How Invisible Filter Bubbles Shape Your Social, Political, and Religious Views #FiqhOfSocialMedia


During the 2008 election, a 'vicious rumor' was spread that Barack Obama was a Muslim. That's old news. What you may not know is that the number of Americans who hold that belief nearly doubled after the election. More surprisingly, that increase happened mostly among people who are college-educated. Why would supposedly smart people believe something so ludicrous?

The answer is what Eli Pariser calls a 'Filter Bubble' (also the title of his book).

Partisans are more likely to consume news sources that confirm their ideological beliefs. People with more education are more likely to follow political news. Therefore, people with more education can actually become mis-educated. -New Republic

The filter bubble is why Netflix and Amazon know what to recommend to you. It's why Facebook seems to always show you updates that reinforce your existing viewpoints about issues like #BlackLivesMatter, Syria, Colin Kaepernick, or the Kardashians. It's why YouTube shows you ads for Muslim matrimonial sites after you watch an Islamic video, or your Netflix recommendations get messed up after your kids watch cartoons. It's why the trending topics that show on your Facebook feed can differ from your spouse's and create an uncomfortable conversation. And it's why the founder of Facebook famously said,

A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa. -Mark Zuckerberg

In short, it explains why people develop more and more extreme opinions online, and no one seems to change their minds about any issue no matter how many articles, videos, memes, or clever status updates you share.

What Exactly Is a Filter Bubble?

It's essentially an algorithm that creates a profile of who you are based on your online activity. Companies like Google and Facebook then use that profile to serve up a personalized newsfeed, search results, advertisements, and other content.

They are prediction engines, constantly creating and refining a theory of who you are and what you'll want to do next. Together, these engines create a unique universe of information for each of us - what I've come to call a filter bubble - which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information. .... Your identity shapes your media, and your media then shapes what you believe and what you care about. You click on a link, which signals an interest in something, which means you're more likely to see articles about that topic in the future, which in turn prime the topic for you. You become trapped in a you loop, and if your identity is misrepresented, strange patterns begin to emerge, like reverb from an amplifier. -Eli Pariser

Pariser explains this in more detail in his famous Ted Talk.


The allure of the internet was that it removed the gatekeepers. Suddenly we could all be content creators and share our views. This should, theoretically, create a more empathetic and understanding society. You're no longer relying on a newspaper editor or a news producer to shape your opinions for you. In fact, this is the crux of democracy.

Democracy requires citizens to see things from one another's point of view, but instead we're more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared facts; instead, we're being offered parallel but separate universes. -Eli Pariser

The myth is that the gatekeepers are gone. The reality is that they've simply been replaced by invisible ones.

It's not hard to see how there are numerous consequences ranging issues like privacy, public health (e.g. researching whether to vaccinate your kids or not through a filter bubble), politics, financial problems, social issues, and seeking religious knowledge. In this post, we'll look at some of the broader effects that contribute to those issues.

What Shapes Your Filter Bubble?

One of the greatest criticism of these filtering algorithms is that it is not possible to go out somewhere and retrieve your own profile. In other words, you don't know what identity they have formed about you. There are signals though, that indicate what shapes your online profile.

via Tech Crunch

These algorithms have been the source of controversy as of late.




This quote from Gizmodo from earlier this year highlights the human element and one of the underlying problems.

In other instances, curators would inject a story—even if it wasn’t being widely discussed on Facebook—because it was deemed important for making the network look like a place where people talked about hard news. “People stopped caring about Syria,” one former curator said. “[And] if it wasn’t trending on Facebook, it would make Facebook look bad.” That same curator said the Black Lives Matter movement was also injected into Facebook’s trending news module. “Facebook got a lot of pressure about not having a trending topic for Black Lives Matter,” the individual said. “They realized it was a problem, and they boosted it in the ordering. They gave it preference over other topics. When we injected it, everyone started saying, ‘Yeah, now I’m seeing it as number one’.” This particular injection is especially noteworthy because the #BlackLivesMatter movement originated on Facebook, and the ensuing media coverage of the movement often noted its powerful social media presence. -Gizmodo

The data points that shape your profile number in the hundreds. It is about your location, what kind of computer, web browser, phone, what you search, what you click, what you watch, what you highlight on your Kindle, who your friends are, and so on.

Here's what it looks like in action. The image below shows posts about Barack Obama and it highlights what liberal and conservative outlets are showing. You can generate similar comparisons for topics like guns, abortion, ISIS, and Donald Drumpf by visiting the Wall Street Journal's Red Feed Blue Feed.



Here's another example of the juxtaposition of two different filter bubbles.


You might be wondering where the middle ground is in all of this? The answer is, the middle ground usually disappears.

Filter Bubbles and Friendships

The Prophet Muhammad (saw) said a person can be judged by the religion of their closest friend. That concept takes on a whole new level of meaning beyond just keeping good company online.

