Challenges to freedom of speech that affect the general population are issues that will reach critical mass within the community of faith. We need to be aware of current events surrounding major social media platforms so that we can be prepared to deal with it when our religious freedom of speech is targeted.
Next week Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg will appear before a U.S. Congressional hearing to explain why his social media platform allowed a massive data breach that not only exposed the personal information of its users without their knowledge, but also identified the users’ entire social circles of friends and family. Depending on one’s privacy settings, personal data may be used by Facebook. But even that does not account for all the issues that have recently surfaced.
Remember all those Facebook quizzes you took? It was those which profiled you for marketing purposes plus gave third-party apps access to your personal data and that of your social media connections. Many hackers use these quizzes to gain valuable information they can then use to defraud their victims.
The controversy that has landed Zuckerberg before Congress began when it was revealed that a consulting firm for Donald Trump had obtained the personal data of more than 50 million Facebook users. But little is being made of much bigger issues at Facebook including the fact that Facebook freely allowed massive exploitation of user data to the re-election campaign of President Barack Obama before the 2012 election.
In March this year, Carol Davidsen, the former media director for Obama for America, tweeted that Facebook let the Obama campaign take the data “because they were on our side.”
When Zuckerberg is grilled under the spotlight of a televised congressional hearing, he will no doubt be crying, “Mea Culpa!” He has already begun to accept blame for the Cambridge Analytica data breach but that is not going to be enough. He will need to explain why Facebook allowed an even larger data breach to be used by the Obama campaign.
According to one University of North Carolina assistant professor who writes extensively on the social impacts of technology, Zuckerberg has been been apologizing for 15 years for overstepping, but he hasn’t fixed his social media platform. Congressional hearings are the perfect place for apologies that do not result in any remedies.
In my opinion, the major problem is that Washington D.C. politicians are only interested in how their own political fortunes are affected by what the tech companies are doing. Little interest has been shown for the bigger picture of “Big Brother-style” censorship and indoctrination being exercised through technology manipulation across all social media platforms.
Big names in conservative and religious circles are enduring this censorship. PragerU tried to sue YouTube and Google over censorship, but a California federal judge blocked the lawsuit; Brigitte Gabriel’s ACT for America, among others, was suddenly suspended from PayPal over her conservative political advocacy; and Twitter has banned many accounts like Britain First for supposedly hating Muslims and Project Veritas for their sting exposes on many pet Liberal causes. Many others have been targeted and this is trend is on the rise.
The common theme here is not so much that social media monopolies are really weeding out hate speech since they leave some of the worst offenders from the Left intact. Louis Farrakhan and Linda Sarsour, for example, have no problems with censorship for hate on social media. Censorship of conservative and religious viewpoints is real and rampant. Imagine the shock of a Christian writer when Facebook censored his post of Leviticus 18:22 (“Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable.”)!
“The service has also spun out of control in other ways: Censoring pictures of alleged ethnic cleansing posted by human rights activists; offering to sell ads based on keywords like ‘Jew hater;’ live-streaming murders and suicides; and so on,” wrote Jeff John Roberts in a recent Fortune article.
Social media censorship is nothing new, but it is increasing and also highly selective. As beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so is what constitutes offensive. The “beholder” at the major social media platforms decidedly hail from the political left. They are mostly young, social justice liberals with strong anti-religious biases. It is no wonder they cannot discern between human rights activism and Islamic terrorists when they are freshly graduated from colleges saturated with anti-Jewish/anti-Israel spin.
Stealth: Tools of the Trade
Technology provides its own cover for the most objectionable of social media platform capabilities. For instance, it is difficult to detect when a platform is censoring its users because the technology can be used sneakily to hide that fact from user. The user may never know they have been banned because they can still see their content online, but they are the only ones! To everyone else their comment or content is invisible.
It is like shouting in the wind — knock yourself out shouting into the wind because no one can hear you. That’s the point. To wear you down so you give up and go away. And it works. I experienced it my hometown paper, the Dallas Morning News, back in the mid-2000s. Some of those connected with the Messianic community have also had their online comments at Israeli newspapers shadow banned or outright removed so no one could see their stance for the Messianic faith.
Shadow banning is more effective because it is completely non-confrontational. If the commenter doesn’t know what is going on they are not going to complain or cause a fuss. It is one of the censorship tools that Twitter uses and has been in use at major online newspapers for many years.
The ability to shadow ban was only recently exposed after some larger investigative journalism teams were hit with shadow banning. It is also called stealth banning, ghost banning or comment ghosting. Whatever you call it, techies are laughing up their sleeves while they censor views they don’t like.
On Facebook last Feb. 28, I was one of several who experienced a temporary inability to post new comments. We could reply to the posts of others but as soon as one or two letters was typed into a new message window, a dark screen would descend over the page making typing impossible. After clicking the X to exit, the page would return to normal — but we still could not enter any new messages. The lockdown went on for four hours. Checking around later I found a small number of others in my social media circle who went through the same thing during the same time frame. They were locked out for varying lengths of time — some less than me, some more than me.
Was it a technical glitch or was it a new censoring tool like shadow banning being tested? I have not been able to find the answer to that. Of course I reported the problem to Facebook, but they never give straight answers about what they are doing. We are just the user. We are the product.
Just like in the case of Dennis Prager’s lawsuit against YouTube, the current legal opinion is that, despite the monopoly the giants of social media have, they are businesses with the right to censor or not censor as they see fit. That is exactly why a California judge threw out the PragerU case. Even with Google’s incredible monopoly on information, how they choose to sensor or stack the information deck is entirely up to them. John Q. Public has no legal standing to protest.
