Ethics of Communication in a Digital Age
We live in a digital age in which our lives are influenced in significant ways through social media. The digital revolution has powerfully transformed how we communicate. Instead of communicating personally through live, in-person interaction with others, we have become increasingly accustomed to a virtual-only form of communication on social-media platforms. The virtual world of digital communication gives the illusion of somehow still being personally involved in communicating with others while at the same time doing it remotely and from a distance.
Such digital and virtual communication, however, often comes with a distinct loss in social and relational quality as compared to our real interactions when we are physically present to communicate with others. We are realizing now that the experience of live, physical reactions and expressions is very important for effective and successful communication.
There are a number of drawbacks we suffer when communicating only digitally or online: (1) We are often not able to fully see the other person, and sometimes we cannot see the person but only hear him or her; (2) We are not able to benefit from the physical touch of the other person; and (3) No perception of smell enters into communication with someone with whom we are interacting only digitally. In light of the fact that digital communication is now largely influenced by bots and increasingly driven by “community-based” algorithms rather than by objective facts and/or principles guided by truth or other ethical-biblical virtues, we need to reflect on some ethical principles regarding how, as Christians, we should communicate. This has implications for our personal communication in everyday life and also impacts how we communicate the gospel and biblical truth—even more so since, unfortunately, much of the language on social media has become aggressive, destructive, and even violent hate speech.
These ethical principles should not be limited to our communication on social media platforms. But they nevertheless have particular relevance for the way in which we present our personal opinions and share information digitally. As followers of Christ, we should exercise spiritual discernment, be transparent, and conduct our communication in ways that reflect God’s character and give glory to Him.
The Challenge of Living in a Post-truth Era
Since the outbreak of the COVID pandemic, we have been confronted with a social phenomenon that is nothing short of mind-boggling, calling for a biblical ethics of communication. So-called “fake news,” “alternative facts,” and “conspiracy theories” have caused havoc and divided people, even within the church. The perceived loss of absolute truth in postmodern society, where “truth” no longer corresponds to external reality nor is based on demonstrable facts, has strongly affected the Christian faith, which is grounded in history and established on the reliable reality of historical facts. Without such real-world anchoring, truth loses its universal appeal and morphs into a subjectivism of just “my personal truth.” Truth has degenerated into “truthiness,” a sweet-sounding word that refers to a seemingly truthful quality that one wishes to be true—not because of supporting facts or evidence, but because of a feeling that it is true or a desire for it to be true.
In 2016, Oxford University Press chose post-truth as its word of the year. It is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”* In such a context, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish falsehood from truth. “Fake news,” misinformation, and disinformation have become prevalent in our age of social media.
When dealing with “fake facts” and “alternative facts,” however, facts alone will not convince anyone of the truth anymore. In this post-truth era, digital communication poses significant challenges for Christians and for our responsibility in sharing things on the Internet: On the one hand, the World Wide Web is borderless and has literally widened our global reach to the ends of the earth. On the other hand, digital communication on social-media sites has let many users immerse themselves in what has been called an “echo chamber,” an environment, especially on social-media sites, in which any statement of opinion is likely to be greeted with approval because it will be read and heard only by people who hold similar views. The same could be said of cable-news channels and other venues that generally cater to only one side of the political spectrum. Thus, while the digital age has globalized our outreach, it has at the same time fostered an isolationist pattern that increasingly jeopardizes any meaningful communication and is deadly to civil discourse and any genuine attempt to solve problems because people listen only to what they want to hear and what their subjective preference will allow. This means that often the only solution perceived by a given side is absolute conquest over or even the destruction of the opposing side. There is no longer any middle ground or room for legitimate compromise.
The Need for Ethical Principles of Communication
The question we need to address is: Why does factual evidence seem to have so little influence on people’s beliefs? In a post-fact and post-truth society, more is needed than a mere listing of facts. We need an ethics of communication informed by the wisdom of ancient biblical virtues that enables us to implement in meaningful ways pertinent biblical principles for the challenges we face. In Luke 10:27 a noteworthy statement of Jesus is recorded. Here the Bible tells us that we should love God with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our strength, and with all our mind. This virtuous thinking is a way of thinking that is characterized by certain inner attitudes and dispositions toward things like truth, knowledge, and understanding, which we all should exercise when we are engaged in communicating digitally and on various social-media platforms. Without virtuous thinking, we cannot truly love God or give honor to Him, nor will it be an honor for us if we are deficient in these aspects. Let us look at some key characteristics of virtuous thinking that can guide our communication:
Carefulness. In the digital world—as well as in the analog world we inhabit—our communication should be guided by carefulness. Whenever we want to communicate our insights in an ethically credible way, we need to cultivate intellectual carefulness. Such carefulness is at the foundation of all knowledge. In the Bible we are repeatedly called to be careful in what we speak (Matt. 5:37; James 5:12) and how we observe what God has told us to do (Deut. 12:32; 2 Tim. 3:10). Jesus tells us that the one “‘who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much’” (Luke 16:10, NKJV). Therefore, those who are careful in their communication do not want to distort the truth but earnestly want to know the truth and consistently make sure not to rush to any hasty conclusions that are based rather on limited knowledge. Intellectually careful people are thorough and diligent in their thinking, and cautious not to overlook any important details. We all know cases where hastiness or carelessness in our work, in our studies, in our relationships, in science, and in theology have led to disastrous results. Careless thinking is always dangerous. An essential ethical component in our communication is the need for accuracy. Accuracy safeguards our communication so that information is not distorted by partial reports or inaccurate presentations.
