11 Nov 2018 Digital poison or digital balm
As Christians struggle with social media ethics, where are the guideposts?
At first, the requests were below the radar. A group of LGBTQ people of colour and some of their white allies sent emails to interfaith groups and other organizations in Madison, Wisconsin, asking them to withdraw their support of the annual Pride Parade if contingents of armed law enforcement officers – many of them also gay or lesbian – were allowed to march.
This is not the kind of controversy that typically divides Christian churches, where some see gays as living a sinful life and others see them as living out the way God created them. This was a divide within the LGBTQ world that caught many people in liberal congregations off guard.
Then the controversy ignited on Facebook. A public meeting brought together 90 people for a face-to-face discussion. There were news stories, letters to the editor and guest columns in the local news media. The debate swirled around issues of sexuality and race and views on the role of police in a contentious time. Ultimately, local police did not participate in the Pride Parade in uniform.
On so many levels, the debate raised issues about whose voices get heard in which kinds of forums. It also posed questions about how people engage in the often volatile world of social media. Those are questions pose challenges to faith communities as well as to the broader society.
Some of the online posts caused fractures in long-time relationships. Others offered healing in the midst of anger. This became a microcosm of amplified behaviour in the digital age.
Church folks were not the only ones engaged in this debate, of course. Numerous churches in the Madison area have been deeply involved in welcoming LGBTQ members and standing with them. But since Madison and its churches are predominantly white, a real gap emerged in the awareness of the concerns of LGBTQ people of colour. And the specifics of those concerns were only really visible to the wider public through social media.
Who had access to the debate?
On Facebook, people in some church communities picked up on the concerns. There was a news story in the daily paper six days before the parade. Gradually, more people became aware of the issues. If you were not on social media, however, you probably had little awareness of the debate at all.
But for the LGBTQ people of colour, it was the use of social media that allowed them to engage the wider community in the issue when they did not have access to the more mainstream media outlets. They told the story of their particular fears of the police. As one straight white woman posted on Facebook, for people like her and her family and friends and church – people she described as “more empathetic and connected than many – this was one of the first times this became more known.”
It was the storm on social media that helped bring people to the face-to-face meeting. And having raised the issue to some degree of prominence, the letters to the editor and opinion columns that followed kept widening the circle of those engaged in the issue.
As Alys Brooks, a free-lance writer in Madison, noted in a column for The Capital Times on Aug. 15, “Listening to queer and transgender people of colour is vital for white members of the community like myself.”
The activity on social media opened up that opportunity for expression and for listening. And, as is the reality of social media, it also opened up the opportunity for harsh judgments, misunderstandings, and damage to old alliances.
It seems to me this is the place where church communities have a particularly useful and important role to play. Whether the issue involves sexuality, climate change, race or any other volatile issue, churches are a place where folks can explore both the possibilities and the poison within the ever-emerging digital world.
Whatever the hot issue of the day, it does not take long for social media to light up, whether with the brief comments made on Twitter or the rants that appear on Facebook. Vivid examples through the summer of 2018 involved a prominent Southern Baptist leader who had made inappropriate comments to a woman dealing with domestic violence and to young women he encountered as a minister.
Then there were more recent developments in the on-going revelations about predatory behaviour by Catholic priests and the lack of accountability by their bishops. Digital media amplified the reactions to all of this.
As Christians try to navigate the choppy waters of social media, what might be the ethical guideposts that can light the way? There is, of course, that fundamental guidepost offered by Jesus to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s a good starting point. Beyond that, though, are some of the distinctive elements that come to play in a digital world.
One is to spend the time assessing the veracity of the information we consume and that we pass along. That means paying attention to the sources of the information. For news sources, look at what steps were taken to verify the information. Is the information put in a wider context? Consider whether multiple people were involved in reviewing the story. Take note of whether the news outlet routinely runs corrections as warranted. See whether other news sources support or debunk the original story.
The Associated Press, one of the largest and most reliable of news sources, says in its 2018 Stylebook, “Fluency in social media takes time and effort…On social networks, credulity is gained through consistency and by building connections through interaction and sharing.”
The time and effort any user on social media puts into assessing what they read or view in turn affects their own credibility with what they post. Too often, people read a headline that catches their attention and share the story or comment on it without having any idea what is in the story. Over time, that reduces the credibility of the one making these random posts.
This is particularly important in this era when essentially anyone can function as a journalist. As Marty Baron, the editor of The Washington Post, told CNN’s David Axelrod on a recent podcast, “I think the public has a greater challenge in front of it, to decide who is trustworthy and who’s not.” Paying attention to the veracity of facts matters. So, too, does assessing the source of opinions.
In the debate over the Pride Parade, some people seemed to be just shooting from the hip. But when an African-American lesbian wrote about the double fear she felt from her dual identities, it made the issue personal. When a gay police officer wrote about the advances the Madison police had made in dealing with both LGBT people and communities of colour, he added nuance to the discussion. When a lesbian pastor wrote about how wearing a clerical collar in the Pride Parade was her way of showing that church people were part of this, she asked why have police in uniform could not send the same message.
These opinions came from people who spoke from their own experiences. Those reading their opinions may not agree with them, but they could have empathy.
That gets to another ethical imperative in dealing with social media, this time for the one doing the posting. Bringing empathy to a debate is not only a way to engage those who might disagree with you, but also reflects that spirit of Christianity that regards all people as created in the image of God.
The idea of paying attention to the sources of facts and opinions is a pretty standard guidepost for navigating the digital world. Bringing empathy to what is posted, while not something unique to Christians, is something that ought to be a hallmark of people who seek to be followers of Jesus.
That does not mean accepting the kinds of hateful comments that can generate so much attention in the digital world. It means responding to them in ways that recognize the humanity of those making those comments even while disagreeing with them.
Yes, it’s true that there are places in the Gospels where Jesus unloads a stream of invective on the religious authorities who are challenging him and making life difficult for ordinary Jews. Calling opponents a “brood of vipers” would sell well on Twitter. But for the most part, Jesus engaged people with questions, he sat down for meals with those who doubted him, he had empathy for those who were suffering.
It’s true that the scope of ethical questions in the digital universe extends far beyond how individuals behave. Questions of privacy, of the scale and power of digital corporations, of the role of governments, of the access communities have to the benefits of technology and the controls that freeze people out all are important issues as we move forward in the 21st century. There is certainly a role for religious institutions in those debates.
Where churches may have the most important role, though, is in these closer-to-home issues where they can provide a forum for people to examine the role of social media in their own lives, to help create the ethical guideposts that can anchor people more closely to the way of Jesus.
The experience of the debate over the Pride Parade in Madison did not end once the parade was over. There were folks connected to church communities who used social media to invite people into continued conversation – more of it face-to-face than digital. They used the tensions as an opportunity to reknit the frayed relationships.
It is that mix of the digital world and the face-to-face world that offers a digital balm to a hurting world.
Rev. Phil Haslanger worked for 34 years as a journalist at The Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, USA,and then for a decade as a United Church of Christ pastor. He is now retired and chairs the advisory board of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.