Heaping coals upon the trolls

troll

By Joe LaGuardia

In the first week of January of this year, high school student and editor of his school newspaper, Michael Moroz, missed a few days of school because of threats made against his life.

The lethal reaction resulted from an editorial Moroz ran, along with an opposing viewpoint penned by one of his peers, criticizing student protests at the University of Missouri.  In the piece, Moroz argued that protests hindered much-needed debate related to police brutality and that, in many cases, lethal force is necessary to protect first responders.

The editorial and opposing article ran in the school newspaper with little fanfare; when it hit the internet and a wider audience, however, things turned ugly.   Comments on the online article thread ranged from cheer to aggression, with one comment even calling for someone to shoot Moroz and “teach him a lesson.”

Although this situation has been used as a case study for political correctness, the real tragedy is the online aggression–also known as internet trolling–that threatened none other than a teenager’s life.

Online aggression is not an isolated moral lapse, but a rampant infestation of sin.  An internet troll is anyone who comments on online articles or blogs with threatening, intimidating, or abusive language.  It is, and has been considered by many, to be hate speech.

The internet’s anonymity makes it easy for trolls to abuse others, but it is not harmless sport.  This aggression has led to suicides, soiled reputations, and–in some cases–profits, according to Yasmin Green writing for The Daily Beast.

Unfortunately, Christians are neither immune from trolls nor free from becoming trolls themselves.

I became a victim of trolls — some of them people of faith — when I wrote my first article for an environmentalist blog several months ago.  I was reporting on various weather anomalies over the 2015 Christmas break and its publicity created a stir on social media.

I was called everything from snake-skinned scam artist to vulgar names that had to be deleted.  When the organization for which I wrote reminded people that the website is “Christian” and “family-friendly”, we were called more names.  No apologies were offered.

Trolls are so real that they can shape the tone and content of an online debate with detrimental effects.  For that reason, they cannot be ignored.  In fact, Christians should protest any speech whenever it is used in person or online and stand on the side of civility and moderation.

This is not political correctness.  This is living into the basic values to which Christians are called.  Nor is it censoring disagreements; trolling is more than disagreeing with something–it is attacking the person instead of the very thing for which the person stands.

Christians can protest internet trolling by engaging an online discussion with well-reasoned, thoughtful responses.  Although it may get lost in the midst of other comments, it will stand out to readers who also take such discussions seriously.

Christians can also protest trolls by not engaging in their rhetoric.  Most social media analysts agree that trolls want responses–and the more negative the response, the better.

Instead, Christians can abide by God’s word by not returning “evil with evil or insult with insult” (1 Peter 3:9).  In turning the other cheek, we can obey Christ, who implored those being harassed to rise above the abuse, lest the abuser become the oppressor (Matthew 5:39).

Lastly, Christians can protest trolls by not giving up on expressing their convictions with compassionate persistence.  The true goal of most trolls is to shut down or end a discussion of serious matters with which they disagree.  They try to be the loudest voices in the room and drown out the most significant voices that seek truth and clarity.  With kindness, we can heap coals upon their schemes and scheming (Prov. 25:22).

Christians have a part to play in the public sphere, online or otherwise.  We are, after all, commissioned to spread the Gospel, even if the world refuses to tolerate it or scorn it with the most vehemence it can muster.

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4 Ways to use Social Media for the Gospel

By Joe LaGuardia

Over the past two years, many church visitors found us by our website.  Our online presence is a major draw for our guests, second only to personal invitations.

If that is the case, then it stands to reason that churches, especially those concerned about fulfilling Jesus’ Great Commission, need to think intentionally and “missionally” about the use of social media.

The use of social media is not for the church leadership or administration alone.  Every person in the church must think critically about how social media may harness the power of evangelism and testimony in a world that has entered the digital age.

Meredith Gould, author of The Social Media Gospel, states that a church-wide approach to social media has to do with a church’s philosophy of ministry.  If a church is teaching that each person is a minister called to share the gospel, then the use of social media must come under the lordship of Christ.  No word published should be without some spiritual scrutiny.

There are several models for social media usage that might guide churches–and Christians–on the appropriate use of online communication.

Santa Clara University professor and journalist Elizabeth Dresther, for instance, argues that Christians can keep in mind the acronym, LACE, when online.*

The L stands for listening.  She argues that Christians can use social media by listening to others and assessing the emotions and needs behind the opinions and posts that people often publish.

Ask yourself: What are the concerns that people express in social media?   Do fears, prejudices, or anxiety seem to be a common theme?  How might God’s Word address these fears and empower friends to “love thy neighbor” rather than disparage the unknown?