The biblical virtue of carefulness is particularly crucial in an era of digital communication. First of all, digitized information may easily undergo at least two processes: decontextualization and recombination. Copying text out of its original context and pasting it into another context makes it difficult to protect the original information, and the changed meaning is almost impossible to control. We certainly should not communicate content that is taken out of context and distorts the original meaning, and we should not plagiarize content. Another reason to call for carefulness and prudence in sharing information on social media is the fact that once something has appeared on the Internet, it remains there essentially forever. Even when comments and posts are deleted by an individual, some form of it remains traceable in the wide—and sometimes dark—places of the Internet. Thus, whatever we share—even if it is nonsense or comments given in the spur of the moment—may be associated with us even in the years to come. This fact alone should make us cautious and very careful in how we share digital information and what we communicate with others on the Internet.
In the Bible we are repeatedly admonished to be careful in how we observe God’s Word (Deut. 4:6; 6:3; 28:58; 31:12). The one who is careful in observing and doing the will of God will prosper (1 Chron. 22:13), we are told. Paul calls on believers to carefully follow good doctrine (1 Tim. 4:6; 2 Tim. 3:10). In a similar manner, we need to carefully check the truthfulness of what we share and the validity and veracity of the sources we use as well as the helpfulness of the content we want to communicate.
As Christians, we should pursue and cherish intellectual carefulness not just because it is academically sound and scientifically mandated, but because it grows out of our respect of God, who is our Creator and our Redeemer. His character compels us to work and think and communicate carefully. His example in creation and salvation leads the way for our carefulness. Faith is not sloppy. Faith knows no haste. We do not honor God if we are not meticulous and careful in what we think, say, research, publish, and share on the Internet! This leads us to a second characteristic: fair-mindedness.
Fair-mindedness. We live in a world of bias. When we turn on the news, we are likely to hear current events explained in a partisan and even a polemical way. Few people are willing to consider carefully and impartially thoughts and ideas that might challenge their own biases. A biblical example of fair-mindedness can be seen with the believers in Berea, who were noble-minded, because “they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11, NASB). God is described in Scripture as judging “each person’s work impartially” (1 Peter 1:17, NIV), and as His children we should show the same attitude in dealing with others.
Fair-minded people earnestly want to know the truth and therefore deliberately take into consideration all the factors that impact a certain conclusion. This does not mean having no convictions or not standing for those convictions. The secret of fair-minded people is that they have chosen to put the truth above any allegiance to their own egos or cherished opinions. Therefore, fair-minded people consistently try to be as impartial as possible, even if they already have a strong view on the subject. Fair-minded people also try to view issues from the perspectives of those they disagree with, because they are aware that they do not always have the most complete or accurate perspective on a given topic. Intellectually fair-minded persons care more about knowing what is actually true than about convincing themselves or others that they are right. Intellectual bias is the corresponding vice. They are willing to see the good, or the good intention, in another person without necessarily thereby approving everything that person might do or endorse.
Such fair-mindedness has significant practical relational benefits. Genuinely fair-minded people tend to make and keep friends more easily than those whose thinking habits are closed-minded or biased. The reason is simple. There is an inherent link between fair-mindedness and attentive listening. Because they are committed to discovering and exploring truth, fair-minded people listen! They actually, really listen! Very few things give people a greater sense of their own value and worth, and nothing attracts us to another person more than the belief that that person values us. And respect is often expressed through attentive listening. In other words: fair-minded people are curious learners, active listeners, and brave explorers of truth.