We put our opinions on social media with the intent to engage (the magic word for all online interactions). Ideally, we should be sharing our opinions, and understanding others' viewpoints. Some evidence seems to suggest that most people do not change their views because of what they read on social media. Others take it a step further unfriending people because of their views. Many think social media isn't the appropriate place to talk about these issues, and to put it succinctly, there's just a lot of judgment being thrown around back and forth.

For somebody to get up there and run for president and say some of the things that Donald Trump has said, and to not only get media coverage but have people be enthusiastic about it, you couldn’t even imagine before. But we’re in such a divisive society now that people jump onboard these two extremes.

I remember when I was younger and worked with people in the Congress and Senate, I worked on both sides of the aisle with people I thought would make a difference—and always kept it private. But I’ll tell you, they used to get together like 15 years ago and fight like hell on the floor of the Senate and then they’d go have a beer together. They were still friends and felt their principles. Now, if you have lunch or even talk to anyone on the other side, you’re evil. How do you resolve anything when we’re that polarized? -Tony Robbins

The filter bubble creates an intellectual safe space where we retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with our own. This diminishes our ability to see things from someone else's point of view - i.e. it kills our ability to empathize.

The news feed is designed, in Facebook’s public messaging, to “show people the stories most relevant to them” and ranks stories “so that what’s most important to each person shows up highest in their news feeds.” It is a framework built around personal connections and sharing, where value is both expressed and conferred through the concept of engagement. Of course, engagement, in one form or another, is what media businesses have always sought, and provocation has always sold news. But now the incentives are literalized in buttons and written into software. -New York Times

Part of the issue with social media is the focus on now. We scroll through our feeds quickly liking and commenting on the things we, well, like. This systematically makes us more and more entrenched into our existing viewpoints, and shapes what gets served up to us on our next visit. This is why pages focusing on spreading viral content have millions of fans. And it is why the news is no longer the news.

A great example of this is the Brexit vote. Many of the interviews with the day after the vote showed people in shock. They simply never believed this could happen. And why would they, when every time they opened their phone, it seemed like everyone was against it. Check out this tweet from someone in the "pro-remain" camp.


This is the problem when our activism is reduced to re-sharing witty memes.

From a user’s point of view, every share, like or comment is both an act of speech and an accretive piece of a public identity. Maybe some people want to be identified among their networks as news junkies, news curators or as some sort of objective and well-informed reader. Many more people simply want to share specific beliefs, to tell people what they think or, just as important, what they don’t. A newspaper-style story or a dry, matter-of-fact headline is adequate for this purpose. But even better is a headline, or meme, that skips straight to an ideological conclusion or rebuts an argument. -New York Times

Filter Bubbles and The News

The echo chamber is not just reinforced by your friends and connections, but mass media in general. Just as individuals often do what they're incentivized to do, so do businesses (shocking). In the case of a business, it is to make money - not inform the public. Taking the example of Brexit above, it's much worse than an echo chamber - it is an alternate reality.

Because personalized filters usually have no Zoom Out function, it's easy to lose your bearings, to believe the world is a narrow island when in fact it's an immense, varied continent. -Eli Pariser

Issues important to you might not even register on anyone else's radar. The filter bubble makes it so they never have to see this issue in their feed. Take this from a different angle. What motivation would there be for a new organization to interrupt a Congresswoman speaking about personal privacy for news about Justin Bieber?



This creates a cycle in which our filter bubbles makes news organizations cover issues a certain way. That rhetoric and coverage then begins to inform the political process, and in short, you end up with what we have now. The news will provide whatever the people want to consume.

"If traffic ends up guiding coverage," The Washington Post's ombudsman writes, "will The Post choose not to pursue some important stories because they're 'dull?'" Will an article about, say, child poverty ever seem hugely personally relevant to many of us...? -Eli Pariser

There are a lot of things we want to consume, and a lot of things we should consume. That's the difference between what we binge watch on Netflix versus the documentaries that have been sitting in our queue for months on end. Our bias to the present influences our actions. Important issues will catch a rush of quick publicity, like #Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls, and then quickly fade away.

Nuanced and deep thought cannot thrive in this environment. In his book The News: A User's Manual, Alain de Botton writes,

The financial needs of news companies mean that they cannot afford to advance ideas which wouldn't very quickly be able to find favour with enormous numbers of people. .... What levels of agreement, what suppression of idiosyncrasy and useful weirdness, will be required to render material sufficiently palatable to so many...

And when complex issues are covered, they are done so in a shallow manner.

The habit of randomly dipping readers into a brief moment in a lengthy narrative, then rapidly pulling them out again, while failing to provide any explanation of the wider context in which events have been unfolding, is precisely what occurs in the telling of many of the most important stories that run though our societies. -Alain de Botton

For the news to help us tackle these issues, it has to help guide us to the problems, and find ways to develop a common ground to tackle them. The filter bubble, by creating that polarizing effect, instead incites rage. We jump from crisis to crisis. We mimic the same soundbites as the talking heads on TV without any principle.

