Is Social Media Losing Credibility?
Kinda. But also kinda not.
Hey everyone! I took a month-long break from this newsletter for the first time ever, and it was hard to not write here! But I’m feeling refreshed and am excited to be back. There’s been a lot going on.
I hope you’re all having a nice summer. I can’t wait for summer to be over, personally.
Let’s get back in the saddle and figure out this social media stuff once and for all! :-)
A couple of weeks ago, Tim Keller tweeted a thread saying this:
A general impression: Social media continues to lose credibility with people across the political spectrum as a place for content and thought. I don't believe it has the same clout that it had even two years ago. In general, it is not as reflective of the general population as people thought. The ‘call outs’ on social media are losing steam and this is a good trend.
I say this despite the fact that there is a great deal of corruption and abuse inside corridors of institutional power, and it does indeed need to be confronted, challenged, and changed. But the original promise and hope that social media would be a major means for this-is dimming. As an instrument, it is itself too easily manipulated, abused, and difficult to trust. That doesn't mean it won't continue to serve a purpose.
A friend texted this thread to me asking what I thought about it. At first, I found myself nodding my head in agreement with Keller, especially at these thoughts:
“The ‘call outs’ on social media are losing steam and this is a good trend,”
“As an instrument, it is itself too easily manipulated, abused, and difficult to trust. That doesn't mean it won't continue to serve a purpose.”
Yes and amen to those.
But while I agree with those bits of Keller’s thoughts on social media, I think that I generally don’t only disagree with Keller’s overall line of thinking, I think it’s just plain incorrect and perhaps too sharply shaped by his personal experience with social media.1
Keller makes a handful of related-but-unrelated claims in this thread, so I don’t think it would be helpful for me to simply say, “Keller isn’t right here.” Because I think he is right on part of this thought. But I also think he is wrong on part of it, too (as much as I wish he was correct). So let me just address what I think is the primary claim of the thread and why I think it is at least unclear if not totally incorrect.
“Social media continues to lose credibility with people across the political spectrum as a place for content and thought.”
Of course, Keller is tweeting this, so he can only elaborate so much, but I think this is far too broad of a generalization to the point that I think it is at best unclear and at worst wrong, especially if applied broadly.
Keller says that social media continues to lose credibility with people. Who, exactly? On the surface, I agree with Keller in the sense that it is true and factual that some are beginning to disregard social media as a place for meaningful thought and communication.
But I feel like an implication of Keller’s thread is that social media is losing some meaningful measure of credibility. People like Keller—thoughtful people, smart people, rational people—are the kinds of people increasingly dismissing social media as a place for meaningful content and thought. It’s no surprise that, for instance, David French agreed with Keller’s thread. French is another person whose intellectual peers have certainly begun to disregard the platforms.
One could say “thought leaders” are a lot less interested in social media than they were even three or five years ago. I wonder if, perhaps, this is not only because of the clear toxicity of social media, but because social media is the great leveler—a place where being a well-educated thought leader isn’t as powerful as being an obnoxious, powerful troll. If I was an intellectual like Keller or French, I would see social media as less credible than before if for no other reason than I can be ratioed by someone with an anime avatar and a bunch of numbers in their username.
All told, more eyes are being opened to the net-negative effects of social media. This is good and right. But I think it is primarily happening among people who have the wisdom and knowledge to look above the trance of the medium and recognize how the medium is affecting their ability to receive a message.
But if you’re going to tweet that social media continues to lose credibility, I feel like you also need to recognize that social media is still a dominating force of discipleship and culture-making among the masses who don’t consider how the medium may affect the message. Something can “lose credibility” among thought leaders and still be seen as credible by the masses. Because the reality is that, while pastors and authors and academics and others are fleeing social media, dismissing it as a cesspool of negativity (understandably so), the people listening to their sermons, reading their books, and taking their classes are still being shaped by social media more than they are by the thought leaders who have fled the platforms.
What About Politics?
Likewise, if Keller intends to say that this is primarily regarding political issues (given his “political spectrum” bit), I really wish I could agree with him, but I just can’t. I quote-tweeted Keller’s thread back when he first tweeted and said this:
I wish this was the case. I want to think it’s the case. But no, I don’t think it is the case. And the 2024 POTUS election cycle will prove it isn’t the case.
Should social media be losing credibility when it comes to political thought? Definitely. Is it losing credibility when it comes to political thought among the well-educated and most reasonable social media users? Probably. But it is far from losing steam for political content.
Is it losing relevance for political content and thought that’s worth our attention? Certainly. But come back to this idea on the night of the first 2024 primary debate and look at the countless tweets, commentaries, and memes through this idea and it will prove mistaken.
If you think social media has lost credibility or relevance when it comes to political issues, just maintain an account and scroll your preferred platform during the 2024 presidential election season. Watch the TikTok content that comes out of the first primary debate. Read the Twitter threads from cable news personalities. Scroll past the memes your neighbors and family members post to Facebook.
I think that if you are surrounded by super thoughtful, intellectual friends, you likely think social media is losing credibility as a trustworthy medium of information gathering and processing because those people are citing it in conversation less than they have previously.
But I think if you’re in a Sunday school class, at a rec league softball game, or chatting with your neighbor mowing the grass, you’ll find plenty of people are still going to social media for political thought and other kinds of information.
According to Pew, 40% of Americans get their news from social media “often” or “sometimes,” with 31% of Americans getting their news from Facebook, 22% of them getting their news from YouTube, and just 13% of them getting their news from Twitter. While the overall percentage of Americans getting their news from social media is down slightly since 2020, it isn’t down a meaningful amount.
Social Media Isn’t Going Away
I was sort of frustrated when I began to think about Keller’s thread because only in the last couple of years have I begun to see a lot of people really start to understand the pervasive impact of social media on how we communicate with one another and understand the world around us. And I fear that someone like Keller talking about how “people are seeing social media as less credible” will give people the permission they’re looking for to just not care about it anymore (again).
Keller is right, in one sense, that social media is losing credibility (at least among some people). But we shouldn’t be led to believe that social media is headed for some kind of irrelevance. I have spoken with so many pastors and church leaders the last couple of years who themselves don’t care much about social media but cannot figure out how to wrest the hearts of their congregants out of the jaws of Facebook and otherwise. This is an example, I think, of what I wrote above—pastors may not find social media credible, but their congregants likely do. And this is a crucial disconnect.
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Is cable news less credible and relevant than it was a decade ago? Definitely. It is still credible and relevant in the eyes of millions of people? Also definitely.
In the same way, while social media may be losing credibility and relevance among certain portions of the population, namely thought leaders and intellectuals, we should be careful to assume that social media will not continue to be a noxious hub of political thought and content generation. Hang around for the 2024 election and I promise you’ll see what I mean (and don’t forget your gas mask).
I want so desperately for Keller to be right about social media is losing credibility and is no longer seen as a place for political content and thought. And I think it is true for some people. But I think the upcoming election season will make this thread look a bit silly.
This is something we’re all prone to when talking or writing about social media. I have to fight my own experiences biases all the time writing this newsletter and my books.