Posting Peace: Why Social Media Divides Us and What We Can Do About It by Douglas S. Bursch (InterVarsity Press, 2021) is a timely book with some extremely useful ideas and some disappointingly weak argumentation. The main aim of the book, which is to explore ways in which we can be more peaceful on social media, is an important one and by the end it has some useful, spiritually grounded and sensible suggestions. (By the way, I was sent a free copy of the book in return for this review by Speakeasy – what follows is my honest opinion.)
If this book was a cake, it would have some delicious icing in top, a boring but adequate Victoria sponge middle layer, and the bottom would be an unpleasant soggy mess of cold porridge or boiled cabbage. When you eat a cake, you can pick the icing off the top and leave the rest, and that’s what I would like to suggest readers should do with this book. However, the soggy bottom layer is strongly present throughout the first half of the book. It has twelve chapters, and it improves rapidly after chapter 5, with the best bits starting at chapter 8. Let me take you through the three layers so you can see for yourself why I describe it this way.
Assumptions, generalisations, and lack of evidence
A charitable reading of what happened to the first part of this book might say that it must have been written in a hurry and without access to good library resources. The textual evidence suggests it was completed after the beginning of the pandemic and before the election of Joe Biden, so this is a fairly likely scenario. However, the unfortunate fact is that the author is very prone to making claims which might be true, and seem like ‘common sense’ from some perspectives, but which are not necessarily true and for which no evidence is provided. They appear throughout the background narrative which sets up this book: a story of change, a story of how technology made everything worse, and in particular how people’s cognitive and social skills are affected by the use of technology. There are lots of examples but I’ll run through three to give you the idea.
Page 25: “Television limited our attention spans, weakened our reading capacities, and shifted our focuses to visual stimulation over an auditory focus.”
No citation or other evidence is provided for this claim. It might even be true, but how would we know for sure? I like to watch TV but I also have the reading capacity to, err, read and review this book, so it obviously didn’t completely change what’s possible. Did the whole population really have an auditory focus before? Maybe they did to the extent that they were used to listening to the radio, but films and photography also existed, and visual art, forms of drama, and storytelling all go back as far as we can trace human history. I won’t even touch the thing about attention span, which depends a lot on the individual, the task, and the situation, and I’m not convinced is shaped much at all by the medium involved.
Page 28: “Although not everyone uses social media, the societal consequences of social media affect every person. What becomes normalized in our social media practices becomes standardized in our marriages, families, and friendships.”
This seems plausible at one level, but no evidence is given, and it’s easy to construct the opposite case. Context matters to human learning and communication – as people find out when they realise they know a word in their target language when using Duolingo, but can’t remember it when they try to use it in a sentence. Normal social behaviour in one context is not normal in another – if the way I act on social media is going to become normal in my marriage, why doesn’t it go the other way? But I’m pretty sure that I, and all the other married people I know, behave differently when alone with our partners to the way we behave online. Every day, most people also manage to behave differently and appropriately in lots of other settings, even on different kinds of social media. I don’t put the same things on my work Slack and my Twitter feed, and I don’t answer an email from my grandparents the same way I answer an email from a professional contact. That being so, it seems like this sentence and others like it were added to the text to build up the stakes and make the topic of this book seem important – but I think the people it’s for already knew that it mattered. If anything, a description of the positives of social media, explaining why it’s useful and interesting and fun and why people (especially Christians, given the wider focus of the book) should engage with it rather than distain it, might make this case in a more convincing way. And it might be easier to provide evidence for that.
Page 38: “Before humans had tremendous transportation mobility and almost unlimited access to numerous social networks, we were more likely to learn how to abide in functional ways with our families, neighbors, churches, and local communities. … If we got into a conflict with our neighbors, we had to learn how to reconcile. Otherwise, we would find ourselves alone.”
I’ve skipped a few sentences from this paragraph of fantasy about the past, but I think this is enough to give you the picture. I have two major questions about this whole idea. One is: when, exactly, is this? Fifty years ago before the internet? A hundred and fifty years ago before cars? Writing is about five or six thousand years old, and the oldest known boat is about eight thousand years old, so about nine thousand years ago before those technologies helped people travel and communicate more widely? The other is: at any point in all that history, were people actually good at this? Could it be that over history, a lot of people have lived in dysfunctional communities, been treated badly by their families and alleged friends, wanted to leave home and start a new life, been left alone or killed, and found ways to connect with people who shared their interests rather than their geography? Of course, both of these things can be true. Some people in the past have done amazing reconciliation work – and some are doing that work now. Others have been alone, or worse – executed, imprisoned, transported, tortured – because they were in conflict with others around them. Relevant to another aspect of this book, about two thousand years ago a preacher is said to have been tortured to death by a colonial government.
Vague mainline Protestant theology
The aforementioned preacher, usually in his more theologically laden guise as the Risen Christ, is mentioned a lot and gets a small amount of explicit discussion in this book. I think this divides potential readers in three groups. If you are a theologian looking for a robust discussion of the theology of social media, this book makes a start but it’s likely to leave you hungry for more, because the reconciling work of Christ is the context for reconciliation work between human beings rather than the main event. If you are not a Christian but interested in how to improve social conditions on social media, the background assumption of Christianity might confuse or annoy you. That leaves the target audience at people who are happy to assume a shared Christian background and want to consider social media use in that context – probably a large section of the American book-buying public, so a reasonable decision in that context.
