Lately I’ve noticed that the “prayers of the people” at my church are beginning to sound like the sixth seal of the Book of Revelation has been broken and the world is about to implode. While I'm glad we pray about important topics in global affairs like Iran's nuclear program or ISIS, it’s easy to feel tense when folks start rattling off one shocking headline after another. I want to be engaged with the things in our world that need change, but I wonder to myself: Where is hope? Where is the good news? It seems like our message has become: “Be afraid. Be very afraid. Oh … and Jesus.”
In “A Newsfeed of Fear,” (Sojourners, May 2015) Gareth Higgins writes: “Our culture has been hoodwinked by the idea that we’re living in the center of a crisis when actually we’re in the midst of an evolution of hope.”
Scandal and sensation are nothing new to the media, but I think Higgins is on to something: with our newsfeeds delivering a daily stream of scandals, shootings, and outrage to our pockets and wrists it seems easier to believe that our world is falling apart. And when these stories lack context, follow-up, or conversation, one crisis can just seem to flow into another.
In a recent conversation with my father-in-law, Elly Alboim, a veteran journalist and professor of journalism, he admitted that news media can paint “an unrelentingly bleak view of the world.” He noted how news outlets often focus on inexplicable tragedies (plane crashes), threats to health and wellness (U.S. fear over Ebola), and the bizarre (take your pick), all of which reinforce our sense that we’re living on the edge of global apocalypse.
Alboim also explained that people typically process the news in terms of threats. Each morning they perform their own kind of threat assessment, beginning with the most immediate threat — the weather — moving on to morning traffic and eventually, all the way to news of global terrorism.
“Nobody really cares about good or incremental news,” he explained. Consequently, the most threatening or the most entertaining rise to the top.
So how do we avoid letting our newsfeeds skew our perceptions of the world?
Here’s my take: Instead of letting ourselves be carried away by the latest viral story, we should seek to journey faithfully with our friends, neighbors, and communities. In doing so, we can, as St. Paul writes, “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).
This doesn’t mean getting rid of our newsfeeds; despite its faults as a viral echo chamber, social media can be a great tool for joining global and local communities in their rejoicing and weeping. We can use our newsfeeds as a tool to find new voices and learn about issues that are often ignored by mainstream media, crowded out by the fierce competition for our clicks and views.
If this newsfeeds-as-tool-for-empathy-not-fear approach sounds far-fetched, consider a report released earlier this year by Pew Research Center titled “Social Media and Stress.” The study found that those who used the Internet and social media frequently did not have higher levels of stress. In other words, using social media doesn’t necessarily mean you’re living in overwhelming fear that the world is going to hell.
But the study also found that for some users, especially women, there is a relationship — albeit indirect — between stress and social media use. This stress is not the result of the media itself, but rather the user’s increased awareness of stressful events in the lives of others.
This makes a lot of sense: “A social media user’s awareness of events in others’ lives includes knowledge about undesirable events, a friend or family member getting fired or losing someone close to them,” the study explained.
“Learning of such events in the life of a friend or family member can result in higher feelings of stress.”
Researchers called this phenomena “the cost of caring.” I call it empathy. And if we can extend this kind of empathy to all our digital neighbors, not just our friends and family, then perhaps we can change the algorithms of despair in our newsfeeds into algorithms of hope.
The Reverend Keith Anderson serves as pastor at Upper Dublin Lutheran Church in Ambler, Pennsylvania and is the author of The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World (Morehouse, 2015).