BY ANDREW DAVID COX |
Raise your hand if you’ve ever been harassed online. If you were in a room of 100 people, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center report, 40 people would raise their hands.1 73 would raise their hands to say that they have witnessed someone be harassed online. Of 100 young adults (18-29 years of age), 65 would raise their hands to say they’ve experienced online harassment.
Reading these numbers may evoke empathy in you, but not as much if you were actually in a room and saw these people raise their hands.
How negative harassment affects different individuals varies quite a bit, but no amount of harassment is acceptable. The majority of it occurs on social media along with less hurtful disrespect and blatant rudeness. This behavior, both the kind that rises to the level of harassment, and the kind that is just petty ugliness, is often referred to in 21st century colloquial language as “trolling.” It can cause a range of feelings from annoyance to fearing for one’s life, as Bloomberg Businessweek shows in its story involving a Reddit employee who tried to shut down fat-shaming trolls.2
“Trolls” are people who have no interest in having a rational, respectful, and meaningful discussion online. It’s less about “winning” a discussion, and more about getting a reaction out of someone by repeatedly hammering them with negative comments and content. As Pam Ramsden notes in her opinion piece for Newsweek: trolls desire attention and an audience.3 They’re somewhat different from cyberbullies. Rather than selectively choosing their target, they go after whoever reacts and gives them the most “fun.”
There are multiple ways to handle trolls, perhaps the easiest is blocking them. Most or all social media platforms have some setting by which you can completely revoke someone’s access to your profile. This method is an effective solution for the individual, but has no impact on the prevailing culture. If you block a troll, they’ll just find someone else to harass.
We can’t blame social media or the Internet for our predisposition to be imperfect people. Fortunately, we are blessed to have grace and forgiveness on our side.
I am not suggesting you refrain from blocking those who harass you. But blocking is the easy short-term solution. The long-term solution is challenging. We as Christians are called to reflect Christ in all aspects of our lives. This includes social media and the Internet. Christians, myself included, seem to frequently fall short when it comes to reflecting faith, love, and hope on an individual level online.
Christ’s light is not limited by any given communication method. It is we as fallible human beings who are susceptible to indulging in the faults of a given communication method. We can’t blame social media or the Internet for our predisposition to be imperfect people. Fortunately, we are blessed to have grace and forgiveness on our side. Making a conscious and pointed effort every day to spread Christ’s love online is perhaps one of the best ways to fight the proliferation of online harassment.* This will also keep ourselves from emulating troll-like behavior.
I asked the Rt. Rev. Sam Gray for his insight on reflecting Christ on social media. I remembered him sharing on Facebook about a test of sorts to determine if something should or shouldn’t be posted.
Sam shared, “It is always good to try to apply the ‘Philippians 4:8 test’ before posting something or replying to a post online. That’s the verse that says:
‘Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, post these things.’
OK, it actually it says, ‘think about these things,’ not ‘post these things!’ But I think the rule can apply to things that we post (and, hopefully, think about!).”
Sam’s Philippians 4:8 test, builds a criteria that content should meet before sharing, posting, or the like. He breaks it down by what he calls the six “test words” of the verse.
- Is it true?
- Is the source verifiable as trusted? Are the facts proven to hold up?
- Is it honorable?
- Sam shares that while this means our behavior should reflect depth and substance, that doesn’t mean we can’t have fun with posts like cute animal videos
- Is it just?
- This means avoiding picking sides
- Is it pure?
- Is your point untainted by your personal prejudices or biases?
- Is it pleasing?
- Sam notes that the original Greek word for “pleasing” is more similar in meaning to “loving affection”
- Is it commendable?
- After meeting the first five criteria, does it still avoid harshness?
Before I conclude, I want to add another layer to to this: specifically being mindful of the faults of online communication and the best ways to combat them. These are ideas to be considered prior to Sam’s Philippians 4:8 test. Implementing these ideas and Sam’s test can help us make progress in reducing online trolling culture.
