By Eric A. Clayton
Facebook has had a tough couple of months.
If you’ve been following the news, you know that a series of investigative reporting, a flurry of testimony and interviews both on the Hill and on our TV screens and a consortium of international journalists – all spurred by the work of a Facebook analyst-turned-whistle blower – have revealed what we probably all already knew: Some pretty bad stuff happens on – and apparently at – Facebook.
Instagram tanks the self-esteem of young people. Facebook’s algorithm makes us all angrier. And communities from Ethiopia to Myanmar suffer unspeakable violence and hate because no one seems able or willing to adequately monitor all the content produced across the globe.
And to cap off these disturbing series of reports, we learn that Facebook is doubling down on the digital world it’s creating, evidenced by the company’s new name, Meta.
If science fiction has taught us anything, we should know to be at least a little skeptical of the creation of parallel or alternate universes, particularly those powered by machines and fully virtual in their manifestation. I’m pretty sure that was the moral of The Matrix.
This isn’t just about Facebook, though; this is about social media, the ecosystem we all sink and swim in every single day. Problematic though it is – and it is in many ways – social media is here to stay.
In the First Week of The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius challenges us to look closely, honestly, thoroughly at our sins and our sinfulness. It’s his hope that we feel tremendous sorrow for the many times we’ve refused or ignored God’s love, yes, but it’s also his desire that we see the full scope of suffering in our world. With God, we see the vast brokenness of creation; we’re moved to tears.
We desire to stand with Jesus, to see all things new through the eyes of Christ, and give ourselves to God’s project of love, mercy and compassion, to realize God’s dream. We desire to heal the brokenness in ourselves and the wounds our brokenness has caused in our world.
This only works, though, if – to borrow once again the words from Walter Burghardt, SJ – we take “a long, loving look at the real.” We cannot shy away from the world’s great need, the tremendous suffering of humanity and creation.
Isn’t this exactly what we are so often tempted to do in our mindless scrolling through one social feed after another? Isn’t this the endgame of Facebook’s supposed metaverse? We separate ourselves from the world. More significantly, we become increasingly accustomed to living disjointed lives.
After all, are the images we share on Instagram long, loving looks at our actual lives, or lives we pretend to have? What feelings, then, are we trying to stir in our viewers? Jealousy? Envy? Anger?
Does TikTok put in front of us content that is reflective of the many needs of our world, or the trends most likely to keep us on the platform? Do we engage to promote the common good, or to feel relevant and timely?
Do our tweets engage with the brokenness of others, or do we just poke and poke and poke at wounds until they fester and bleed? Our echo chambers, after all, often only show us what we want to see — or what we enjoy gossiping about.
If these Facebook reports only confirm what many of us already suspected, then what responsibility do we have – have we had – to act?
Social media is here to stay, but we can’t look at it as just another series of apps or even just one more source of news. It’s become a mediating force through which we experience reality – or don’t.
And Ignatian spirituality is deeply concerned with how we experience reality because that’s where God is; that’s where God’s people are, where God’s creation continues to unfold. Finding ourselves lost in screens disconnects us from ourselves, our bodies, our presence in the created world.
We must continue to challenge ourselves and one another to look honestly, deeply, painfully at what is really happening in our world around us each and every day, not just what is fed to us through algorithms.
And so, I invite you to take time praying with this social media examen.
- God is here. All things come from God; God is present in all things – even the darkest of corners of social media. Give thanks to God for the people on the other side of each Twitter handle and TikTok video, for each person navigating these feeds, for the ability to connect with people near and far in such innovative ways. All of these people are made in God’s image
- Ask for light. Ask God for the grace to see and reflect truth, beauty and humanity in all you do across social media.
- Pay attention to details. Each image, each tweet, each prayerful request or unkind remark reveals something of God’s people and God’s creation. What needs, deep wounds or hurts do you see? Do you find yourself judging others? Who are the people being marginalized, cast aside or maligned? What needs do they have? On the other hand, what beauty do you see here? Where are people uplifting others, calling attention to important affairs or sharing joy? What feelings does this stir in you? Are they good or bad?
- Do I reflect God’s love? How are you called to respond in productive ways to what you witness? Are you able to in this particular medium? Do you feel pressured to nonetheless? In your own words and images, do you share something good and true, or do you tear others down or point only to yourself? Are you obsessed over clicks, likes and retweets? Do you share only to boost your own ego or brand? How are you contributing to a culture that refuses to take a “long, loving look at the real?” What feelings are you trying to stir in others?
- Disconnect. God is much greater than your screen. Take time to encounter God, God’s people and God’s creation; do not let yourself become absorbed in the digital world. Ask God for clarity in discerning how to cultivate Ignatian indifference toward social media – in other words, to use social media only to the extent that it helps you praise, reverence and serve God and God’s people and creation, and disconnect yourself from it when it does not.
In the end, as Ignatius’ First Principle and Foundation suggests, we must be equally content with likes, retweets, shares and comments, as we are with posts that go unnoticed in so far as both help us achieve all that God intends. But we must proceed lightly, mindful that we do not turn social media – or our own social presence – into a god.
This reflection is part of a weekly series that you can get sent right to your inbox by signing up at Jesuits.org/weekly.
Eric A. Clayton is the deputy director for communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith” (Loyola Press). His writing has appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, Give Us This Day and more.