The graphic was controversial, but I felt pretty good about posting it: a list of atheistic world dictators alongside the tallies of lives lost to their regimes. With figures so shocking, surely I would deal a deathblow to any doubting friend’s disbelief in God.
Only I didn’t. It was an ill-considered, self-righteous post that some friends quickly objected to. I chose to defend it for a bit, then finally deleted it.
Social media has become today’s public square. Eighty-six percent of Americans use Facebook, and over two-thirds of users get news there. Due to the network effect of likes and shares, one person’s words can quickly have as much reach as a local TV station had decades ago.
Yet many of us use this power poorly. By listening, seeking truth and learning from my mistakes, I’ve found a few tips helpful for evaluating what I “feel” is OK to post to have a better view of dialogue, persuasion and Christian witness online.
Starting Points to Address Social Media
It’s important to set the table before getting to the meat of the topic. We all come to social media with many hang-ups and knee-jerk responses. To advance the conversation, let’s quickly summarize some common issues.
First, technology has become insidious in our lives. Excessive use of social media can suck our time, relationships, joy and much more. We are wise to set boundaries. Even balanced social media use can result in a “humble brag” mentality of comparison and competition. Mistakes are easy to make, as I just confessed.
Second, as followers of Christ, we are called to speak up on the moral issues of our day. Funny pet videos, selfies and personal anecdotes can surely give friends a laugh, encouragement or challenge. But we’re seeing the human fallout from social trends in our nation, and it is right and just to voice concerns and make space for dialogue.
Third, your voice matters. Our society has lost “third spaces” like bowling clubs and barbershops. Today, platforms like Facebook play a key role of deliberation among people of differing views.
Last point to set the table: each person has a unique calling in life. The issues of injustice that inspire you to action may be different from what inspires me to action, and perhaps God intended it that way.
Here are six tips for healthy political talk on social media, particularly relevant for Facebook — one of the most widely used (and thus ideologically diverse) platforms for political debate.
1. Check your motives.
Sadly, our actions often reflect motives that are at their root sinful. Say a friend posts something about tax issues or our President’s behavior. Why do you feel the need to respond? If you’re being honest, is it to show how much you know (pride), to aggravate the person (sowing discord) or to prove your political side has all the answers (idolatry)?
Any dialogue starting with those motives will go nowhere, even though it might get the most fire on social media and is permitted by free speech. In fact, to quote recent research: “Uncivil content may be exacerbated online because it is positively associated with network virality.”
In other words, cruel and offensive posts have been proven to get the most likes. It’s the nature of social media, where the approval of those just like us drives us toward messages that confirm our biases. We can succumb to a dangerous feedback loop, with motivations the Bible actually calls sinful.
Self-reflection isn’t easy, yet it’s necessary. “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes, but the LORD weighs the heart,” states Proverbs 21:2. As ambassadors for the kingdom of God, our voices online should reflect His culture of love and truth.
2. When in doubt, don’t post.
One day while working for a large nonprofit, I needed information from a colleague. My request was misunderstood, resulting in a long email thread back and forth. Later, my boss noted that one phone call would’ve cleared it up. I learned to consider the means of communication.
Social media can often be the wrong forum, like if you only need to talk to one person. And the reasons not to incite debate are numerous. Our words are “a restless evil, full of deadly poison” states James 3:8. There are dozens of verses along these lines — all worth studying in context.
One writer riffs on Ephesians 4:29, saying, “‘Corrupting talk’ includes biting sarcasm, arrogant condescension and harsh anger. We might rename them wit, experience and justified venting.”
Ouch. Conviction hurts. Maybe before spouting off, run it by a good friend. When my snark factor gets too high, I’m thankful my wife calls it out.
3. Know the lay of the land.
Our Savior defines himself as the Truth, proclaiming, “The truth will set you free.” Yet in the present day, we too often allow political thinking and comfort food media to define the facts and analysis — then we depend on that as the whole truth.
