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Andrea Syverson 7-06-2017

In Zuckerberg’s mind, the days of institutions like “churches and Little Leagues” are over. Using Facebook’s new artificial intelligence software, the social media giant can organize its users into groups that will serve the same purpose.

While Zuckerberg missed some important purposes a church community serves, he was right about one thing: Christians are leaving their traditional, brick-and-mortar churches — in droves.

Karyn Wiseman 3-01-2017

Image via a katz/Shutterstock.com

According to several sources, the number 40 is used almost 150 times in the Old and New Testaments. Some examples: Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. There were 40 years of wilderness-wandering for the Jewish people fleeing bondage in Egypt. Noah and his family were in the ark for 40 days and 40 nights of the flood. There were 40 days and 40 nights of fasting while Moses was on Mount Sinai. Jonah was given 40 days to convert the people of Nineveh. Saul, David, and Solomon reigned 40 years each. 

Image via RNS/Creative Commons

Religion is increasingly viewed as highly politicized, not least due to the way that it is frequently covered in the newsNumerous studies have shown that news stories with emotional cues tend to both gain audience attention and prolong audience engagement.

It may therefore come as no surprise that online debates about religion are packed with emotional cues that evoke strong reactions from those who participate in them. This sets the stage for passionate online debates.

Image via RNS/Archdiocese of Oklahoma City

An American missionary priest, killed in Guatemala in 1981, has moved a step closer to being named a Catholic saint, after Pope Francis declared him the first-ever American martyr.

The Rev. Stanley Rother, a priest from the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, served for nearly 15 years in Guatemala before being shot dead, during the country’s bloody civil war that divided the country from 1960 to 1996.

Image via RNS/Rev. Tuhina Verma Rasche and the Rev. Jason Chestnut

For many Christians who observe the liturgical season of Advent, leading up to Christmas, an Advent devotional is a beloved companion.

Such devotionals typically include a short Scripture reading and reflection on the birth of Jesus.

But most are “crap,” according to the Rev. Jason Chesnut of Baltimore.

Danny Duncan Collum 10-28-2016
JuliusKielaitis / Shutterstock.com

JuliusKielaitis / Shutterstock.com

TOWARD THE END of August this year, more than 100 million potential U.S. voters were exposed to a fake story about the presidential election that was disguised as hard news. The story, which claimed that Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly had endorsed Hillary Clinton, began on an ultra-Right website called endingthefed.com, but a link to it quickly appeared in the “Trending” box at the top of the Facebook screen. Not only did the fraudulent link slip through Facebook’s legendary screening software, but it stayed there for a full eight hours.

A couple of weeks later, the opposite problem struck when the Facebook robo-censor kicked out posts containing the Pulitzer Prize-winning 1972 photograph of a young naked Vietnamese girl fleeing a U.S. napalm attack. The Facebook Machine didn’t see a gut-wrenching statement about the cruelty of war. It only saw a naked little girl. After an entire day of protests, Facebook finally announced that it would reprogram the software to allow that photo of a naked girl.

Facebook has been cajoled and scolded over the past year by various German officials about the company’s failure to preemptively remove racist material, as German law requires. But Zuckerberg insists Facebook is “a tech company, not a media company.” We build “the tools,” he said, “we do not produce any content.”

The through line in all of these controversies is a persistent question about the role of human decisions versus that of computer algorithms in determining what material appears on Facebook or other digital media intermediaries, including the Google News search engine. Are we just going to see the stories that are generating the most statistically measurable buzz? Or will trained professionals take a hand in guaranteeing that what we see is actually true? The answer has enormous legal consequences for companies such as Facebook. If their human staffs are making choices about the veracity and relative importance of news stories, then digital media platforms may be liable to lawsuits over the content of those stories. But the stakes are even higher for the future of journalism and the functioning of democracy.

Image via RNS/Reuters/Osservatore Romano

Pope Francis is the king of Twitter and other social media outlets but he’s still not on Facebook, the most dominant digital platform in the world.

Will that change following his meeting with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on Aug. 29?

A billboard in Mumbai, India, promotes Facebook's Free Basics initiative.

A billboard in Mumbai, India, promotes Facebook's Free Basics initiative.

A COUPLE years ago, when net neutrality (the principle that internet service providers must treat all websites equally) was threatened by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Facebook stood firmly in its defense. Google, Netflix, Amazon, Twitter, and other high-tech giants took the same stand. Companies that make their money providing content or mining data from web users need net neutrality in order to function.

This February, India’s equivalent of the FCC, their Telecom Regulatory Authority, had to decide an important net neutrality test case there. A huge, U.S.-based multinational came into the Indian market offering an internet connection that limited users to the parent company’s own site and a severely limited menu of other pre-selected sites. This company spent millions on an advertising campaign against the principle of net neutrality in India. But finally Indian regulators stood firm and net neutrality was upheld.

The strange twist here is this: The U.S.-based Goliath fighting net neutrality in India was Facebook.

