Social Media Isn’t News

This is the kind of thing that drives me nuts.

Actor Bradley Cooper was just another celebrity face in the crowd at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday night, but many Republicans on social media took vocal exception to the “American Sniper” star’s attendance.

Shortly after Cooper was caught on camera sitting in the audience next to model girlfriend Irina Shayk, conservative Twitter and Facebook users began to flood the platforms with calls for his boycott.

“I have a list of celebrities that support Socialism I refuse to spend another $ on,” said one Twitter user. “Add this one. Boycott them all.”

“Bradley Cooper at DNC?!” exclaimed another. “Guess I’ve seen my last Bradley Cooper movie.”

The apparent reason for the ire directed at Cooper stems from his portrayal of decorated U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle in the 2014 Clint Eastwood film “American Sniper.”

This is not news. It’s something that a handful of random people on the internet said.

I follow many conservatives on social media. I haven’t seen one of them complain about Bradley Cooper’s attending the DNC. I had no idea Cooper attended until this story. I actually had no idea that anyone assumed he was a Republican until this story. So what? A few random people online are unable to differentiate celebrities from the roles that they play. If journalists want to cover this, fine, but that doesn’t make it news.

Perhaps the entire point of articles like this one is to have evidence to say that group X is ridiculous and bad and you probably shouldn’t support them. Conservative websites do these exact kinds of stories too. “You won’t BELIEVE what Libs are DEMANDING now!” Click the link, and you’ll read tweets or see screenshots from 4 or 5 people you’ve never heard of, who have probably fewer than 1,000 followers combined.

It’s human nature to want to hear more examples, no matter how ridiculous, of why you’re right and They are wrong. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t hold journalism accountable a bit. It’s positively ridiculous to turn the stray tweets or Facebook posts of a few people into a national political story. It’s also more than a bit dishonest–if a reader who doesn’t have any social media reads daily pieces like this that supposedly document what “Republicans (or Democrats) on social media” are saying, then their instinctive reaction will be, “Well I don’t want any part of that.” When it turns out, 99% of other people don’t either.

Social media isn’t news.


How the Internet Rescued Planned Parenthood

Last week, NARAL, one of the country’s oldest and most vociferous champions of the abortion industry, released a YouTube sketch called “Comedians In Cars Getting Abortions.” The video isn’t funny by any stretch of imagination, pro-life or otherwise. But I doubt very much whether NARAL’s purpose in producing the sketch was even to score laughter. Rather, the whole video feels like an exercise in what C.S. Lewis called “flippancy,” the lowest species of humor wherein morals and good taste are always assumed to be their own punchline. The point is not to get people to laugh at abortion, it’s to get them to scoff at the idea that one shouldn’t laugh bout it.

Anyway. The video isn’t really worth much angst. What was far more interesting than the content of the video, however, was the timing. NARAL published the sketch on YouTube on the anniversary week of the Center for Medical Progress’s video expose on Planned Parenthood. Those series of undercover videos recorded Planned Parenthood executives discussing the methods of “harvesting” the tissue and anatomy of aborted infants, for the purpose of selling them to research labs. The videos progressively go deeper into a ghoulish world of unborn human trafficking, and at every turn, the employees and doctors running the show demonstrate a chilling apathy toward their visceral marketplace.

When the videos first started to release last year, many pro-life activists believed they would be hugely consequential for Planned Parenthood. The Center for Medical Progress framed the sting as conclusive video evidence that the abortion provider was violating multiple federal laws prohibiting the profitable business of selling human body parts. Calls for Congressional investigations began immediately. Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards initially ignored the videos but eventually apologized for the “insensitive” language recorded on camera. For several weeks, it looked like the most important player in the abortion lobby had finally seen its foot slide in due time.

But nothing happened.