Turn on the other network for a change. Listen to podcasts you disagree with. Try searching Google News for the event or trend you’re about to post on and read an article or two from sources on the “other side.”
When I do this, I always learn something: new facts about the issue, how people groups unlike mine are responding and why national leaders seek answers in the middle of two passionate sides. Whatever you’re about to post will be more accurate and truthful if you first see how others view current events.
Maybe fair and caring solutions to the “culture wars” are within reach if we the foot soldiers would take a step back from our entrenched positions.
4. Ignore the rant.
I couldn’t resist. I found a good source on a hot topic and just had to speak up for truth and justice. Now my friend who sees the world differently is coming at me with a barrage of insults and facts.
Take a breath and remember Proverbs 12:16: “The prudent ignores an insult.” Offense and rage can overwhelm our better sense. Now something about my post or this issue has set off my friend. Or maybe their double-soy, half-caf mocha-mint-latte didn’t include extra foam today — who knows?
Some people block a friend at this point, especially if four-letter words are in play. I generally don’t. Instead of blocking your friend, scan through the lengthy reply, ignore insults and look closer at any facts presented. Determine to respond in an opposite spirit.
Humility also demands we examine whether the words we posted missed part of the truth. Maybe we’re the ones needing grace for our words.
5. Compassionately look for what’s driving your friend.
Culture today is so splintered, your friends could be getting their identities from anywhere. Don’t get hung up on labels and subgroups. Search for shared values. For example, you may not settle a specific tax issue. But can you both agree society should have order, and services like police and fire prevention require funding? Even on a small plot of common ground, relationship overcomes animosity.
Be willing to look deeper. Personal experiences are likely lurking behind their views. Our nation is facing rising trends of suicide, drug use, student-loan debt and single-parent households, to list only a few indicators. Perhaps abuse by a lover or poverty or a legal battle or an absent parent — or a thousand other things — give your friends different lenses to see the world.
The effect of broken lives is everywhere: grief, frustration, unanswered questions seeking a target. We could throw up our hands in frustration, or try to listen.
We Christians are often ill-equipped to truly mourn with those who mourn. If I’m so busy toeing the party line on some issue, I can miss what the friend next to me is facing. But this friend’s personal storyline and complex emotions are worth hearing.
Proverbs 12:18 paints a stark contrast: “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” How often have followers of Christ been rash to speak? If a friend has hang-ups from past hurts, genuine sorrow and empathy can begin to bandage open wounds.
6. Diversify your friends list.
Addressing a worldly people living in conflict, James summarized how to use words carefully:
But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (3:17-18)
One way to become more impartial and reasonable is to welcome wise voices with differing views. Narrowcasting is a troubling trend of choosing favorite news sources, then never giving credence to anyone else. If those in your news feed likely all voted the same way this past election, it’s a bad sign.
People from other economic backgrounds, countries, ethnicities and political ideologies bring something unique to the table. In my experience, listening well, questioning and engaging changes us for the better.
Even if you follow this advice, some may get angry. Honest attempts to be civil can descend into belligerence. To risk paraphrasing Jesus: What does it a profit a man if he’s never blocked or unfriended, but loses his soul? At the same time, be sure to look in the mirror; it’s easy to have blind spots, as I did when I posted that controversial graphic. And sometimes ending fruitless talk may be best. Better yet, disconnect on Facebook and share a coffee instead.
It’s no exaggeration to say politics today are toxic. Our political factions long ago stopped talking to one another, busy instead spinning current headlines as a win for their side and thinking up clever one-liners for attack ads. Both sides play the game.
Yet in this environment lie the great issues of our time: issues on family and child welfare, on humanitarian needs and security, on ethnicity and equality, on technology and free speech, on a hundred other complex concerns.
Yes, it’s worth it to speak up online — boldly and swiftly when events demand. But being mindful of the real lives at stake can keep us humble and able to see the big picture.
Copyright 2018 Joshua M. Shepherd. All rights reserved.