I try to guard my attention closely for, as King Solomon admonishes, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” (Proverbs 4:23). I don’t always succeed, but on my best days I focus on things I truly wish to understand through diligent study and things which I am able to do something about. The rest I trust to God and His providence. As Eli Lapp instructs his grandson in the film Witness, “What you take into your hands, you take into your heart.”
Failing to be good stewards of our attention can lead to indulgence in idle gossip, our own mere opinions, and ideological propaganda. My colleague Michael Miller recently warned us that our current media environment makes these temptations more acute:
The rise of what Edward Bernays politely called “public relations” firms along with the internet, cable news, social media, data collection, and efforts at behavior modification have made the conditions for propaganda even more favorable.
We like to define propaganda in a convenient way—limiting it, say, to Donald Trump’s twitter feed or whatever message we don’t like. The left will think of the alt-right and Fox News while the right will think of the mainstream media and gender ideology.
They all have a point. But even those of us who claim to be wary of state or other concentrations of power can easily ignore our own use of propaganda, or even justify it as necessary. As Ellul argues, every propagandist justifies his use of propaganda for good ends. The problem is, as Plato tried to tell us, propaganda is always bad for human beings and society. It makes us susceptible to ideology. Worse, it turns us into liars.
Jennifer Rubin, writing for the Washington Post, points out that our fixation on social media distorts and conceals more about politics and the attitudes of our fellow citizens than it reveals:
Now, Pew is out with a new study emphasizing how tiny a sliver of the electorate Twitter users are. We start with the reminder that only 22 percent of the population tweets. However, even within the Twitterverse only a minority tweet about politics. Just 39 percent of all users mention “national politicians, institutions or groups, as well as civic behaviors such as voting.” So 8.6 percent (39 percent of 22 percent) of the population is in the political Twitterverse. And 97 percent of the political Twitter’s material is produced by a mere 10 percent of users: That is 2.2 percent of the population.
This distortion and concealment is then amplified in the mass media by its own increasing dependence on social media:
Equally bonkers is the tendency of journalists (who I have a sneaking suspicion are over-represented in that tiny population of frequent political Twitter users) to cover the campaign as if Twitter (i.e. they are their peers and equally obsessed political social media users) is representative of the population. And yet that is precisely what a good deal of political reporting looks like.
As Lord Acton pointed out long ago:
Common report and outward seeming are bad copies of the reality, as the initiated know it. Even of a thing so memorable as the war of 1870, the true cause is still obscure; much that we believed has been scattered to the winds in the last six months, and further revelations by important witnesses are about to appear. The use of history turns far more on certainty than on abundance of acquired information.
Reporting is hard work precisely because certainty is harder to come by than information. It requires both scrupulous integrity and diligent study. Incentives to merely gossip, recycle conventional opinion, and advance propaganda are greater when incentives are directed toward ‘engagement’ rather than discovering truth.
Keeping these destructive incentives in mind as we make discriminating use of social and mass media can help us to guard our own hearts. Removing ourselves from gossip, refraining from uninformed statements of opinion, and examining our own bias through deep study of our world and ourselves can make us better stewards of our time, talents, and attention. The key to changing the world for the better has always been in changing ourselves. (1 Thessalonians 4:9-12).