This week we begin a seven-week series, Social justice and social media.
Is social media inherently progressive, politically speaking? Theologically?
Last year in the wake of the Rush Limbaugh scandal arising from his attack on a Georgetown University law student who had protested the school’s refusal to cover birth control, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite of Chicago Theological Seminary observed that social media helped empower the women who defeated Limbaugh. In her March 2012 article on the Washington Post’s On Faith blog, Thistlethwaite wrote, “Many women are finding each other through social media and they are able to give powerful voice to their outrage at the injustices done against them. … The outrage has been there for a long time, simmering. But the connection to new media has changed how women understand themselves. They are realizing they don’t have to be voiceless and powerless any more. Women, especially younger women, connecting through new media are finding a new sense of self-empowerment. And they are using that power through social media.”
She goes on to claim, “I believe social media is inherently progressive,” because it has the power to level the playing field between the “haves” and the “have nots,” which she connects to a Christian ethic that recognizes God in movements of justice. That God calls us into in such movements is evident throughout scripture.
Social media is certainly about access to information and rapid communication, two key elements in the effective social justice movements that have empowered dispossessed and oppressed people for centuries. But is the media tool itself that which is progressive, or is it the movement behind the tool that manifests political and/or theological commitments to justice for all people?
I wrote about this in an essay for the New Media Project, “Faith communities in high relief: Reflections on the Trinity.” The question I actually posed was an evaluative one: “If social media practices function to change societies in ways that are liberative, focusing on justice, freeing the oppressed, and empowering the afflicted so that they might live life abundantly,” then are they worth pursuing? The theological content attached to the social media tool in this question is essential. Without that content, we cannot say that social media is inherently progressive, I believe.
“If social media is used to fan the flames of despotism and oppression, which it certainly may do—there is no reason why the forces of oppression couldn’t use the same social media tools to influence opinion and action—then it is no longer a good.”
Content is key. We don’t worship the social media tool. In the essay, I note a Huffington Post editorial, in which Arianna Huffington warns against the danger of the fetishization of social media. She warns that among some in the media, the tool of social media is itself idol-worshipped, and they have failed to be concerned with the content being spread around.
With this series on social justice and social media, the New Media Project Research Fellows return with a conversation about theology. The primary question is: How do different ecclesial and theological perspectives approach 1) social justice and 2) the increasing role that social media is playing in social justice initiatives around the globe and here in the United States? They will write from their theological and ecclesiological perspectives and in conversation with each other. They might address how the Roman Catholic or Mennonite or African Methodist Episcopal or process or reformed theology case for social justice might engage the growing influence of social media on social contexts. Or they might approach the question in a new and creative way.
We are eager to participate in the conversation and hope you are as well. And please know that this series along with previous series will soon be available for educational purposes via download from the New Media Project website.
The image displayed in this post was created from "iPhone 4 by John.Karakatsanis, on Flickr" and "Human Needs by Edward Hoover, on Flickr" in accordance with Creative Commons licensing.
Verity A. Jones is the executive director of the Center for Pastoral Excellence at Christian Theological Seminary, Indianapolis, and project director of the New Media Project which is now part of this new Center.
The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.