Though several states did vote to cease any taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood, the fallout for the country’s biggest abortion provider was miniscule. Hearings in Washington went nowhere. Cecile Richards kept her job. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called the videos “disturbing” during the first few weeks of outcry, but promptly reaffirmed her support (with PP returning the favor). National opinion on abortion law saw little or no change. One state even exonerated Planned Parenthood and indicted instead David Daleiden, the head of the Center for Medical Progress (those charges have since been thrown out).

By the end of last year, it was clear that the videos had skipped off the surface of public consciousness like a stone on a lake. There would be no reckoning, no cultural moment. Why?

The videos’ producers probably bear some responsibility. As Joe Carter has noted, the release of the videos was (seemingly) unaccompanied by any larger, coherent strategy. There seemed to have been a tactical failure to think through, “What are we asking the public to do with this information?” By the time that media outlets were begrudgingly acknowledging the sting’s existence, the space for narrative and action had been ceded already to Planned Parenthood and its legions of allies.

But the strategic failures are only part of the explanation. The CMP may not have come up with the best plan for releasing their footage, but such a misfire doesn’t take away from what the videos actually show. The pro-life community was almost immediately mobilized, and as mentioned, several state legislatures felt pressure to respond. It’s not as if the videos were (as many in Planned Parenthood’s corner have insisted) simply smokescreens. So what happened?

The truth is that the sting’s impact was limited by social media. That may seem like a self-evidently false statement, given the fact that for a long while social media seemed to be the only outlet where the videos could be seen. Sure, the number of times that the videos were streamed, counted against how many mainstream media outlets refused to acknowledge them, may seem like a victory for conservative conscience on social media. But the failure of the videos to translate into a wider sociopolitical moment is actually a commentary on the inherent limitations of social media.

Popular perception is that Facebook, Twitter, and internet commenting threads are populist locales, providing a kind of grassroots rebuttal to the “elite” culture of big media. This is only partly true, though. When Facebook employees acknowledged a few months ago that their news aggregation services were explicitly designed to exclude conservative news outlets, they were revealing how deep of a misconception the “populist” imagery of social media really is.

Before Twitter and Facebook are communities, they are inevitably corporations—corporations with leaders who have ideologies. Every single that happens on social media happens—consciously or not—in a business context. This is why social media can never be a new kind of “town hall.” A town hall binds members together by space, membership and physicality. Social media binds members together by consent to what amounts to a business contract. The business of social media is to make money off its users. This impulse affects not just what social media companies allow on their platform, but even how they present what is allowed. Thus, videos on Facebook are surrounded by “Suggested” videos that have no meaningful tie to the original content. The goal is to get clicks, because clicks are profitable. Distraction means more clicks. Focused contemplation—the kind of thinking that leads to some action—is an enemy of distraction, and thus, an enemy of profit. Therefore, the entire superstructure of social media is one that undermines the appeals to conscience that the CMP’s videos employed.

Unless you woke up each morning last summer determined to take down the abortion lobby, there’s a good chance that your outrage at Planned parenthood didn’t survive the next viral video or trending hashtag that came along. How could it, when there is just so much content to look at it, and so little time for any one thing to stick? When your feed stopped talking about the videos, did it feel wrong, or merely normal? Or did you even notice?

The fuzzy, pixelated thinking that social media foments is a good conduit for getting angry, but it’s not actually good at getting things done. This is one lesson that we should learn from an otherwise lamentable protest culture in American universities. Though social media undoubtedly has played an important role in organization, the campus protests that crippled Missouri and made a think piece out of Oberlin have been remarkably present, physical affairs, protests that are connected in meaningful ways to place and people. With Planned Parenthood, there were indeed local protests and rallies. But these gatherings were not unique to a specific cultural moment. Once the assembling was over, the internet consumed the evidence.

The pro-life movement has historically been remarkably good at mobilizing communities. In this sense, the Planned Parenthood protests were unique in their ineffectiveness. But there is a long term lesson for pro-life here. The kind of social change that will throw off one of the Sexual Revolutions’ most precious and protected dogmas will not happen amongst people who just need their “click fix.” It will happen amongst people for whom wanton destruction of unborn life matters enough to build relationships and make appearances (and not just at protest rallies). The comfort of the social media echo chamber is seductive, but benefits those who are fine with likes, comments, and retweets–just not change.