The A in LACE is attend.  We Christians are asked to be the presence of Christ for others; this can happen in person or online.  Our comments and contributions on social media platforms can attend to people who need encouragement.

C is for connect.  Our digital world gives the illusion that we are relating to each other intimately and in real-time.  Yet, people feel more isolated than ever.

A recent article in the New York Times by Adam Grant revealed that people are less likely to make friends at work because people spend time on online or on phones during breaks instead of talking to co-workers.

We must keep our connections authentic and vibrant.  We cannot settle on being a voyeur in the lives of others, keeping people at arm’s length.  Connecting to people is the intentional act of moving past the “like” button.

The E stands for engage.  Engaging others online for Christ encourages that we share words of edification on our profiles and in emails.

Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (1 Thess. 5:11)

Are we promoting the cause of Christ and challenging people to think in new ways with our communications?  Are we building an alternative community with quality content and thoughtful reflection fitting the Christian faith?

Too often, our engagement is limited to promoting political or theological views that reinforce our embedded beliefs.  Status quo can be dangerous in this setting: if Christian engagement does not inspire transformation and conformity to the image of Jesus, then why share it in the first place?

We all know that social media is a powerful tool in keeping up with friends and family.  It even has the power to shape our day if it exposes us to a heartbreaking story of a loved one in need or bombards us with offensive opinions that linger in our minds well after the computer is turned off.

Likewise, it can be an effective tool for Christ, for it has shown that it can influence people to mobilize and get excited about a cause, religious or otherwise.

Although the Bible did not originate in a digital world, its principles are just as applicable.  We are still commissioned, whether in person, at church, or while surfing the world-wide web, to share the Good News of Jesus’ love, make disciples, and, ultimately, baptize all in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.

“Digital Media–It’s All About Relationships,” in Bearings for the Life of Faith (Autumn 2014): 4-8.

Facebook, Social Networking has its downsides

Online social networks such as Facebook are fantastic tools in building community. Just last week, I befriended an old chum from elementary school whom I have not seen since, well, elementary school. Before this technology existed, I would not even consider finding such long-lost pals. Now I can do it at the stroke of a button.

This is a real asset for me because I am not good at keeping in touch with people. I forget to call family. Sometimes I even forget birthdays. Social networking Web sites have been a Godsend in my life.

The Internet has created a sense of community in profound ways, but there are pitfalls as well.

For one, there is a strong temptation for us to parade our lives on the Internet and flirt with virtual exhibitionism. I’m not so sure I want to know your every move, nor do I need to see your relationships evolve, fracture and get torn asunder before my very eyes. The pictures you took during your trip to Acapulco? Not so family-friendly.

In order to fight the urge to splurge on public domains, I recommend a family Internet policy that protects you and your family from nosey voyeurs, be it friend or foe alike.

Some of my personal rules include posting pictures that are modest and appropriate. That’s not to say that I have inappropriate pictures. I just don’t want people to peruse snapshots of my family’s trip to the pool or beach.

Also, I do not befriend coworkers, bosses or acquaintances unless I spend time with them outside of work. My status updates communicate my musings, but not my innermost emotional roller coasters. What you don’t know won’t kill you, trust me.

Another pitfall to social networking is that it is very addictive. Fifteen minutes to check our inbox can turn into three hours. Eventually, to invoke a tactic used by the Borg in Star Trek, our computers end up assimilating us. We spend so much time online chatting with friends that the Internet slowly replaces flesh-and-blood contact. We may be connected, but we are not connecting with a sense of authentic communion.

Consider these statistics from one study I read: only one in every four people has someone in which to confide. Sixty-one percent of people say they have only a few close friends. The Internet is giving us a sense of community, but is not providing the connections that make up sustainable support systems.

The recent film “Up In the Air” explores this theme. In it, Ryan Bingham, played by George Clooney, makes a living by traveling across the nation to lay people off from their respective employers.

A young, inexperienced efficiency manager figures out that if Bingham and his coworkers fired people via Webcams from their home office, then Bingham’s company would save money by cutting travel expenses.

Bingham opposes the Webcams and argues that online interactions with clients not only robs them of the dignity of the “firing,” but removes the personal support required for a sensitive moment of loss.

The movie teaches that we cannot conjure relational depth by simply logging onto each other’s lives. We require intimacy and nuance, awe and enchantment. Without real human contact, we miss out on the beauty of storytelling, the dance of non-verbal communication, awkward silences, moments of divine inspiration and sudden bouts of irrational laughter.

Even though my computer helps me remember birthdays, it does little in helping me find the relational intimacy to which I, and every other person in God’s creation, aspire. I just hope that, in the end, resistance is not futile.