Dr. Kate Ott on How Social Media Divides the World: Seek Relationships, Truth, and Transformation By Using Technology Differently

Dr. Kate Ott, Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew University Theological School, gave a lecture titled, “How Social Media Divides the World and How Can We be Reconcilers?”on June 10, 2021.
Dr. Kate Ott, Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew University Theological School, gave a lecture titled, “How Social Media Divides the World and How Can We be Reconcilers?”on June 10, 2021. (photo: Screenshot/Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia)
By Karen LuoJune 16th, 2021

A Christian social ethics professor urged Christians to use social media in a different way to create relationships, truth, and transformation, rather than promote division in the world.

In the second session of the eighth Christian Forum for Reconciliation in Northeast Asia conducted on June 10, Dr. Kate Ott, Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew University Theological School in Madison, New Jersey, gave a lecture titled, “How Social Media Divides the World and How Can We be Reconcilers?”

Featuring “Divisive Social Media and the Ministry of Reconciliation,” this year’s forum, which began on June 3, was initiated by Duke Divinity School's Center for Reconciliation, Mennonite Central Committee, Collaboration Council from Northeast Asia.

The forum adopts the phrase "Word Made Flesh", examining the three critical dimensions that it contains: theological ("the Word"), contextual ("became flesh"), and practical ("and dwelt among us"), according to 2 Corinthians 5:18.

Using the theological approach of lament, Dr. Ott, who holds a doctorate in Christian Social Ethics from Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York, and a Masters of Arts in Religion from Yale Divinity School, quotes words from her mentor, Dr. Emilie Maureen Townes, dean of Vanderbilt Divinity School, that “lament can serve as an anchor to help us find our bearings on how to live as people of faith.”

Named “Lament and Hope”, the 2019 article read, “We learn from biblical laments that it is imperative to name what is wrong with as much precision and honesty as possible, even if it hurts or causes us to wince. From the Psalms to Joel to the cross, laments tell the truth of the suffering that is smothering our worthiness, our dreams, our ability to work toward a better tomorrow. Laments mark the beginning of the healing process when we open ourselves up to look at the situations we find ourselves in and our own complicity in them as well as the ways in which we are victimized by them. And, importantly, we see and feel with clarity how this affects others who may have no direct relation to us but who are all a part of this magnificent journey of life.”

“We need to uncover the suffering that is happening because it is indeed smothering our worthiness. We need to make that step into a healing process and in that healing, we need to recognize those who are victimized and those who are complicit and at times it can be both of us, especially when that comes to social media,” Kate explained.

Dr. Ott said that there were three aspects in which social media was dividing us: “social media values information and data over relationship”, “popularity over diversity or truth”, and “accumulation over transformation.”

She said, “The first, valuing information and data over relationship. The media platforms themselves are built on a networking technology that encourages relationship, but not a relationship that is deep or abiding in the sense that we in Christianity mean and understand in relationships. Instead, it’s built on multiple connections. Social media platforms are built to encourage the sharing of information which includes a significant amount of data. Each time you share, that might include date markers like location, time, keywords, hashtags, and images.”

“The other piece of the information and data value is the need to get you to continuously engage. So the platforms are built in a way that encourages continuous engagement through use of notifications and reward affirmation systems… When you get that affirmation, you then continue to post more, you widen and broaden your network,” she continued.

“You also, however, get many notifications unless you have chosen to turn them off on your phone. These notifications are ways that the platform reminds you that ‘it’s there that you should be sharing that there are posts to engage with and look at.’”

“It is difficult for us to not pay attention to those and to dismiss them,” she said. “They are also playing on our need for recognition and engagement with one another.”

“This leads to the second value of popularity over diversity and truth. Social media platforms are built on a system of algorithmic popularity and there are a number of factors that go into that popularity,” she confessed.

Content popularity was explicitly about getting people to engage with or in what we post. It generates more data because other people would engage with our posts.

