We shouldn’t be throwing anyone under the social media bus

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The other day, I shared this Gospel Coalition article urging people not to throw their pastor under the bus.  The article was specifically about how Christians engage on social media.  I thought it might be helpful to say a little bit more about the specific subject.

By social media we mean internet sites and phone/tablet apps which enable users to connect with others socially, to make friends, stay in touch with existing friends, share pictures/videos, debate, influence opinion etc.  Most readers will be familiar with the main social media platforms include:

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • TikTok
  • WhatsApp
  • LinkedIn

We may sometimes include YouTube and even blogging as forms of social media depending upon how they are being used.

I believe that there are a lot of benefits to social media. It can facilitate a level of communication and connectivity that wasn’t possible in the past. In many respects, the availability of Facebook, Zoom, YouTube etc enabled us to stay connected through pandemic lockdowns. It even enabled a level of church gathering which would not have been possible even 10 years previously.

Social media has democratised knowledge and expertise.  It is possible for people to write or broadcast via blogs and podcasts, then share their content on Facebook and Twitter to a wider audience.  It also puts us in touch with people that we may not have known otherwise.  As I’ve sought to engage particularly on the issue of mental health, I’ve been able to get to know several people sharing their own stories including those who have worked together on the Grace in the Depths site and the book “The Pastor with a thorn in his side.”  It has also been through social media that I’ve got to know people who are committed to evangelism discipleship and church planting in hard-to-reach urban contexts.

It is also worth stating given the comments in the original TGC article about only using social media as a last resort, that in the context of abuse and bullying cases, it was exactly because people were down to the last resort that stories broke via twitter, Facebook and blogs. I agree with the premise that this should be the last resort but the responsibility for it being such lies with those who have failed to listen and failed to act in response to complaints, not with the victims.

However, social media comes with its challenges too.  Take Twitter as a specific example. The very first problem you have is that it was set up as a micro-blogging platform. The idea is that people share pithy comments with a limit of 280 characters on what they can say. It’s possible to get around this a little by threading tweets together but that can still be clunky and there’s no guarantee that readers will look at the whole thread before responding. There are benefits to conciseness but risks too. It encourages the hot take using extreme language to make sure your comments stand out in a crowded field.  It discourages nuance and detailed analysis. 

The next problem that you have with social media is true of any media that puts a little bit of distance between the embodied person and what they are communicating. It’s much harder to read tone because there’s less to go on in terms of body language, facial expressions, adjustments to the voice etc. 

Then there’s the challenge of fact checking in a day and age where truth is already subjective and where the media doesn’t give you the tools or the space to link people back to reliable sources.  So, as I’ve mentioned before, you get perhaps an out of context quote from someone and then you get everyone’s reaction to that. By the time you get people reacting to the recent TGC article, you realise that their reaction is not based on what it actually said or even to what other TGC articles have said but rather, the reaction is to other people’s reactions to other people’s reactions to things they perceived TGC to be saying. 

Fourthly, because it’s social media, it means that like attracts like (literally given some of the button options). The result is that we can often end up with a distorted perception of what people think because certain viewpoints dominate.  We end up believing that everyone agrees with a certain position.  For example, there have been cases of political parties and their supporters believing they were on course for victory because their attack lines were dominating on certain platforms only to lose heavily.

Fifthly, it is possible to create and hide behind an online persona.  This means that you can either create the personality of your choice or even hide behind anonymity. Whilst anonymity may be necessary to protect whistle blowers, it can also cause people to drop the usual social convention protections and become careless about what they say.  The result is that social media often distorts by amplifying the worst aspects of who we are.

Finally, there is a permanence to what you say on social media.  It’s difficult to row back. Even if you delete the message, others have taken screen shots and it remains digitally present somewhere. People are too frequently having comments they made online come back to bite them later on.

All of this gives some context for why the specific point about not throwing pastors under the bus on social media is relevant.  I would emphasise two things here. First that the people doing the “throwing under the bus” frequently can be in positions of authority and church leadership themselves.  Secondly, that it isn’t just pastors who are affected by the worst aspects of social media. Perhaps the point should be less “Don’t throw your pastor under the bus” and more “Don’t throw anyone under the bus.”

But the point is this, that how we use social media matters.  First of all, it matters because whilst social media amplifies and maybe distorts things, it isn’t disconnected completely from who we are on the inside.  If you use social media to be cruel, then that reflects something of your heart. If you use it to manipulate, then chances are that you manipulate people person to person.  If you come across as gossipy and even slanderous, then that may well be just how you are in private conversation as well.

Secondly, it matters because of the impact it is having.   One of the reasons I was grieved by the way people laid into the TGC article, its author and generally to anyone writing for, editing or even reading TGC content was because of how that was potentially affecting TGC authors. I personally, know some people who have written for TGC, either for the website, or the Themelios journal (I’ve even had a book review in there myself).  I am deeply grieved, angry even, to see them being tainted with the smear of false accusation.  The implication that by being linked to TGC they are somehow complicit in abuse is particularly disturbing when you consider that some of their guest writers have spoken up themselves as victims of abuse. That, was actually a big point that the original article was making.

Thirdly, because quite often, we see behaviours that stray into at best harassment and at worst become bullying. This includes stalking particular people on social media and responding to whatever they are saying with demands “Why have you not spoken about x or y?”  This can spill over into DMs and PMs. 

Now, the original article focused specifically on how people can talk about and to pastors online. However, the reality is that pastors/church leaders can themselves get drawn into the same unhealthy behaviour and non-pastors can be the victims too. So, perhaps we would do better to say that no-one should be throwing anyone under the social media bus.

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