We are in danger of getting so distracted by the ever-changing agenda of the news that we wind up unable to develop political positions of any kind. We may lose track of which of the many outrages really matters to us and what it was that we felt we cared so passionately about only hours ago. At the very moment when our societies have reached a stage of unparalleled complexity, we have impatiently come to expect all substantial issues to be capable of drastic compression. -Alain de Botton

To make money, you need to get people's attention. To get their attention, you have to simplify things into basic components. By taking complex issues and dumbing them down to the lowest common denominator (i.e. the most amount of traffic), people begin to expect the solutions will be at a congruent level of simplicity. Then when major problems cannot be solved, or others refuse to see things their way, it turns into frustration. Some people take out this aggression by trolling and shame grenades.

Others respond to this frustration by shunning the news and such issues altogether. Their intellect, thought, creativity, and energy goes into other pursuits such as entertainment, sports, and video games. It's simply easier to play fantasy football, watch the games, and track the stats, then it is to immerse yourself into understanding something like why we have issues of systemic racism and poverty. Or understanding the roots of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

By design, it is difficult to grasp these subjects.

...confusing, boring, distracting the majority away from politics by presenting events in such a disorganized, fractured and intermittent way that a majority of the audience is unable to hold on to the thread of the most important issues for any length of time.

A contemporary dictator wishing to establish power would not need to do anything so obviously sinister as banning the news: he or she would only have to see to it that news organizations broadcast a flow of random-sounding bulletins, in great numbers but with little explanation of context, within an agenda that kept changing, without giving any sense of the ongoing relevance of an issue that had seemed pressing only a short while before, the whole interspersed with constant updates about the colourful antics of murderers and film stars. .... The status quo could confidently remain forever undisturbed by a flood of, rather than a ban on, news. -Alain de Botton

We change our profile pictures on Facebook to highlight the colors of a flag every few months to make it look like we're woke. It's letting  yourself get taken for a ride by the dictates of someone else and in the end accomplishing nothing at all. It is to retreat into a carefully crafted universe online made just for you, one that defines your own reality, without any context of a larger picture.

It is an axiom of political science in the United States that the only way to neutralize the influence of the newspapers is to multiply their number. -Alexis de Tocqueville

Filter Bubbles and Learning

The biggest trap of the filter bubble is that the further we get into one, the more we think we are learning by depth. In other words, we have a sense of naive realism in that we think all the information is available to us, and therefore the conclusions we make are automatically the most informed ones.

It's like someone saying that just because they have access to all the hadith of the Prophet (s) via the internet, that they have a more informed understanding of the sunnah than scholars from the past. Access to information doesn't create understanding or insight.

Personalized filters can upset this cognitive balance between strengthening our existing ideas and acquiring new ones. First, the filter bubble surrounds us with ideas with which we're already familiar (and already agree), making us overconfident in our mental frameworks. Second, it removes from our environment some of the key prompts that make us want to learn. -Eli Pariser

The red feed blue feed example above highlights this. Consuming information built on a premise we agree with is easy and enjoyable. But consuming information that challenges us to think in new ways, Pariser notes, is frustrating and difficult. The partisan divide grows deeper and deeper. The ironic thing is, educated people tend to consume news more in an effort to stay informed. Thus, they become mis-educated - explaining why more and more college educated people believe Obama wasn't born in the US. The same is true of religious partisanship as well. We often tend to consume information that only comes from a certain school of thought, or only from certain speakers.

We not only form our opinions from the filter bubble, but we become invested in them. Take sports for example. On a close call, people can watch a replay in slow-motion 100 times, and still reach different conclusions about the right call. Everyone has a bias to make the call go in the favor of the team they support. It is even more so when a person is emotionally invested in the team they support.

The more we formulate our opinions out of these bubbles and biases, the more invested we become in them. That makes it that much harder to change.

Experts have a lot invested in the theories they've developed to explain the world. And after a few years of working on them, they tend to see them everywhere. -Eli Pariser

A good example of this is stock analysts not being able to identify the oncoming housing crash. Or career Islamophobes who have literally no incentive to change their mind. Why would they sit down and try to talk and empathize with a Muslim when their filter bubble only exposes them to people who are getting more and more extreme in their hate?

When I was in high school, I took part in speech and debate. One of the greatest learning experiences of that was each year, we were given a topic, and had to learn both sides of it. This meant that you affirmed the topic one round, and went against it one round. The 'case' you ran in support of the topic was often the same for almost an entire year. Yet, if another team ran that same case, you had to be ready to tear it apart. You were forced to learn both sides of the issue in-depth.

Learning occurs when we are presented with an information gap. We have to come across something we don't know or understand. It could be engaging a co-worker on colleague on a topic and having to sit and hear what they have to say rather than shunning the conversation and seeking refuge with like-minded friends on Facebook.