This habit adds invaluable depth, richness, and wisdom to life. It is also incredibly significant for communicating in an ethically and appealing way in the digital age. In an age when many people have significant doubts as to who can still be trusted, a mere listing of facts will no longer convince others. We must first win their trust! This is accomplished more easily when we are willing to listen genuinely to other opinions and positions. This means that we should not enter any discussion with a desire to bully the other person or try to contradict his or her position and show its flawed reasoning. Instead, we must first learn to listen attentively. Our impulse to speak is often greater than our eagerness to listen. Fair-mindedness also safeguards our responses on social media. Rather than responding with quick, emotional outbursts of anger and upset feelings, we will be willing first to reflect and better understand where the other person is coming from. This willingness to stay open and to deliberately pay attention to significant details is an important part of an ethics of communication. Eventually, it will enable us to learn how to ask informed and thoughtful but inoffensive questions rather than quickly denouncing and condemning what we are hearing. Seeking to address the issue another person has articulated rather than trying to silence the other party will open a door for more meaningful conversations in an atmosphere of mutual trust that enables our dialogue partner also to listen attentively to us. This means that in our communication we will be doing everything to avoid inflammatory language and any derogatory or belittling comments. Such an attitude will go a long way toward re-establishing civil discussions. This leads us to a third characteristic: truthfulness.
Truthfulness. One of the most significant values of being truthful in our communication is that it fosters community. It also affirms shared values and beliefs. In the Bible, truth is associated with faithfulness and reliability. It is something that is permanent and trustworthy.
To be truthful and reliable in our communication with one another signals respect for the other person. The provision of truthful information is one way to enable others to make accurate and appropriate decisions that will benefit their overall well-being as well as the health of the social and spiritual community they are part of. Truthful information is essentially significant for everybody who wants to obtain informed consent on issues that are presented to others.
Truthfulness also builds trust between people. In any social relationship, trust is essential for a harmonious functioning of the different members of the group. But trust deteriorates when people discover that they have been deceived or not told the truth, especially by people otherwise considered trustworthy. As such, truth and trust are essential to human life. Mistrust, however, makes us feel refused, rejected, and even hated. Mistrust fosters aggression. Therefore, our communication needs to reflect truthfulness if it wants to be healing and inspiring and supportive of human flourishing.
A third value of truthfulness is the physical and spiritual benefits of telling the truth. Here truthfulness overlaps with honesty, which is connected with the process of how we use and present the things we know. Truthfulness and honesty will not allow information to be used out of context and will not distort the truth through loaded language; nor will it mislead others with twisted statistics and other information that might have a deceptive effect. Those who are well informed and who are truthfully informed tend to cooperate and collaborate better with the people with whom they interact. Such cooperation is important for unity and even fosters physical and spiritual well-being.
A fourth value of truth and truthfulness is that it often possesses very practical benefits. Any society that wants to be even minimally functional must have a robust appreciation of this benefit of truth. Without it, nobody can come to sufficiently well-informed judgments and decisions concerning the most important aspects of public life. The success of public life depends upon something we all do quite often: We identify certain propositions as true and others as false. Public life and society at large would not properly function without such integrity.
Beyond these general benefits and blessings of truthfulness in our communication, there is a fifth value that makes the virtue of truthfulness particularly significant and important to Christians who take their faith commitment seriously. Being truthful will let us flourish and thrive as human beings who are created in the image of God. Truthfulness reflects the character of the biblical God we gladly serve. As His children we have a desire to reflect His truthful character. As His followers we want to emulate God’s truthfulness and dependability in our interactions with Him and with our fellow human beings. This thought is embedded in the ninth commandment that admonishes us not to bear false witness (Ex. 20:16). Being truthful is not limited to giving witness in a court, but implies not to lie in whatever situation we are in. God is God because He cannot lie (Titus 1:2). He is Truth (Ps. 31:5; John 1:14). His word is truth (Ps. 119:160). As His followers we are called to deal equally truthfully and honestly with one another.
This truthfulness implies a recognizable conformity to—and agreement with—the expressed will of God as found in Scripture through our actions that reflect and correspond to it. In digital communications, this personal conformity of thoughts and actions is often at risk because we can easily read what other people write or hear what they say but are not able to see whether their lives area actually in harmony with what they state. But sometimes the choice of strong words and the use of inflammatory language to insinuate doubt and mistrust speaks a clearer language than all the verbal affirmations to the contrary. That leads us to another related virtue in ethical communication: humility.
Humility. The virtue of humility is perhaps the most misunderstood virtue. What does it mean to be humble in the way we think and communicate? Intellectually humble people have the amazing realization and humbling insight that they are dependent upon something or someone outside themselves. They realize that they are not the measure of everything. They are aware that truth is not of their own making but is ultimately God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16). Realizing that their reason and rational intelligence are not the measure of everything, they gladly submit their thoughts in obedience to Christ and His Word (2 Cor. 10:5).
Humble people understand that the larger their egos are, the less space is left in their minds for anything or anyone else. Humble people value truth over the egoistic need to be right. Humility of thought has countless benefits. Humble curiosity is the foundation of all growth in knowledge. Why? Because it naturally produces a teachable spirit. This makes humble people very pleasant to work with and interact with, as anyone who has had to work with proud, arrogant people can easily testify!