An obvious conclusion here would be that Facebook thinks net neutrality is only good for rich countries. Indians must be too poor, too ill-educated, maybe even too brown to handle the freedom and responsibility that comes with an open internet. That impression was confirmed when a member of Facebook’s board of directors, venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, went on Twitter to proclaim: “Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?”

Elizabeth Weise 1-08-2016

Image via /Shutterstock.com

The meeting comes as nations around the world fight a sometimes losing battle against the highly-skilled online outreach of the Islamic State, which has done a remarkable job of using social media to create recruitment and public relations materials to promote its efforts. Apple, Facebook, and Twitter said Thursday they will have representatives at the meeting.

Greg Horton 9-04-2015

Image via Stanimir G.Stoev / Shutterstock / RNS

The Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics briefly used its official Facebook page on Aug. 26 to debate marijuana and the Bible. After two commenters posted references to the Bible in response to a story about the detrimental effects of marijuana on the brain, a bureau employee engaged them in a theological argument.

Joshua Lewelling, a medical marijuana legalization activist and retired Air Force veteran who lives in Inola, Okla., posted a reference to Genesis 1:29: “And I give you every seed-bearing plant to use for food for it is good.”

The response to Lewelling’s initial response rankled Lewelling because he believed the bureau was lecturing him about his own Christian faith.

Photo via REUTERS / Allison Shelley / RNS

Franklin Graham speaks at an evangelistic rally in Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2011. Photo via REUTERS / Allison Shelley / RNS

Graham, president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the Samaritan’s Purse charity, describes Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the subject of his latest post, as the daughter of immigrants who made good on the American dream.

“Unfortunately,” the post continues, “she is also an example of someone who seems to be very misguided on the issue of same-sex marriage. She voted to strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act in 2014, and homosexual advocates consider her an ally in their fight to make same-sex marriage the law of the land.”

Image via scyther5/shutterstock.com

Image via scyther5/shutterstock.com

In 1990, my father and pregnant mother packed up their life in suburban Illinois, bundled their four young children (including me) onto a plane, and landed in Romania to teach on a grant at the University of Bucharest.  

The country was in the throes of revolution following the execution of ousted dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, and the transfer of power was by no means tidy or complete. The Securitate — one of the most brutal secret police forces in the world — proved difficult to shut down. All our neighbors operated under the assumption that their every move continued to be watched (one friend had taken apart his typewriter by hand and hid it so he could answer honestly that he did not keep a typewriter in the house). Being American, my parents were told to expect our apartment to be bugged.

Freedom had come, but the systems of omnipresent control proved psychologically hard to shake.

The specter of surveillance is an insidious tool. In the 1790s, British philosoper Jeremy Bentham developed a centralized prison model called the panopticon, in which every occupant is visible to a single guard. Most models, since adapted by prisons and schools around the world, leave open the possibility that there is no supervisor watching after all. Whether there is isn't the point — the mere promise of one is enough to coerce significant behavior change. Being constantly observable is the trap.  

These days, Americans don’t need a formative year spent in post-soviet Romania to feel uneasy about omnipresent surveillance. Edward Snowden’s revelations of massive secret surveillance programs operating under the NSA, with enormous access to private data from citizens not suspected of terrorism or criminal wrongdoing, rocked our understandings of data privacy and civil liberty. Now, as then, it’s reasonable to worry that we’re being watched.

Photo via Januzzi family / USA Today / RNS

Patricia Jannuzzi. Photo via Januzzi family / USA Today / RNS

Patricia Jannuzzi, the veteran Catholic high school teacher from New Jersey suspended for her anti-gay Facebook posts, will be reinstated immediately, school principal Jean Kline said in a letter.

Jannuzzi, a 33-year theology teacher at Immaculata High School in Sommerville, N.J., was forced to deactivate her Facebook page last month after several alumni started circulating screen shots of her sharply worded posts against gay marriage and gay rights. Two days later, the school placed her on administrative leave.

The letter to students and parents, quoting school director Msgr. Seamus Brennan states in part:

“Immaculata High School has reached an understanding with Mrs. Patricia Jannuzzi. It is the School’s position that a Catholic school teacher must always communicate the faith in a way that is positive and never hurtful. Tone and choice of words matter and I trust Mrs. Jannuzzi’s stated promise to strive always to teach in a spirit of truth and charity.”

Christ Fellowship in McKinney, Texas, offers a Facebook page, online sermons, and live chats . Photo via Christ Fellowship/RNS.

God bless online media. Almost half of U.S. adults (46 percent) say they saw someone sharing “something about their faith” on the Internet in the last week.

And one in five (20 percent) say they were part of the Internet spiritual action on social networking sites and apps — sharing their beliefs on Facebook, asking for prayer on Twitter, mentioning in a post that they went to church.

“The sheer number of people who have seen faith discussed online is pretty striking,” said Greg Smith, associate director of religion research for Pew Research Center.

Megachurch pastors have mega-followings online. Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church streams his Houston services online. Rick Warren of Saddleback Church has 1.8 million likes on his Facebook page. And Pope Francis has more than 4.6 million English-language followers, chiefly American, for his @Pontifex Twitter feed.