To truly learn, you need what Pariser calls a 'radical encounter.' It's the same way we wish Islamophobes would sit and talk with a Muslim and get to know us. We fail to realize though, that we rarely do this from our end and try to empathize with people we disagree with, or don't like. If we don't have the motivation, why do we expect it from others?

Personalization is about building an environment that consists entirely of the adjacent unknown - the sports trivia or political punctuation marks that don't really shake our schemata but feel like new information. The personalized environment is very good at answering the questions we have but not suggesting questions or problems that are out of our sight altogether. -Eli Pariser

This isn't to say we should always be seeking out the contrarian opinion to everything, but we do need a healthy dose of alternative information to better ground ourselves.

How To Fix the Filter Bubble

The most essential step is simply identifying that you have your own filter bubble.

There are some tactical steps, like what developer BJ May suggests:

  • Find highly active accounts run by people who are wildly dissimilar from me, or who have had wildly dissimilar life experiences. These people must be talking frequently about the issues I hope to understand.
  • I will follow one of these people every day for thirty days, and I will keep following each of them for no less than thirty days, regardless of how much I dislike what they say.
  • I will not engage with the owners of any of these accounts. I will not debate them, I will not argue, I will not interact in any way apart from just reading.
  • I will engage in self-study when I encounter terms or concepts that are foreign to me.

There are also some bigger picture things that need to be done that may not be so systematic that you can put them in a checklist. We all need to seek out conversations with people who differ from us. Different upbringings, backgrounds, ethnicities, and so on. Those conversations need to be intentional about the intent of getting to know and understand someone. You can't empathize with someone if you don't understand their story.

Start making more intentional choices about what to consume. This doesn't mean that you suddenly start watching Fox News for an hour a day, but it might mean diversifying the outlets you follow online to such an extent that there is enough there to challenge you and make you think.

Lastly, we need to stop and reflect. We don't need to just diversify our consumption, but we need to lessen it as well so we can have more time for introspection.

It is never easy to be introspective. There are countless difficult truths lurking within us that investigation threatens to dislodge. It is when we are incubating particularly awkward but potentially vital ideas that we tend to feel most desperate to avoid looking inside. And that is when the news grabs us.

We should be aware of how jealous and adversary of inner examination it is - and how much further it wishes to go in this direction. Its purveyors want to put screens on our seat-backs, receivers in our watches and phones in our minds, so as to ensure that we will always be connected, always aware of what is happening; never alone.

But we will have nothing substantial to offer anyone else so long as we have not first mastered the art of being patient midwives to our own thoughts.  -Alain de Botton

Recommended Reading

Social Media Activism: A Real Thing, Or A Trick We Play On Ourselves?

Here's a question I recently received from our email list:

How do you feel about social media activism? Is it a real thing, or is it just a trick we play on ourselves to make us think were actually doing something good for a cause? And how much good does it actually do?

Answering this question requires understanding the levels of social media activism - something I've termed The 7 Stages of Social Media Activism Purgatory for purposes of this post. We'll cover those, and then talk about where to target your efforts online to actually be effective.

As an introductory note, I've previously addressed other aspects of social media activism in these articles:

Let's dive in to the 7 stages of social media activism purgatory.

Stage 1: Peer Pressure.

fiqh of social media circular argument

Peer pressure is something I learned about while sitting through D.A.R.E. classes in elementary school. For those who don't know, DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education], was meant to educate kids on how to say no to drugs. Resisting peer pressure was a large part of this. We had a police officer come by our classroom every so often to talk to us and give us tips on how to say no to our friends who might try to push us to get stoned.

Now there is a pressure to partake in social media activism regardless of your personal stance. If everyone has the France flag on their Facebook profile photo and you don't, a number of questions arise. Why aren't you sympathetic about what happened? Why aren't you speaking up? Are you a heartless soul who is unaffected by tragedy?

The more that people do something - like the filtered profile photo - the more the pressure mounts to do the same. It's so easy, Facebook has it built in, what excuse do you have left? Now you have to either justify saying no, or go ahead and do it. Most choose the latter, although they don't see how this activism makes a difference. It's just an easier option than trying to justify not doing it.

So we fake a "social consciousness" to keep up with our friends.

Stage 2: Faking It.

Single brothers volunteering at masjid events be like...

Now that you've changed your profile photo to the appropriate filter, you can't just rest on your laurels. You have to show you're not one of those fake activists who just does what everyone else does. You're informed. You don't regurgitate soundbites from talking heads. So how do you do that?

You start sharing articles that make you look smart. It should be no surprise then, that most people share articles without actually reading them. The analytics data on this very website supports this hypothesis as well. There are articles on this website that had let's say 100 Facebook shares, but less than 10 clicks. It's frustrating, but I'm also honored that someone who hasn't even read them feels that sharing Fiqh of Social Media articles makes them look sophisticated.