Wait before responding to a comment or a newsworthy item. Don’t let the heat of the moment get the best of you.
See a comment or a news story and immediately feel affronted or angered? Wait. You can go ahead and write your reply or reaction. But do not hit that “post” button. Go get a coffee, go for a run, walk the dog, or watch some TV. Then come back to your phone or computer. Your mind will likely be clearer and you’ll be able to better spot the words that wouldn’t pass the Philippians 4:8 test.
Imagine the person you are talking about or responding to as physically in front of you.
One of the faults of social media and other online communication forms is that you can’t see someone else’s body language or make eye contact with them. Being free of this is known as the “online disinhibition effect.” Newsweek’s Pam Ramsden explains that other people’s gazes are known to “inhibit negative behavior.”3
“Eye contact increases self-awareness, empathy and the awareness of other people’s reactions to what is being discussed.” This is the same reason why museums have security officers and don’t rely solely on cameras.
Take time to deliberately do good for others online, and flood those who have been trolled with good vibes and encouragement.
Inspire in others good deeds and amicable behavior by setting an example with your online presence. Serve and surprise others with acts of kindness. However, keep in mind Matthew 6, in which Jesus cautions against doing good deeds for show or to rack up kudos.4
What are some ways to do this? Some ideas:
- Make a dedicated post to one of your best friends on their birthday
- Write positive and encouraging words to a public figure that you know has been heavily trolled, as they receive some of the worst trolling
- Do this even if you don’t always agree with the person
- When a friend shares uplifting or sad news, write a personalized comment that expresses how much you care and do it consistently
- Share a link to a nonprofit you are passionate about and ask others to consider giving to them
- Simply post a status asking your digital community what you can help them with
- Amy Jo Martin did this and experienced some uplifting results, as acts of kindness can boost serotonin levels5
- When you see someone acting like a troll, approach them about it in person, and let them know, kindly, that their behavior is hurtful and/or unhelpful
- If that’s not possible, try sending them a polite private message… however, only do this if they have a clear identity (don’t try to reach out to someone who is hiding behind anonymity)
- Be patient and forgiving of those who exhibit troll-like behavior, as it can be an indicator of certain psychological conditions, Australian Broadcasting Corporation notes6
- In general: spread lots of positive vibes and encouragement to everyone
- Reward positive behavior and ignore trolls (except to reach out to them personally)
The Internet and social media can be a black hole into a realm of ugliness and hatred. But they can also be the single most powerful influencers for social change, positivity, and kindness. Our digital lives, while intangible, are just a real part of our lives as anything else. We are called to live in faith, love, and hope, and to be a safe and encouraging community on the Internet. Let’s do better by that.
*If any online harassment you witness or experience seriously worries you, please contact your local law enforcement and report the offender to the site on which the harassment occurred.
1Duggan, Maeve. “Online Harassment.” Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech, Pew Research Center, 22 Oct. 2014.
2Stein, Joel. “It’s Like Reddit, Without the Trolls.” Bloomberg Buissnessweek, Bloomberg, 7 Dec. 2016.
3Ramsden, Pam. “Here’s How the Internet Generates Its Trolls.” Newsweek, Newsweek, 5 Mar. 2017.
4Matthew 6 – – Bible Gateway. Bible Gateway.
5Martin, Amy Jo. “I Set aside 30 Mins to Spread Some Serotonin Manually, Here’s What I Did:” Be Yourself, Be Yourself, 25 Apr. 2016.
6March , Evita. “Trolls Understand What Hurts People but They Simply Don’t Care.” ABC News, ABC News, 12 July 2017.
Questions? Comments? Or need assistance with your church’s
communications and social media efforts? Contact Andrew David Cox at ACox@MCSP.org or call (336) 722-8126 Ext. 404
Andrew David Cox is the Communications Project Manager for the Moravian Board of Cooperative Ministries (BCM). Andrew is a driven creative person with established experience and skill in a variety of fields. A storyteller, his main interest is creating visually and emotionally interesting creative content for the Internet.
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