Mitch Mayne, Dr. Caitlin Ryan, Wendy Montgomery, and Diane Oviatt during the screening. Photo via Mitch Mayne/RNS.

It was a gathering that would have been unthinkable just five years ago.

On a cool summer evening, in a borrowed classroom overlooking San Francisco Bay, about 150 men and women gathered to screen a short documentary about a Mormon family whose 13-year-old son came out as gay.

The Montgomerys, who accepted their son and his news, were ostracized by church members, some of whom refused to accept Communion distributed by the young man in church. Like many conservative Christian denominations, the 15 million-member Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints bans homosexual activity and considers it grounds for exclusion from Mormon rites, rituals and even the afterlife.

Tom Ehrich 8-12-2014

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. Photo courtesy of Tom Ehrich/RNS

I was scanning my Facebook news feed when I read articles about murders in Iraq.

It seems Islamic extremists in Syria are using beheadings and crucifixions to intimidate opponents. Photos and videos look eerily like scenes from illustrated Bibles.

I read about right-wing hate speeches on the steps of the Massachusetts State House in Boston, stirred by opposition to immigrants but proceeding on to everyone else they hate.

I read about gay bashing in the militaryAnti-Semitism in EuropeDomestic violence in Baltimore. And on and on.

I have two responses. First, I applaud those who post such things on Facebook. Cat pictures are fine, but if this ugliness is going on in our world, we need to know about it.

Second, has humanity entered some new depth of degradation? Or do we just know more?

Ed Spivey Jr. 6-04-2014

Illustration by Ken Davis

And they're using it for themselves.

Brandon Hook 5-21-2014
Blan-k/Shutterstock.com

Blan-k/Shutterstock.com

I was born in 1990. That puts me squarely in the middle of what is referred to as the millennial generation.

It also, apparently, makes me a lazy, entitled, narcissist who still lives with my parents.

But that’s beside the point. What’s more important about the date of my birth is that it places me at a distinct and pivotal point in human history: I grew up with the Internet — what they call a “digital native.”

I (vaguely) remember when the Internet got popular; having slow, dial-up that made lots of crazy noises whenever you wanted to use it; talking to other angsty teens on AOL Instant Messenger (“AIM”); downloading music on Napster and Kazaa; and then, slowly but surely, having the Internet became engrained in my everyday life as if it was there the whole time.

But, like the bratty sibling I grew up with (upon reflection, I was equally, if not more, bratty — #humility #perspective), I’ve recognized that I have a love/hate relationship with the Internet. It’s a game-changer for the human experience, so, like that sibling, I think I’ll always love it. But, for every positive, innovative element of the Internet there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Doug Stanglin 5-14-2014

Thousands of Iranian women sending photos without their hijab. Photo courtesy Stealthy Freedoms of Iranian Women on Facebook.

Thousands of Iranian women are sending photos of themselves without their hijab, or veil, to a new London-based Facebook page dedicated to allowing them “stealthy freedoms.”

The Facebook page — called “Stealthy Freedom of Iranian Women” — was set up by Iranian journalist Masih Alinejad and has attracted almost 150,000 likes.

Alinejad told the Guardian, which first reported about the site, that she has been inundated with messages and photos since launching it May 3.

“I’ve hardly slept in the past three days because of the number of pictures and messages I’ve received,” she told the newspaper.

The photos show women — sans veil — in parks, on the beach, or on the street.

Christian Piatt 4-01-2014
Virtual life concept, agsandrew / Shutterstock.com

Virtual life concept, agsandrew / Shutterstock.com

Religion has, for centuries, been fairly obsessed with the afterlife. For some, what awaits us after our physical death is fairly central to their faith. But thanks to the Internet, many of us end up having a sort of life after death, whether we intended to or not.

In a recent article published in the New Yorker magazine, Pia Farrenkopf experienced the sort of digital life after death that some might find appealing, while others would consider it rather horrifying. Pia traveled frequently for work, so it was not unusual for her neighbors not to see her for long stretches at a time. They would mow her lawn when the grass got long and kept an eye on the place during her long stints out of town.

As such, she lacked many close ties near home, and like many of us, all of her monthly finances were automated and tied directly to her bank account. So although she died in early 2009 while sitting in her car in the garage, it was not until very recently that anyone actually discovered she was dead.

It took that long for her checking account reserves to run out, which led to utility shut offs and a visit from the bank to issue an eviction notice due to missed payments. So although her body had set partially mummified in the garage for nearly five years, as far as the outside world was concerned, she was still alive.

In his book, The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil speaks of a not-so-far-off point in our future when the ability of computers to process information and replicate human thought and behavior will get to the point that we will question what it means to be conscious, and to be a person.

It seems like the stuff of science fiction, to consider the possibility of people uploading the entirety of their life experience, or even some iteration of what we understand to be their consciousness, to a network of computers. But the fact is that we already are wrestling with these sorts of ethical implications, even today.

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