And by the way, those articles with the smart sounding headlines you just shared? You're just a pawn in a game you don't even realize is happening around you.

A core prophetic hadith about social media is this-

If you have no shame do as you wish (7)

Putting on the face of an activist online while not taking any meaningful action is a great trick of Shaytan.

Most people would rather put effort into being known as the type of person who cares about causes than to put effort into the cause itself. 

When we realize this, we move to the next stage to try and compensate for it.

Stage 3: Clictivism.

Fiqh of Social Media Paper

On May 7, 2014, the First Lady of the United States posted this on her Twitter account. Notice the number of retweets.


On November 18, 2015 (yes, you read that date correctly) a Congressman submitted a bill to the House of Representatives to develop a strategy to get the girls back - as they still haven't been found.

There is a satisfaction in thinking that just because everyone's attention is on a cause, it will somehow solve it. So we continue to click, like, and share. We tag others and ask them to do the same. Seth Godin comments on 'slacktivism' saying,

  1. Good causes in need of support are going to focus on adding the sizzle and ego and zing that gets an idea to spread, instead of focusing on the work. One thing we know about online virality is that what worked yesterday rarely works tomorrow. A new arms race begins, and in this case, it's not one that benefits many. We end up developing, "an unprecedented website with a video walkthrough and internationally recognized infographics..." (actual email pitch I got while writing this post).
  2. We might, instead of normalizing the actual effective giving of grants and donations, normalize slacktivism. It could easily turn out that we start to emotionally associate a click or a like or a mention as an actual form of causing change, not merely a way of amplifying a message that might lead to that action happening.

Last year another cause went viral - the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.


In fairness, according to Time magazine the challenge raised over $100 million for ALS research. Fair to say, that is a success. The difference here is the impact of the individual level of activism. A person could post a video doing the challenge while also donating $5. A few of their friends respond in kind and donate varying amounts from $5 to $100. In this manner, it can multiply and accumulate.

The problem with the success of this campaign is that we're constantly trying to replicate it. We ignore the vast majority of campaigns that didn't go viral - or did go viral but failed to do anything. We hang our hats on the one exception.

Measuring the impact of changing your profile picture is much harder to do than measuring dollars raised. This actually lends more credence to the argument that such acts are often more self-serving than anything else.

Stage 4: Shame

Fiqh of Social Media Internet Outrage

We want our cause to beat out the other causes. The human suffering attached to my cause outranks the human suffering attached to your cause. I have to make sure people's thoughts, prayers, and compassion are directed at my cause. If they go to your cause, none will be left for mine. My cause has to get all the clicks.

In this manner, we engage in 'moral point scoring' with our online activism. We win points by simultaneously promoting our cause, and tearing down the causes others support. Hence the rise of the online hot take.


Clicktivism and shame increase the pressure on a person to have an opinion on every issue. They're expected to chime in on every issue. Silence is taken as opposition to a cause. Whenever anyone speaks, we worry more about all the issues they neglect rather than paying attention to the human impact of what they're actually speaking on. This leads to Glenn Beck style witch hunts - as detailed by Southpark.

This entire cycle becomes mentally exhausting. The sheer magnitude of issues one could (or should) care about becomes overwhelming. So when the internet tries to make you care about everything, you end up caring about nothing.

Stage 5: Lack of Sustained Empathy

Fiqh of Social Media Activism

So we sit at our computers waiting to be told what to care about next. We become outrage junkies. Outraged and offended at some injustice, posting away to convince everyone we are correct, and then quickly jumping onto the next thing we find to be outraged at.

Big problems need big solutions. Reality eventually sets in. This online activism isn't going to fix the situation. When we realize that, we can no longer sustain empathy for the cause and look for a new and more intriguing story to get behind.

Have you ever wondered who gets to decide which causes we're supposed to get behind?

Why did France and Gay Rights get profile photo filters but not any other cause? Are we content to let a multi-billion dollar corporation (whose number 1 goal is making money) dictate to us which causes are important and which ones aren't?

“Mark Zuckerberg, a journalist was asking him a question about the news feed. And the journalist was asking him, “Why is this so important?” And Zuckerberg said, “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” And I want to talk about what a Web based on that idea of relevance might look like.” -Eli Pariser

Stage 6: Marginalization of Voices

Fiqh of Social Media Confession Bear

So if this is the reality of social media activism, then what's the point in taking part? Because the momentum of the clicktivism and shame is so strong, it becomes nearly impossible to share anything contrarian or even nuanced without becoming ostracized. We fear making a political argument due to the potential fall-out. So we shift our discourse to safer topics. We shift to speaking in platitudes or only appealing to common ground items.

This forces debates to operate from a premise of moral agnosticism, and deeper dives which may uncover more points of view are co-opted.