To my mind, the discussion of theological issues is largely uncontroversial within a Protestant Christian context. The most interesting part is the account of Bursch’s own spiritual experience as a chronically ill teenager, where he does a good job of expressing his connection to the God and misses another opportunity to talk about the benefits of internet use. (See page 83, where he lists texts, Snapchat, and Zoom among other technologies now available – I was a teenager with a chronic illness in 2000-2005, and getting online was one of the best things that happened to me.) He also talks about Paul’s conversion and themes of reconciliation in the Gospels, with a few standard comments about the cross and some more interesting reflections in the final chapter on how Jesus handled crowds. This material is the boring but adequate sponge cake part. Unlike the unsupported claims I discussed in the previous section, the theology does do what Bursch needs it to do to hold up the rest of his argument.
Bringing reconciliation to the internet
I think there are four helpful contributions which readers might take away from this book – the icing on the cake. Those contributions are:
1. Trolling as a verb, not a noun
Bursch doesn’t deny the existence of various forms of trolling behaviour, and he’s happy to accept that there are times when the right thing to do is to block or mute people. His reasoning goes beyond avoiding hurt, though, to say that by blocking someone who is hurting us we also do them a favour, preventing them from continuing to sin by hurting us. He argues that we should avoid labelling individuals as trolls because this is dehumanising and suggests that they can’t change; identifying specific trolling behaviours is more productive – so “don’t enable trolling” rather than “don’t feed the trolls”. Of course, some people self-identify as trolls when they choose to embrace trolling as a practice, but in general I think this is a fair point. It doesn’t make trolling okay but it may change how we respond or how we feel about the situation, especially if we can see our own potential to hurt others reflected in the hurtful behaviour we see around us. “When we view them [people who troll] as humans, made in the image of God, making terrible decisions, we can see how their behavior is also expressed in and through us.” (page 135)
2. Contextual awareness and the refusal of simplistic rules
A lot of advice – about anything, but especially about newish things like the internet – is framed a lists of apparently simple rules. Never this, always that. This has its place but isn’t always productive, often depending whether you agree with it or not – only the Sith deal in absolutes, as Obi-Wan Kenobi reminds us. Bursch is at pains to avoid giving “a set of laws” but instead offers “five questions I try to keep in mind during every online interaction” (page 118). These deal with motivations, priorities, and grace – number 5 is “What is the Spirit Saying?” To me as a Quaker reader, his emphasis on asking God and listening for answers is intensely familiar and seems practical. “Asking God a yes or no question [‘God, do you want me to post this?’] might seem odd to some,” he writes, “but I find a clear resolve rises up in my heart when I intentionally stop to inquire of God’s will.” (page 125) That allows for a wide range of responses to different situations, and takes into account your needs and as much as you can know (maybe more, depending on your understanding of prayer) about the needs of others. It doesn’t prejudge what the Spirit will say. Nor does it make claims about correctness: God can want you to refrain from arguing even when you’re right, and want you to articulate your perspective even when you’re wrong.
3. Emphasis on giving humanising responses (even though it sometimes provokes further attack)
Bursch’s approach is not conflict-avoidant – it sets out to create opportunities for reconciliation by trying to remember the human. He gives some nice examples of this, including some where the person he is trying to reconcile with responds by doubling down on an attack. I think peacemakers will recognise this from other situations (not everyone is ready for peace or justice; not everyone is in a position to respond humanely), but it’s useful to be reminded that this is a part of trying to do the right thing, not a route to sweetness and loveliness all round, and it will be difficult and painful at time. His focus is on responding in a way which is caring, even when he disagrees: “when we participate in the most meaningful discussions, we demonstrate that we genuinely care about the individuals having those discussions.” (page 155) This is another place where he does begin to articulate what is good about social media – it’s an opportunity to join in and to show what you care about. For Bursch, that includes social justice and peacemaking.
4. Practical suggestions and a hashtag for community building around this theme
Throughout the book, Bursch suggests exercises, often including using the #PostingPeace hashtag, which might help readers build a more peaceful online community. He doesn’t suggest that this will be easy or even that we will succeed. “It’s hopeless. We’re doomed. The internet is too powerful and social media is too corrupting for any of us to make a difference. Social media forms us into really divisive, dehumanising, cantankerous people.” (page 164) But this position will be familiar to anyone who takes a stance in favour of an ideal – pacifists, campaigners for equality, etc. – and I don’t stop thinking that war is bad just because I don’t succeed in stopping them all (or probably any!). Instead, as Bursch puts it, “we seek first the kingdom of God, wait upon the Lord, and allow God to set the agenda of our online communication.” (page 171)
I agree with Bursch that we as individuals, or even all the readers of this book or this blog, are unlikely to be able to change the tone of general internet conversations, but we can do our best to exist peacefully and justly online as in the rest of life. And some things might even catch on.
Overall, I found this book thought-provoking. I would recommend giving it a careful reading, alert to what is supported with evidence and what is assumed to be obvious, and looking for how it can be useful.