Independence Week

firecracker-801902_640Tonight my family gathered to celebrate my older sister’s birthday. All of the James kids and parents still live in Louisville, a fact that I didn’t think sounded all that remarkable until a friend told me that it really was. Both of my brother-in-laws are Ph.D. students who have the world open to them after graduation. Who knows where they’ll end up? These family gatherings are for a season, and are precious indeed.

On the drive to my sister’s a police car came behind me. I always notice marked cars, check my speedometer and make sure I’m buckled and signaling. But I never panic or run through emergency “What if” scenarios in my head. That is a luxury that many people in this country, including some friends, don’t have. When a police car gets close, they are worried, not because of what they have to hide but because of what they have to know. There are many people in this country for whom a simple 8 minute drive is laden with potential peril. I cannot even imagine myself in the same scenario.

We celebrated on my sister’s new patio. She has two boys, one 3 and the other nearly 2. The 3 year old got a prize from  his parents for a successful episode of potty training: A toy gun. I played with toy guns for summers immemorial, so when my nephew brought me his new treasure, I looked on with admiration. It’s an impressively detailed, kid-sized AR assault rifle. I imagined my nephew playing in his yard with his toy gun, conquering evil emperor Zurg or Darth Vader. I never once worried that someone might think his plastic prop was real, that someone might call the police and that my nephew would find himself surrounded by strange men wearing black,  in a life or death situation far beyond the comprehension of a 3 year old. Never once did I fear that.

We dined on pork chops straight from the grill, my wife’s homemade mashed potatoes, watermelon, key lime pie, and sweet iced tea. We sat and talked and laughed, about work, school, the Trinity (!), movies, having babies and not sleeping. Our hearts were light and merry, and we rejoiced in each other and in our family the same way we’ve rejoiced a billion other evenings. In the humid sphere of a backyard in July, we knew that we had each other, and the thought of anyone there not being there was as far from our minds as the rings of Saturn. There is my mom and dad, playing with their grandchildren. There is my wife, carrying our unborn son, whom we will welcome into the world with an army of families to love him. There is my brother-in-law, a brilliant scholar who will never lack for opportunities and admiration. Everything, everyone, seemed right where they belong, and the future, though veiled, felt as kind as the past.

I don’t know everything there is to know about my country. I’m not in expert in her politics, or well-trained in her demographics. But sitting down to a hot meal in the thick of summer, with family around me and no fear of any imminent harm, I realized that I believe something.

I believe every single American should have a chance to know what a night like tonight feels like.

I believe every single person in this country should be able to live accountable to God and justice, and free from the fear of ruthless or tyrannical forces.  I believe the drives to summer barbecues should be expectant of joy and hope, not of chaos. I believe that everyone in this country ought to know how it feels to gather with their generations, with a life of hope and optimism spread before them.

I believe that social media is helpful in telling the facts but less helpful in telling the truth. I believe that it’s not the preeminent politicians or cultural icons who can bring a people together, but the thousands upon thousands of small churches that preach the gospel of peace. I don’t look to Washington or Hollywood for the balm to a hurting nation; I look first to the hills, from whence my help comes (Ps. 121:1-2).

Our country is like our own hearts: Awash in the contradictions of a humanity caught between the banishment from Eden and the glory of a new Jerusalem. We are just, yet unjust. We are righteous but then unrighteous. We clean the outside of the cup, but the inside we leave vile. That is not just a civics lesson. It’s the story of all the sick for whom Jesus came. We rejoice in America at the same time we grieve her sins. If there is contradiction in that, let it be the same contradiction inside of us.

And let us hope. Love hopes all things. Let us hope not because we know we can Fix Everything, but because when the United States is nothing more than an echo of a memory in human history, hope will live on.