fence.

Your newsfeed quickly filled up with political articles and commentary shared by ‘friends’ who wanted you to be outraged and appalled by what ‘the other side’ (whoever that is) was doing. You noticed that people were sharing opinions with which you disagreed.

Maybe you clicked the ‘like’ button, or shared a piece yourself; or forgot yourself and commented on an article to express your own approval or disgust. And then: pretty soon that person’s news feed was coming up again and again, and that strong feeling you got was on daily repeat…

Sound familiar? In his fascinating new book, Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make our Platforms Less Polarizing, sociologist Chris Bail explains how our social media platforms ‘bend and refract our social environment’, like a prism bends and refracts light.

Bail has conducted extensive research into the way people behave on social media platforms.

What he is found is that it’s not quite as simple as the usual ‘echo chamber’ theory suggests – that we only see people we agree with and so only hear opinions that confirm our own. In fact, when we are fed opinions we don’t agree with, we tend to become more extreme in our own opinions!

We feel that they are more under threat; so we then turn to more extreme commentary on ‘our side’ to reassure us.

What Bail has found is that the social media prism drives extremism and mutes moderate views. Social media pushes moderates to become more extreme, and extremists to become increasingly radical via two processes.

First, extremism is normalized. Social media, remember, feeds on status: the more response I get, the more validation I get. The more an extremist can gather around them a crowd of people who will ‘like’ and ‘share’ their views, the more they will feel that their views are not that ‘out there’.

Extremists love social media, because it gives them the status that they don’t get from the everyday. They often don’t have a regular institutional platform.

You can see this in Christian circles: extremists often don’t hold denominational positions of influence. Any idiot with a laptop can set up a blog. I know – I’ve been that idiot!

But secondly, the prism also makes the views of people on the ‘other side’ seem more extreme. Extremists will often do battle with the most extreme members of the ‘other side’. Extremists with opposing views are quite like each other in this.

By painting the other side as more extreme and uncivil, you justify your own extremism in response.

And so the loop continues.

But along with this ramping up of extremists, the social media prism silences the middle ground. It ‘mutes moderates’.

Most people find extremism upsetting, even though they may lean a particular way. But moderates have more to lose than extremists. Where extremists delight in causing a stir, moderates are cautious about upsetting and dividing people. They risk getting harangued by extremists on their own ‘side’ for being too ‘wet’.

There may even be real-world consequences for expressing online opinions.

And they feel that challenging online extremism is hopeless. They cannot muster the emotional energy or find the time to combat it. The social media prism makes the other side ‘appear monolithic, unflinching, and unreasonable’, as Bail puts it. They despair of changing anyone’s mind.

As I’ve said above, I’ve seen this happen in the Christian social media world, especially since the pandemic. There’s been more and more prominence given to more extreme voices. Extremists have argued that they deserve a platform, not as a counterweight to extremists on ‘the other side’, but as a balance to moderates. And true to form they are making an outsize noise.

For example, the number of Christians who will not accept the vaccines is likely to be less than 10% – just as it is in the community. But you wouldn’t get that impression from social media, because the anti-vaccine voice has been amplified. And that has led to reporting in the secular media which has distorted what is actually going on for most churches.

It’s time for us to call out extremism when we see it; and to not perpetuate it. If we are aware that social media will push us towards extremes, can we put a brake on ourselves?

So what can we do about it?

We Christians have even more to play for than the rest of the community. Relationships and ideas matter to us deeply. A united Christian voice matters for our mission to the nation – and that unity comes from managing our differences well, not with the kind of vehemence and overstatement that comes from extremists.

And there is no question but that we ought to be peaceable, gentle, and humble in all our relating to others – no less on social media than anywhere else.

First, ask yourself: am I an extremist? Social media is not a mirror. It does not tell you the true state of your opinions and influence. The size of your cheer squad will tell you nothing about how reasonable your opinions are. What you think you are like is almost certainly not what you are like. Your fans will gushingly thank you; those who don’t like you because you are too extreme, will probably say nothing.

Secondly, if you are moderate, don’t abandon the field to the extremists. Social media is not going away, although we can overstate its influence. We need to encourage a better culture of sharing and discussing ideas – using social media to explore, investigate, debate, and connect, rather than to inflame and destroy.

But thirdly: we need a little courage here not to let the loudmouths dominate. It’s time for us to call out extremism when we see it; and to not perpetuate it. If we are aware that social media will push us towards extremes, can we put a brake on ourselves?

Don’t share the articles of extremists; don’t retweet their tweets. Think twice about interacting with extremists, even if you are arguing with them. The more you interact, the more they benefit, the more the internet becomes a nasty place. The moderate never wins – it’s like the proverbial pig-wrestle. You both get muddy, but the pig actually likes it.

And fourth, don’t approach ‘the other side’ as simply ‘the other side’. Bail shows that the huge majority of people are not extremists, and will have a mix of views and experiences. This is true of the Christian community as it is in general. Why not take a more inquisitive and open approach to all your social media interactions?

Michael Jensen is the Rector of St Mark’s Darling Point and co-hosts the podcast With All Due Respect with Megan Powell du Toit.