Stage 7: Extremism


Social pressure has galvanized everyone to take part in the cause. The links, retweets, shares, and filtered Instagram photos are flying all over the internet. Opposing voices have been shamed into silence.

This leaves a huge echo chamber. Everyone is shouting - and all are shouting the same point of view. Of course part of this is due to the fact that people tend to follow those who agree with their worldview to begin with. In other words, when I process the latest in my Twitter feed I won't see posts by people I vehemently disagree with unless someone in my feed is quoting them facetiously.

In their minds, this gives their worldview that much more strength and credibility. Everyone is saying the same thing, therefore it must be correct. That means doubling down on belligerently promoting that view while caustically taking out everyone who opposes it.


Effective Social Media Activism

Fiqh of Social Media Activist

The real problem with social media activism is unrealistic expectations. People think that by tweeting to 20 people, or even getting a post in front of 100 Facebook friends is going to somehow completely counteract the effects of the politico-media complex. When it doesn't, it's a failure. Then we move on to the next thing and try again.

To understand effective social media activism it is important to distinguish between big social and small social. Most people are shooting for big social. They want their tweet to be seen by 10 million people and magically change their minds. They want their cool comment with the appropriate hashtag to somehow get picked up by the news ticker on Fox News and make their viewers see the light.

That's not going to happen.

What people can do, is affect their more personal networks. In this context, I would define small social as your immediate network. That's your close friends on Facebook - or at least your friends that are open to hearing what you have to say due to their personal relationship with you. It's the buddies you Snapchat with. It's the friends who follow your Finstagram [not a typo]. It's those few people you have group text messages with. It might even be the smaller, more intimate email groups.

These are safer settings to discuss issues. These are the people you can be vulnerable with - you don't need to put on a facade of activism. You can honestly speak about what you care about and ask regarding what you don't know about.

The ultimate irony here is that social media activism is focused on those people you already have a strong relationship with built over time - not the thousands of extended connections you're trying to reach at the speed of light.

Think grassroots instead of top-down.

These smaller social networks have deeper conversations and more attention. This makes them more conducive to a more open exchange of ideas. The exchanges are more meaningful because you cannot fake compassion when speaking to people you have a relationship with. And by the same token - your relationship with them makes your true compassion that much more impactful in their eyes because they see the true care behind it.

These more meaningful interactions can also multiply and start to affect larger change. You just have to care enough about it to stick with it before the next new shiny cause to advocate comes along.


Muslims Online Seeking a Religious Spouse ... or Illicit Hookups? Or Both?


Most people are aware of the difficulties Muslims face in getting married, and the rapid rise of matrimonial websites is no surprise. There are matrimonial sites now catering to all crowds - those previously married, those just looking for another Muslim, all the way to sites like DoctorSeRishta.com and SecondWife.com. Over 10 years ago, sites like HotOrNot.com [current iteration of the website is not representative of what it used to be] were all the rage - you could simply view someone’s photo and then give your immediate fatwa on whether they were hot, or not. Tinder is a more sophisticated version of that. It uses your location and gives you potential matches near you. You can look at a profile and then swipe right if you like them, or swipe left if you don’t. If you both swiped right - it’s a match and you can start messaging.

From an Islamic perspective we see the obvious issues with this tool, and on a larger scale the “hook up” culture in general. Internet technology is making zina easier and easier for everyone. That includes those people with nice and tidy profiles on Muslim matrimonial websites. A sister who is a family friend of ours shared her experience-

When the Muslim single arena feels like a desert, and your friends are all celebrating marriage anniversaries and kids’ birthdays, social media seems like the obvious solution to finding a potential life mate in a “halal” way.

From Shaadi.com to Half our Deen to Ishqr (previously Hipster Shaadi) to Salaam Swipe (a Muslim Tinder, if you can imagine), it seems like there are plenty of choices to find a spouse. Yet, match after match, I am being met with the age-old questions about my net income and my ability to roll a perfect roti.

Then one day, I get a potential match on Half our Deen; let’s call him “Ahmed.” Ahmed has a job! And a personality! And he’s a practicing Muslim! So naturally, I Google him to make sure he actually exists.

His Facebook wall is questionable at best, with too many female friends posting comments. I consider giving him the benefit of the doubt, but feel unsure how to proceed. We continue to talk on our “halal” site, him preaching modesty and urging me to change my ways to follow a more conservative path. Maybe he is trying to better himself?

Of course, the benefit of the doubt doesn’t last long when I discover he has a profile on Tinder. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, as I was until now, you simply “swipe” right or left to decide if you want to “meet up” with someone based on their picture – and the number of miles away they are from you. I suppose Ahmed was not only “seeking a modest wife,” but also looking for some nights of fun within a five-mile radius. Curious, I started cross-referencing my other matches from matrimonial sites. “Farhan” was married in real life, and using Tinder to find someone on the side (this was posted openly). Then there was “Bilal,” who on a previous site claimed to be a shy, humble engineer who just wanted to settle down. Using a pseudonym and anonymous photo (I used a picture of my shoes), I messaged him on Tinder to see how a shy man functions on a hook-up site; and was met with what we’ll call a rather graphic and off-putting response to someone he thought was a stranger.