Intellectual humility does not come from nor lead to a lack of firm conviction. Humble Christians are confident in God’s truth and submissive to it. At the same time, they are aware of the limitations of their own knowledge. Therefore, they can expand their understanding of the world in a way that arrogant and proud people are utterly incapable of. Proud people do not feel the need to learn from anyone, but think they know it all. If we want to continue to learn and grow, our knowledge must be tempered by humility. Furthermore, the virtue of humility should be coupled with civility and decency in our communication.
Civility and decency. Much of the digital communication on social platforms suffers from inflammatory language and words and images that are used to convey derogatory messages. An aggressive demeanor, however, fosters violence, disrespect, and hate. If this is combined with fake facts or false information, the negative effects are exponential. This calls for a deliberate and informed response and for more civility in our communication because we are increasingly shaped by radical connectivity and everybody’s ability to publish messages globally with the tip of the finger. Uncivil communication tends toward anarchy and violence. Civility and decency in our communication also include that we do not push through our opinion no matter what, especially when we are in a position of power, and that we do not try to silence or ignore dissenting voices.
Instead of hate speech, or language that disseminates doubts about leadership and institutions, and evidence-based scientific information, or supports dubious opinions and unspecified or unjustified fears, we should cultivate what the apostle Paul elucidated in Philippians 4:8: “Whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (ESV). Our communication should be cognizant of the impact of our words and actions on other people. Cultivating and learning to share positive thoughts and things that edify and build up others honor God and are a blessing to the world. This leads to a final aspect of ethical communication: responsibility.
Responsibility. Often people who disseminate questionable content or inflammatory comments claim the right to their freedom of expression and freedom of speech, or their right to privacy. But there is more to public discourse than that. What we are dealing with is not just a matter of freedom of speech or freedom of expression. In any public discourse there is also the aspect of responsibility. How will our words be perceived and received, and what impact will they have? What will our words evoke in response based on how they are communicated and what kind of reactions will they produce once they are uttered and expressed? This is even more important in light of the fact that digital communication allows us to reach an exceedingly large number of people globally, far beyond the normal number of people with whom we are usually able to interact physically. This makes our subjective opinions and individual voices much more powerful, and it raises important issues of power and personal influence. In the digital age, our local perspectives have a potentially global outreach. This comes with important ethical responsibilities that are often neither fully understood nor appreciated.
Even Jesus was aware that there were still “‘many things’” He had to share, “‘but you cannot bear them now’” (John 16:12, NKJV). The apostle John echoed this sentiment when he stated at the end of his Gospel that there were many more things that Jesus did that were not recorded, because we would not have been able to adequately deal with that surplus of information (21:25). We need to learn from Jesus that not everything we know is helpful to others nor wise to share in every situation. We need to be mindful what effect such sharing will have on those we want to reach. This insight expresses an awareness of our responsibility in how we communicate and what we communicate. Just like Jesus and John, we need to exercise prudence and restraint in sharing what we might know, but also have the needed courage to speak the truth in love—even more so since in digital communication, messages can easily be decontextualized and used out of context, and algorithms of powerful companies (and nations) can quickly circulate certain snippets of news to specially targeted audiences.
As followers of Christ, we should emulate an ethic of communication that exhibits carefulness, fair-mindedness, accuracy, truthfulness, honesty, humility, civility, decency, and responsibility. These virtues will not only enhance our communication in a digital age, but also positively impact the way we relate to one another. This in turn reflects the character of the God whom we worship. Honoring these principles of communication can help to make our engagement with others and our interaction with them on social media an expression of our “reasonable service” to God that is not “conformed to this world but . . . transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Rom. 12:1, 2, NKJV). This biblical lifestyle is a living worship of God and is closely tied to the character of our minds and the truthfulness of our words. Of course, worship is far more than just knowing a lot of information about God. But our worship and our relationship with God demand that our minds be fully engaged and that our lives and words exhibit the virtues we have described above. We cannot truly worship God without thinking. When we take on those virtues of communication, our actions also will increasingly reflect God’s goodness.
This is hardly surprising. How we think influences how we behave, including how we communicate. If you are careful in what you say about me, if you begin to treat my opinions in a fair-minded way, if you are honest in your dealings with me, if your demeanor reflects truthfulness and humbleness, if you are kind and responsible in how you interact with me, it is only natural that your actual behavior toward me will also grow increasingly gracious! This is how God deals with each of us.
Imagine if our homes and workplaces, our classrooms, our schools, our churches, our communities, and our social-media platforms were filled with people of such a character and attitude. What a blessing that would be! Imagine how the relationships and the atmosphere within the church and the world at large would change for the better if we all practiced this kind of interaction with one another and how our mission and outreach would benefit from it. God would be delighted, people would be attracted, and each one of us would be greatly blessed! Effective and ethical communication would become a reality among us.
* “Word of the Year 2016,” Oxford Languages: https://languages.oup/com/word-of-the-year/2016.