Social Media and Religious Syncretism

In the article “What Effect Has the Internet Had on Religion?,” published in The Guardian, author Aleks Krotoski argues that the importance of the internet in everyday life has become a destabilizing force on traditional religion. In order to stay relevant, it’s argued, religious organizations have moved their services online in order to reach wider audiences. This has challenged the control that religious leaders once held over their followers, resulting in a growing amount of spiritual practices that fall between the cracks of what is considered mainstream. Krotoski states “. . . the web has helped proliferate different interpretations and articulations of religions and we have witnessed the emergence of new online communities and faiths. Individuals now have a much more autonomous role in deciding whom to approach as a source” (paragraph 8). I agree with the author’s main claims and further argue that the syncretization of spiritual beliefs is occurring directly due to the rising pluralism of religious groups on social media.

In chapter 16 of You May Ask Yourself by Dalton Conley, it’s stated that some sociologists believe in a sociostructural crisis in religion caused by pluralism, which is “the presence and engaged coexistence of numerous distinct groups in one society” (Conley). This increased diversity in religious groups is argued to be detrimental to the social foundation of religion, allowing for various denominations to discredit others’ practices. However, instead of the “religious disintegration, psychological malaise, and chaos” these sociologists predicted, we are faced with the modern emergence of individualized forms of spirituality, which borrow from multiple religions and incorporate a variety of traditions. As further stated in the chapter, “These “nones”—which make up about a quarter of the population, up from only a tenth in 1980 (Smith & Cooperman, 2016)—are not necessarily atheists. In fact, only a third definitively state that they do not believe in God (Pew Research Center, 2015b).” This phenomenon of rising eclecticism is directly attributable to the increased plurality in traditional religion, which I argue is enabled by the cross-pollinating forces of social media.

According to a study from 2016, published in Sociological Perspectives Vol. 59, the rapid adoption of social media has had syncretizing effect on the religious beliefs of emerging adults. The study specifically found that “emerging adults who use SNS [social networking sites] are more likely to think it is acceptable to pick and choose their religious beliefs, and practice multiple religions independent of what their religious tradition teaches . . .” (page 818).  This occurrence is due to the cross-pollination of new ideas and beliefs through the internet, recently facilitated by social networks. One of the author’s supported hypotheses states “SNS users will be more likely than non-SNS users to report that it is acceptable for a member of their own religious tradition to practice other religions” (page 830). These trendsetters in the study are indirectly acknowledging that at least some truths exist in other religions, confirming the effect of pluralism.

Does the advent of the internet and rise of social media mark the beginning of social breakdown in religion, or the collective transcendence of divisive traditions? I believe that both are occurring. As religious organizations increasingly utilize the internet to reach wider audiences, an ever-broadening degree of pluralism is arising. This is reflected in the emergence of individualized forms of spirituality that incorporate some form of belief in a higher power, yet do not affiliate with traditional denominations. As Krotoski concludes in her article “The search for answers is part of our social narrative and so it is unsurprising that we have gone to the web to ask the questions. There, we are finding our communities, whether they are organized under a traditional doctrine with well-established rituals, or are evolutions that have been produced by people who feel they have seen the light” (paragraph 11). I agree with the author’s main claims and further argue that the syncretization of spiritual beliefs is occurring directly due to the rising pluralism of religious groups on social media.

Works Cited:

“Chapter 16: Religion.” You May Ask Yourself: an Introduction to Thinking like a Sociologist, by Dalton Conley, W.W. Norton, 2019.

Krotoski, Aleks. “What Effect Has the Internet Had on Religion?” The Guardian, 16 Apr. 2011, www.theguardian.com/technology/2011/apr/17/untangling-web-aleks-krotoski-religion.  

McClure, Paul K. “Faith and Facebook in a Pluralistic Age: The Effects of Social Networking Sites on the Religious Beliefs of Emerging Adults.” Sociological Perspectives, vol. 59, no. 4, 2016, pp. 818–834. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26340183. Accessed 9 Nov. 2020.