I thought I had the upper hand by being able to do some more research through the Internet and social media; but what I found was even more surprising. Finding someone in a halal way through social media hasn’t made marriage any easier, especially in a world where you can be rejected by a simple screen swipe. You are provided with match after match, option after option, and then a new service comes along, completely distracting you all over again. Not only are single brothers and sisters navigating a challenging new world, it seems harder to sustain a marriage with these options only a click or swipe away.

Next time, think before you swipe.

Social media is directly impacting marriages - both inside and outside the Muslim community. Facebook is becoming more and more popular as a cause of divorce.

The rishta process has been transformed. I was helping a relative with managing proposals, and it is amazing how much you can find out about a person (even if they're not your friend, and even if their profile is private). A number of people were suggested, and then summarily rejected within minutes because of their profile - and they'll never know that was the reason.

What the sister shared above about matrimonial sites and things like Tinder are a real issue in our community. The 40 hadith collection on social media directly touches on a number of the problems here - being two faced, publicizing your sins, lowering your gaze, and just flat out being dishonest (not to mention adulterous for some).

Have you had any experiences with this? What can be done in our communities to help solve this issue?

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#BringBackOurSanity Guide to Recent Internet Debates


White House Iftar. Tariq Ramadan. Dr. Jackson. Zionist sponsored trips to Israel. RIS. ISNA. Abu Eesa. The list goes on. Everyone has seen the debates, and everyone is posting about them all over social media. In this post I want to unpack what I find to be good about these debates, along with some personal observations about the barrage of arguments.

1. Apathy

People in the smallest of local masjids are frustrated about why their board acts without regards to their interest. For many places, the root cause of this is apathy. People may complain and raise issue, but few care enough to keep up any kind of sustained efforts. In the end, general apathy from the community at large is what kills any hope of change. People may continue to advise those in leadership, but they're still left to their own devices.

Public accountability is the only form of checks and balances that is viable for community work. This is for your local masjid as well as the largest of Islamic organizations. If people don't care enough to exercise their right to accountability, then they can't expect their needs to be served.

This is why all these recent debates actually make me optimistic. It means we finally care. It reminds me of this from Sh. Hamza Yusuf:


To move forward, more people have to care. They have to feel a vested interest in community affairs. That's finally happening - and despite some bumps in the road, I strongly feel like we're on the right track. It wasn't too long ago we were criticizing everyone for being too caught up in entertainment and 'dunya' to care about the religion. Now that people care, let's cultivate it.

2. Sustained Empathy

Caring is good, but we have to keep ourselves from letting it get too erratic. There's a great article in Foreign Policy - Turn on, Retweet, Tune out - explains this concept in light of recent events like #BringBackOurGirls.


Simply put, people don't have the patience to sustain activism over a particular cause. The internet enables a rapid fire approach. Click here, click there, feel accomplished, then move on to the next task. To get more real about the issue, think of it this way. Remember the whole #FireAbuEesa controversy? How many of the people who so vociferously blasted him in public in the name of fair treatment, equality, marginalization of women, and so on, are still fighting for those causes? How many of the people who piped in with their "me too" support against him to show they stood on the side of women are still advocating for that cause?

There are two kinds of opportunism. There is opportunism in using an event to raise awareness and start a discussion. Then there is opportunism to convince people you care by jumping on a bandwagon, and then moving on and waiting for the next issue. The problem with this is that people care less about the cause, and more about making themselves look like people who care about causes.

This is not to say that everyone is insincere or posting just to get likes. What it does mean, as an intelligent consumer of information, you must be able to sift through the flood of status updates and try to figure out the context of why people are posting, or why they are advocating a certain cause. There is a world of difference between someone who unnecessarily manifests outrage at every opportunity, and someone genuinely affected by and posting about something like #FreePalestine.

On a personal level, we have to become okay with not speaking out about every cause. Just because everyone else is speaking about something doesn't necessarily mean I have to as well. Pick the causes that you care about, and be active about them within your sphere of influence. Your sincere care and concern will give you the sustained empathy needed for success.

[blockquote cite="Urban Dictionary" type="left, center, right"]Manufactured Outrage: A falsified righteous outrage at things that are basically unimportant and meaningless, frequently employed by politicians, political activists, or the media. Politicians and talking heads use it to garner support for their causes, to claim the moral high ground and to tar their opponents; the media often just uses it in a cynical bid to increase ratings.[/blockquote]

3. Breadcrumbs, Manners, and Double Standards

Everything you have ever posted is accessible for someone to find. Positions you previously held and statements you made years ago can and will be dug up.