For example, after the Parkland school shooting, Google blocked all AR-15 results from search queries. AR-15s are searchable on Google again, but imagine the power the Google holds over information resourcing. It is troubling to say the least and especially for those of us who are Bible-believing followers of Yeshua. If we don’t expect these issues to impact us sooner rather than later, then we need to wake up to what is happening already.
How far will Facebook go?
According to a New York Times report, Facebook quietly developed software to suppress posts from appearing in user’s news feeds in specific geographic areas in China. Zuckerberg has defended the censorship because it helped Facebook get into the Chinese market. They have done the same in restricting content in Middle Eastern countries like Pakistan and Turkey, also in Russia.
“Facebook blocked roughly 55,000 pieces of content in 20 countries between July 2015 and December 2015, for example,” according to the New York Times report.
If Facebook is comfortable with the censorship demands of those undemocratic nations, why in the world should we trust them with having our best interests in the free world? This problem with social media platforms is only increasing and we should not expect the politicians to solve it for us. Expectation is quite low that anyone in the Capitol Hill hearing will even address how the social media platforms are rampantly censoring political or religious views at odds with the social justice views of Silicon Valley techies. With few exceptions, D.C. politicians and pundits are only interested in their angle: How will it impact elections?
How Will Social Media Continue to Impact Our Faith Community?
Daniel Juster, a Messianic believer in Israel, has been paying attention to the developments with social media censorship and has posted several short commentaries about it on Facebook. Juster is concerned with the power of social media and especially how the left-wing media uses social media to slander conservative voices. Rampant lying on Twitter, for example, is not dealing in truth but in the politics of personal destruction. He says the smear tactics operate “very much like communist disinformation campaigns.”
A leading Messianic theologian, Juster is concerned with the rise in singling out those who believe in traditional morality on social media platforms such Facebook, Google and YouTube.
“Just for one example is Dennis Prager, the brilliant Jewish commentator,” Juster wrote recently. “Over 40 PragerU videos — 10 percent of their entire collection — were put on the YouTube ‘restricted mode’ making it difficult for many young people to access.”
The target audience of PragerU is young people. Restricted mode helps families keep inappropriate and objectionable adult content away from their children. As they write in their own defense, “If you’ve seen any PragerU videos, you know that they contain nothing even remotely close to any of these categories.”
What were some of the Prager titles banned? These: Why Do People Become Islamic Extremists? and Gender Identity: Why All the Confusion? Also, Are the Police Racist? and Israel: The World’s Most Moral Army.
Juster is concerned about the choices being made and the built-in accusation that by just talking about our beliefs, we “are said to be haters.”
We are haters if we promote traditional morality?
Like PragerU ,whose videos are “are produced with the sole intent of educating people of all ages about America’s founding values,” Juster’s greatest concern is the influence of media in conditioning the young. He has given serious thought as to how we can effectively counteract the negative influence of social media.
“There are three primary factors that are leading to the loss of the next generation, and they work together like a perfect storm,” he wrote. “The first is that the churches in the west are mostly not set up for effective discipleship. This is true of most Messianic Jewish congregations as well. Hardly any discipleship takes place. I have written on this before. Congregations are mainly ‘go to meetings’ institutions to hear messages and worship, but not much more in many cases.
“Young people need three things to effectively inherit the faith their parents:
- They need age appropriate apologetics that has to be updated every year as they face issues from junior high and even through graduate school. Arguments against our faith can be refuted and the evidence for what we believe is very strong. This includes contemporary miracles and signs of great interventions by God today. Every young person needs to be in apologetics updates every year.
- They need a rich and deep experience with God that is very dear to them so they cannot easily walk away. We need to know how to lead them into the experience.
- They need to be trained in resisting the power of media and education. We need to know what is said and train young people to recognize, and then resist. They need wisdom to deal with social media and internet news. They need to be educated to resist indoctrination in education. Culture is so powerful in giving lenses for seeing what seems real yet may be terribly false and wrong. For 37 years I have believed that followers of Yeshua need to opt out of public schools for home school consortiums and private Bible-based education. However, the latter has to be good and not just a superficial religious gloss, and many such schools are weak. As part of training, discipleship needs to be deep in content, practice and mentoring.
“Finally, I hope pressure builds to pass legislation to break up the monopolies of the big media companies,” Dr. Juster wrote. “It is crucial. They could be regulated as utilities requiring open content as long as it does not call for violence. We need more media companies. Break up the giants. A professor from NYU said that present anti-trust laws only ask if the consumer is benefited and do not look at the danger of content control.”
Juster is not alone in his concern about how social media is negatively impacting the faith community. Thankfully, we know that some brilliant, believing technologists have been working for decades on alternative communication and social network platforms that could replace existing platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google, YouTube.
They are waiting for the faith community to realize that the “free” services of social media giants are not really free at all. We are paying a huge price: our freedoms in exchange for free social media.
One of those technologists that I and others in Israeli ministries have been aware of for decades was the first I heard make a clarion call for the development of believers’ own social media and email platforms. This would protect the faith community from exactly what we are seeing unfold in today’s headlines.
Michael, who asked that only his first name be used, spoke with me this week as I gathered resources for this article.
“What I have is a vision for completely separate Kingdom networks for the public at large that would not censor godly or conservative agendas,” he told me. “It has been a part of my vision for more than 20 years and would replace the current social media and communications.”
Why hasn’t that been developed?
“The desire for free over the desire for privacy and freedom won the first round,” Michael responded. “I was only charging $10 per month for private email and could only get a hundred folks to sign up. As privacy and censorship issues grow, I believe folks will begin to be willing to pay $10 per month for all their communications to replace Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Google Search and Docs.”
“We should pray,” he continued, “that these types of networks get funding and have the financial support of the people.”