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06 July 2018

Social media, trolling and unfollowing followers

David Landrum is director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance.

Football is a very competitive sport, but it's also called 'the beautiful game'. When England wins, it is especially beautiful. Seeing the joy of the victory over Columbia expressed on Twitter, often with good humour, struck me as a beautiful yet, sadly, rather unusual moment. Because, although social media can bring out the best in people, more often than not, when it comes to disagreements, it can bring out the worst. All of which makes for a rather ugly arena for public debate.

This is no doubt related to the fact that, whether by Twitter, Facebook, blogs and other forms of social media, everyone has an opinion on everything, but most people lack knowledge or the patience to seek knowledge to support their opinion – or even, dare I say, to change their opinion. As we build our echo chambers, alternative views are squeezed out by the increasing sense of certainty that we are right and others are wrong. Add to this the polarising effect of the 'culture wars' now under way, and the fragmenting effect of the politics of identity, and we find ourselves in a media landscape in which people are either actively seeking to offend or to take offence. 

As the World Cup has shown us, both victimising and playing the victim is easy. Indeed, it can even feel cathartic. The problem is that at a time when people feel less inhibited by notions of civility and respect, trolling and abuse can become the modus vivendi for our public debate. Anger is a natural, human emotion, but as Christians, we should not be participating in this ugly spectacle. Though it's certainly a good thing to contribute to public debate, and even to do this forcefully, we should always seek to play the ball and not the man – or woman. 

Last year the former worship leader turned author and LGBT campaigner, Vicky Beeching, took a break from social media after a meme with her photo and the line 'You may be Gay or You may be Christian. But you cannot be a Gay Christian. Your choice. Heaven or Hell' was shared on Facebook 20,000 times.

Since the publication of Beeching's book Undivided last month, she has received a lot of publicity, some robust criticism, but also some vile abuse. This week, after the publication of the government's LGBT Action Plan, one tweeter responded to Vicky asking if she hated children and society. Who's to know what else has been sent privately, either online or physically?

I don't agree with Vicky Beeching's views but I do think she should be treated in a civil way.

In Philippians 2:14-16 Paul writes: "Do everything without grumbling or arguing, so that you may become blameless and pure, 'children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.' Then you will shine among them like stars in the sky as you hold firmly to the word of life. And then I will be able to boast on the day of Christ that I did not run or labour in vain."

That's how to play the beautiful game.

As Christians we should speak out against those who purport to be on 'our side' but do not follow the way of Jesus. Even when we encounter those who, though claiming to know Jesus, are rejecting His teaching, a biblical response should not involve being baited into a public slanging match – no matter how tempting that may be.

As followers of Jesus, we can be confident in what we believe and confident that we can speak up for those beliefs publicly. But we must condemn vitriol and abuse in whichever direction it is being hurled from. The bile that is spewed on social media goes in both directions: I know Christians who receive abuse for their supposed antiquated and bigoted views, but that is never a reason to respond in kind. We cannot speak for the King of kings if we look to the world as though we are captive to the world's ways.

The problem is that increasingly, with people feeling insulated by the impersonal nature of social media, there's a sense of liberty to personalise the attack. The one who stands on the street corner shouting through a megaphone that "the wages of sin is death" may be productive or unproductive in calling people into a relationship with Jesus, but at least the communication is not personal. However, the one who responds to someone's tweets, saying they are going to hell, is focusing the attention on that one person and usually for a specific reason. This is not only highly unlikely to help them know Jesus, but it is also not the way of Jesus. 

We desperately need more Christians speaking into public life. It is privilege to have this freedom, and we all have a responsibility to speak the truth and to challenge error. But abuse and trolling are not okay. We need to be accountable to God, our consciences and each other. We have an obligation to check all those who self-identify as followers of Jesus, to check that we are treating others as we seek to be treated ourselves, that we are bringing salt and light to public debate, witnessing to Christ as we communicate truth with grace. 

Sometimes I think we are so taken by the need to be distinctive in our neo-pagan culture that that we forget about what it actually means to speak, act and live differently. Author and philosopher Os Guinness describes this better tone and posture for engagement, saying: "When followers of Jesus live out the gospel in the world, as we are called to do, we become an incarnation of the truth of the gospel and an expression of the character and shape of the truth. It is this living-in-truth that proves culturally powerful."

So, let's seek to reflect the glory of God in the world around us. As well as calling out abuse and standing by what we believe, we need to do something more, to go above and beyond by shining light and extending compassion to those who disagree with us. And to those who are, perhaps, hoping for us to be purveyors of abuse, let's instead be purveyors of hope.


Image: Tracey Le Blanc