It is easier now, more than ever, for people to hold you accountable for that which you advocate. This is of particular importance given the nature of Islamic debates on the internet. There are always two discussions going on-

  1. The actual debate over the issue
  2. The parallel debate over adab, personalities, and intentions

It's not enough to refute a position, we feel compelled to also refute the manner in which the position was presented. The more we do this, the more we create the expectation that we ourselves will be held to this same standard.

Be conscious of your own etiquette first and foremost. When things calm down, we never regret making a point. We don't usually regret speaking our mind. But we do often regret the manner in which we did. To see an example of raising an issue, and then writing a response with good adab see Tariq Ramadan's post, and Dr. Sherman Jackson's response.

There are obvious forms of bad adab (manners) such as foul language and ad hominem attacks. There is another one that's a little more under the radar that must be highlighted - double standards.

Take a look at this example of someone identifying what they perceive to be a double standard based on previous internet debates:


The problem with calls to adab (and this is something nearly everyone is guilty of) is that we want the scholars we respect, and the positions we take, to be treated with respect. When we hold an opinion, we want others to be tolerant of it. When someone criticizes a scholar we love, we want it to be done in a respectful manner. The problem is, many people apply these standards of respect *only* to their own scholars and positions without extending the same courtesy to people of different backgrounds or ideologies. Don't expect the benefit of the doubt if you can't extend it to others. Don't expect tolerance for your opinion by labeling the opposing positions as automatically intolerant.

Another extension of this issue is the debate over whether or not things should be criticized in public. We cannot assume that someone posts something in public without having privately discussed it first. We feel okay making that assumption about others, but get offended when given the same treatment. This is not fair. We also need to progress past this point of naive notions of naseehah. Yes, personal advice is meant to be given in private. Public issues, issues of concern to the community, are by definition - public. The discourse about them will be public, and it is necessary that they be made public as a means of accountability for leadership.

If my friend leads prayer, and mispronounces surah Fatihah, I will advise him privately. It is a private issue. If I post a note on Facebook about it and tag him, that is inappropriate behavior on my part. If someone posts a picture of themselves at the White House Iftar, then they should expect to be criticized. It is a public action, and it will warrant public discussion.

People will post a photo like that, and then hide behind statements like "I'm not making a political statement LOL, just got invited bro, had some good food" when criticized. This is disingenuous because by claiming to steer clear of the political issues, they actually are making a political statement.  It is a weak display of  trying to straddle the fence while hiding behind your own passive-aggressive behavior to avoid critique. One of the ironic things about passive-aggressive updates is that they often call into question a person's intentions. We know that it's terrible character to call to account someone's intentions, but we do it anyway to try and prove a point. This is ironic because questioning someone's motives actually weakens your own arguments.

Passive aggressive updates (or sub-tweeting) is quite possibly the worst offender in the category of bad adab. I've been told that young teenagers often post song lyric excerpts as a way to comment on a fight, their parents, or something like a recent break up to express their emotion without having to actually discuss the issue. We are becoming the same way. If we aren't ready to speak clearly on something, let's leave it aside.

The issues outlined here are the contextual issues surrounding the actual debate of issues - these are the issues that cause us to lose our sanity. Avoiding this (and avoiding shame grenades) go a long way in making the internet a happier place for all of us.

4. What's In It For Me?

Everything boils back to the basics of our religion. Foremost is intention. What is my intent in choosing to consume the debate in the first place? No one forced you to read everything about RIS. You chose to for a reason. I remember back in the early 2000's, Islamic message boards were en vogue. People spent their time arguing and refuting scholars. I personally know of a brother who within weeks of starting to pray 5 times a day immersed himself in these forums. A few months later, he no longer had any connection to the religion. These debates take a spiritual toll. Make sure you have a productive reason to follow it or partake in it. What value do you receive, and what value do you provide? If someone comes back and sees your feed 8 weeks later, what would their impression be?

Leave alone what doesn't concern you. This is a fundamental principle in the 40 Hadith on Social Media. It is difficult to leave alone issues everyone is talking about. Be as discerning as possible. Some of the issues are big, and they do require attention. Others, not so much. Some issues are worth the investment of time to educate yourself, and they are worth the time to use your personal platform to educate and share with others. Some issues will blow over, and you would have been better off doing something else.

Debate issues. Personalities will always change. Just because someone has a different ideology does not make it acceptable to transgress their rights as a human or your Muslim brother or sister.

Be active. Social media has empowered everyone. The fact that someone like me can reach someone like you is proof enough. Utilize the tool to its best benefit.

Make dua. I'm including this at the risk of sounding cliche. Whenever these issues flare up, sincerely ask Allah (swt) to guide you, guide our community, to help show the truth, and to enable us to be a means of benefit to those around us. Make dua that you and those who you disagree with are guided to the truth, and that despite disagreement He puts love in your hearts for one another.