“This is what platforms want. They don’t just want more information, they want relevant information. This is the point where algorithms work toward popularity or work against issues of diversity and truth,” she added.

“The actual content, what is being shared, is not as important as whether it engages and creates additional connections. When it does that, popularity arises. This is how we get things like misinformation campaigns. The truthfulness of content does not matter. Relevance is determined by whether a user chooses to respond or not and sometimes disinformation, unfortunately, is more relevant to users. “

She claimed, “In order to create relevance to you as a user, social media needs to create a profile of you that slowly limits and creates less choice. The platforms are making choices for us based on our past engagements.”

“Lastly, social media values accumulation over transformation. Accumulation happens over the period of time that a user is on social media. That means that everything you’ve done on social media has a data trail.”

Even if we deleted some data, the connections we had might have shared our posts in the past. As sinful people, we used a software that cataloged our errors, hate speech, and violence.

“Social media never forgets. It documents our every thought, our photos, our connections, our meals, our vacations, and our families,” she said.

“Do we want the right to forget our sins, our errors, or do we want a system, a culture that holds us accountable for them, that forgives us and allows us to transform because of them?”

As a white resident in the U.S., Dr. Ott talked about social media postings of police shootings or murders of black and brown people. Grateful for their documenting of discrimination hoping for transformation, she suggested that Christians should consider documenting suffering and death. The narrative in Mark 15 described Jesus as clothed in a purple cloak, and then beaten and tortured to death.

“We as Christians hear this story every year. We then read the narrative of crucifixion, a brutal, imperial, state of death. Yet reading the narrative is a bit different than the visual on social media. The visual, the moving in-person image of this violence creates a different form of trauma for viewers. There’s research based on this that showed the repeated viewing of such trauma can have lasting and negative impacts on people, especially people who see themselves in the body and the experience of the one being victimized. This is the truth of lament.”

“It matters who is sharing that information. Consider someone in a faith community who shares the story of Jesus’ beating and death and shares that in a counseling session to someone who’s experienced domestic violence, sharing it to let them know and say to them, ‘Jesus suffered. Jesus experienced violence and harm and that’s part of being a Christian. You should experience that kind of harm. Go back to that relationship.’ That to me is a misuse of Jesus’ death and crucifixion and violent experience. Jesus voluntarily chose that and the domestic violence victim does not choose that voluntarily. I think if Jesus could have gotten the world to recognize that this was not what we needed to be doing to God in order to understand or change, that we did not need that violence.”

If the domestic violence victim survivor told this narrative, they might help us understand the pain they had experienced and help us see that violence should not happen to anybody any longer, Dr. Ott stressed.

“We need to shift from information and data to using media to cultivate relationship and humanize the people with whom we interact and the earth, the environment that allows these interactions. We should see the dirt and the labor every time we touch our phone or open up our laptop. When we post on social media, visualize the people with whom you’re engaging and see them as full human beings.”

“We need to shift from valuing popularity to promoting diversity, diversity in our networks and truthful information. Here’s what I think of the story of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit, the great communicator, doesn’t come down and create one language. The Holy Spirit gives the ability to speak and hear in multiple languages. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful use of our technologies, to see, to hear, to value the vast diversity of God’s creation? In that diversity, we gain truthfulness about each other rather than misinformation or stereotypes.”

“Lastly, we need to shift from the value of accumulation to seeking transformation. That might be on a large scale or a very small change. Maybe you don’t need to lift up your phone and take a photo to remember the moment. Maybe you do, but you don’t need to post it for everyone to see.”

Reflecting on the story of Jesus meeting the disciples at the sea of Galilee, she said that Jesus was told that they failed to catch any fish. Jesus simply commanded them to throw their nets to the other side of the boat, the small change resulted in a full net of fish.

“Can we throw our nets to the other side? Can we seek transformation, diversity, truth and relationship? We could do these things, even on social media, but we will need to use the technologies differently than they are currently asking us to engage with them,” she concluded.

related articles