The Ineffectiveness of Online Advocacy

In the article “The Problem With Social-Media Protests,” published in The Atlantic, author Antonia Malchick argues that online social movements are likely to experience faster burnout and result in less actual policy change than in-person activism. Before the internet increased the speed at which information travels, it’s claimed, advocacy in general was slower growing, but benefited from the extra time spent deepening social interactions and strengthening the underlying interconnections of the movement. Malchick states “By contrast, mass protests such as Occupy Wall Street formed rapidly but then, lacking that underlying resilience created over time, often lost focus, direction, and, most important, their potential to effect change” (paragraph 3). I believe that the author’s claims are especially relevant in current times, and I further argue that social media activism is inherently less effective than in-person advocacy due to its reduced ability to sway an elected official’s vote, and the threat of social manipulation by foreign actors.

In chapter 18 of You May Ask Yourself by Dalton Conley, the overall effectiveness of online social movements is brought into question. Testimony from sociologist Doug McAdam reveals that despite the easily disseminated nature of information, online-based movements may not utilize preexisting interpersonal relationships to create effective behavioral change. He states “successful movements, movements that take off very quickly, emerge within established communities, and essentially the members of that community are threatened with the loss of member benefits for failure to go along. It’s not clear that the electronic communities have the same capacity to monitor people’s compliance with the new line of action” (Conley). This potentially reduced compliance ultimately results in a lack of accountability within online movements. Empty clicks and inconsequential Tweets take the place of tangible commitment in followers, greatly reducing the likelihood of an elected official treating the cause seriously. As stated further in chapter 18, “politicians and policy makers can easily ignore online social movements. They know that e-mail is cheap and easy, and therefore they value it less” (Conley). In general, lack of legislative potential is a profound reason why internet activism cannot replace physical protests and in-person advocacy.

As communication in our society is increasingly organized online, disinformation and manipulation become more probable threats. The capacity for subterfuge by foreign actors and those who profit from division is only enhanced by the less resilient nature of online social movements. In the journal article “Tackling Disinformation, Online Terrorism, and Cyber Risks into the 2020s,” published in The Cyber Defense Review, author Oz Sultan outlines the complex systems of disinformation and propaganda enabled by social media. He argues that false-narrative stories propagated through alternative media sites are being leveraged by countries such as Russia, as well as copycat campaigns, to influence, confuse, or demoralize social movements and the online population in general. Sultan claims “These anchor stories . . . work like a signal that gets transmitted through several repeaters. Disruption of these stories or weaponized content should actively involve the social media platforms that facilitate their dissemination. However, what we’ve seen in recent years is a reticence by Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and WhatsApp to follow through” (page 46). This vulnerability of social movements to the influence of foreign propaganda is another chief reason why online activism is inherently less effective than in-person advocacy.

Digital technology has given rise to previously unfathomable amounts of interconnectivity and readily available information. It is an inevitability that social activists will seek to utilize the online medium to further their causes. However, there are concerns that arise with this newfound arena for advocacy that remain significant and still partly unknown. As Antonia Malchick concludes in her article, “The realities of face-to-face contact and in-person mass protests, the tools of centuries of struggle for full citizenship and rights, have become even more essential to grounding us as we navigate through a new era of humans’ relationship with technology” (paragraph 11). While the creation of tangible, in-the-flesh connections with each other is being tested by factors like COVID-19, its importance is only further highlighted. Overall, I agree with Malchick’s claims and argue that social media activism is inherently less effective than in-person advocacy due to its reduced ability to sway an elected official’s vote, and the threat of social manipulation by foreign actors.

Works Cited:

“Chapter 18: Collective Action, Social Movements, and Social Change.” You May Ask Yourself: an Introduction to Thinking like a Sociologist, by Dalton Conley, W.W. Norton, 2019.

Malchik, Antonia. “The Problem With Social-Media Protests.” The Atlantic, 6 May 2019, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2019/05/in-person-protests-stronger-online-activism-a-walking-life/578905/. 

Sultan, Oz. “Tackling Disinformation, Online Terrorism, and Cyber Risks into the 2020s.” The Cyber Defense Review, vol. 4, no. 1, 2019, pp. 43–60. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26623066. Accessed 16 Nov. 2020.