Updated: Sep 17
They'll Know We are Christians By How We Act On Social Media
This year has made me aware of just how powerful social media can be - for better and for worse. As the new public square, and the best place to be social without risk of getting COVID-19, social media can foster dialogue, expand our worldviews, and provide the social connection we desperately need right now. But it is also a place of rampant narcissism, hateful and offensive speech, and a virtual combat arena where users toss inflammatory and half-true rhetoric at each other until all are bloodied and broken.
The worst parts of social media tend to come out more in times of crisis, civil unrest, or an election. Hello, 2020! As a Christian and a generally even tempered person, social media right now is trying my patience. My spouse often says I inherited the frustrated sigh of my father and the trademark eye roll of my mother’s entire side of the family. I demonstrate both in abundance when scrolling social media feeds, especially this year. I haven’t yet thrown my phone in anger, but I’ll confess to occasional swearing. I’m not proud, but it is what it is.
This is going to sound arrogant, but I’ve only recently come to realize just how many people see and read what I post, and care what I think. That’s true for you, too. Whether you realize it or not, people are watching you on social media. And they know you’re a Christian. So, what example are you setting with your posts, comments, retweets, pictures, and memes?
Here are 7 ways for you to use your influence as a Christian to positively impact social media discourse and make it a more holy space in which to live.
1. Be quick to listen and slow to speak.
“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.” - James 1:19-20
Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who isn’t really listening to you; they’re simply listening for when it’s their turn to talk? This happens on social media too. We see a post or comment, and our first instinct is to respond with disagreement or anger. But listening, not speaking, is what produces righteousness. Being a Christian means remaining open to others’ viewpoints, considering the contexts and experiences that led to their belief or opinion. It’s important to slow down enough to really hear what others are saying before we jump in with our opinion.
2. THINK before you post.
Former radio host Bernard Meltzer is perhaps most known for this quote: “Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.”
His words have inspired a common acronym, hanging in most elementary schools and perfect for guiding our decisions about what we post on social media.
I would add one more for social media: Is it something you would say in person? If you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying this in a polite conversation at a picnic, then you probably shouldn’t say it online either.
3. Avoid the echo chamber.
I’ll admit that there are people I’ve had to unfollow or snooze because of the things they post or share. But that number is in the single digits. Yes, really. I reserve these actions for the most egregiously offensive feeds in my timelines. Because of the variety of places I’ve lived, studied, and worked, I have a very diverse group of social media friends: politically, culturally, and theologically diverse. Much of this diversity exists within the people of Avery UMC too.
The truth is, the people whom I dearly love in this world have wildly different views on theology, racism, public policy, mask-wearing, immigration, and which Starburst is best (it’s obviously pink). It doesn’t make me love them any less. I don’t base my love for others on how they think or vote or worship. In fact, I love this diversity, because it keeps me on my toes. I have people who challenge and push me from all angles, question why I believe what I do, and remind me that my voice isn’t the only one that matters. I may not end up agreeing with them, but I’m thankful for their perspective.
4. Watch Your Language
“Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.”—Ephesians 4:29
Our Western PA Conference provides Guidelines for Social Media and Online Platforms, and a lot of it focuses on the language we use. Specifically, it says Christians should:
“Refrain from insults, inflammatory language, disparaging rhetoric, and uncharitable memes.
In all forums and platforms, commit to communication that is truthful instead of misleading, respectful instead of insulting, edifying instead of destructive, and Christ-honoring instead of narcissistic. Social media and other online platforms are an important segment of our mission field. The words, images, articles, and memes that we share there must illuminate the truth, not dishonor it.”
5. Do No Harm
“Do no harm” is both the first principle of the Hippocratic Oath and the first rule of the original Methodist Societies. And it’s a central principle Christians on social media should follow.
Attacking people instead of issues is the most common way I see harm being done on social media. As Christians we believe everyone is a beloved child of God and worthy of love and respect. We also value speaking boldly about what we believe to be true and just. So, how do we stay true to our convictions but value those who disagree?
There’s a saying when it comes to debate or conflict mediation: “Be hard on issues and soft on people.” Sometimes we forget that people and issues are not the same thing. We are more than the issues we care about or represent. Others are worthy of respect and compassion, even when you believe they’re horribly wrong, and even when they act like jerks back to you. It’s possible to passionately express yourself without tearing other people down.
6. Check the facts
Misinformation and attacks on opponents have always been part of American politics. Social media just makes it more powerful - and thus, more dangerous. Sometimes it’s bending the truth, other times it’s complete fabrications. Either way, be discerning of what you see and read. Just because the attack is against the candidate or party you dislike doesn’t mean it’s true. And just because the attack is against the candidate or party you like doesn’t mean it’s false.
Specifically, check your sources. Though all media is biased, some strive for balance while others unabashedly lean far left or far right. Use charts like this one to evaluate your sources: Ad Fontes Media Interactive Media Bias Chart
Be aware that disinformation, from both foreign and domestic sources, is rampant right now in the social media realm. That means you might see a website that looks like a real newspaper, but it’s not. Stick to reliable sources, and don’t get all your information from one place or on one side of the chart.
One final note: just a few months ago I learned about something called “deep fakes.” It’s the creation of videos that make it look like someone is saying something that they actually never said. Because it’s a video, you may assume it’s airtight proof that they said it. But it’s not. Deep fakes are a tremendous threat to our democracy and our trust of each other as citizens. Read this very helpful explanation of deep fakes.
7. Know when to stop (or not to start).
Social media moves so fast these days that every day brings a new topic of outrage. It’s easy to get sucked into criticizing or defending red coffee cups, what someone wore, or a quote taken out of context. Many things people argue about online just aren’t worth your time. Before you post a reply, ask the following questions:
How important is this topic? Will I still care about this next week?
Are my words offering a different perspective, or just attacking those who disagree with me?
Is this a conversation that is better to have in person?
I also recommend a regular Digital Sabbath. Over the next two months, choose one day a week where you will not engage in social media at all. Delete the apps off your phone if you must. I have found that disconnecting from social media for a day a week is restorative. It allows me to focus more on close friendships, be present in the moment, and quiet the noise. Sometimes I use those days to disconnect from my phone completely. As wonderful and essential as technology is, taking a Digital Sabbath reminds us that there’s a whole world beyond our screens just waiting to be experienced.
Remember: people are watching how you act online. Will they know you're a Christian by the way you conduct yourself?