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Social media and a culture of abuse

Social media and a culture of abuse

Umar Hague believes that social media has allowed a culture of abuse to flourish and it is driving people away. Abuse has turned social media into a wild west of unfiltered id, which has soured Facebook and is threatening to end Twitter.

Bad Words:

Abuse is killing the social web, and hence it isn’t peripheral to internet business models — it’s central. It has significant chilling effects: given a tipping point, people will simply stop using a network, and walk away…and that appears to be what’s happening with Twitter. Abuse is just as central to tech that connects people as selling beef that isn’t contaminated with salmonella is to an industry that feeds people. For the simple fact is that no one wants to spend their life being shouted at by people they’ll never meet who are angry not at them but at the world for things they barely even said to people they barely even know. I think it’s so vital, I’ll say it again, more simply: build a platform rife with abuse, and then turn a blind eye to it, treat it as a non-issue, and you’re already on tomorrow’s list of has-beens…you just don’t know it yet.

What really happens on Twitter these days? People have self-sorted into cliques, little in-groups, tribes. The purpose of tribes is to defend their beliefs, their ways, their customs, their culture — their ways of seeing the world. The digital world is separated into “ists” — it doesn’t matter what, really, economists, mens-rightists, leftists, rightists — and those “ists” place their “ism” before and above all, because it is their organizing belief, the very faith that has brought them together in the first place. Hence, to them, it’s the totem to which everyone, including you, must pay homage, and if you dare notto bow down before it…or worse still to challenge it…well, then the faithful will do what they must to defend their gods. They will declare a crusade against you.

So, step one: you say something, usually idly, that some kind of “ists” don’t like, because it challenges their organizing beliefs. Step two: they notice. Step three: it’s on. Full on guerilla info-war. Rage-mobbing, shaming, if you’re a woman, probably violent threats and more. But note. In all these endless squabbles, this perpetual outrage, this non-stop-cabaret of electronic violence…we are not fighting over anything that means anything much in the first place. Is it any wonder, then, that people are checking out of this childish game?

And it not just in the social media. Hague says we’ve created a culture of abuse in real life, as well.

We have created an abusive society. We have normalized, regularized, and routinized abuse. We are abused at work, by the very rules, norms, and expectations of our jobs, at which we are merely “human resources”, to be utilized, allocated, depleted. We are abused at play, by industries that seek to prey on our innocence and literally “target” our human weaknessses. And now we are abused at arm’s length, through the lightwaves, by people we will never meet, for things we have barely even said. We live in a society where school shootings are the rule, not the exception, where more people will have taken antidepressants than not…and now one where nearly everyone will have been abused on the web…for a random, off-hand, throwaway comment, an idle thought, something trivial, unremarkable, meaningless.

What can we do?

Can we create a better web? Sure. But I think we have to start with humility, gratitude, reality — not arrogance, privilege, blindness. Abuse isn’t a nuisance, a triviality, a minor annoyance that “those people” have to put up with for the great privilege of having our world-changing stuff in their grubby hands. It will chill, stop, and kill networks from growing, communities from blossoming, and lives from flourishing. If your purpose is social interaction, abuse is as central to it as bacterial infection is to selling meat. Get it wrong, and you might just end up like Twitter in 2015. Not a beautiful town square, but a raging mosh pit. Good luck selling tickets to that.

Last January, Archbishop Justin Welby talked about the power of the internet to both uplift and connect as well as hurt and degrade. He said the impact had been brought home to him in a letter from one churchgoer who detailed the trauma they felt after being caught up in a particularly frenzied dispute in the church.

“The trouble is that subtleties, tone and access all get muddled up,” he wrote.

“That’s not a new comment – it’s been said many times – but every now and then things happen which make it even clearer.

“The subtleties we lose when we communicate electronically have to do with expression, with touch, with the face-to-face aspect of relationship.

“Social media does not show tears in the eye, a hand on the arm when saying something painful, body language that speaks of inner turmoil, deep distress – even gentle respect.

“It is simply there – usually forever.”

He said the process of committing a thought born in the heat of the moment to print, including online form, made it “permanent” and harder to heal.

“Electronic media breaks through locked doors, and pierces people painfully,” he added.

“It is not for all of us to set everyone right on everything.

“There’s a point at which we need to leave it to those who know people to speak to them personally and quietly – in spaces where the tone is subtle and full of love.

“That is how people can be put back together rather than torn apart and left lying around in electronic media space.”

He contrasted the intensity of Twitter-storms with a passage in the Bible urging people to settle disputes subtly and gently.

“Love often says don’t tweet,” he said.

“Love often says don’t write.

“Love often says if you must rebuke, then do so in person and with touch – with an arm around the shoulder and tears in your eyes that can be seen by the person being rebuked.”


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Eric Bonetti

Good points, Kristin. I’d only add that sometimes one has to go in a third direction, which is to appeal to someone in a position of authority, as there are bullies out there who continue, no matter how often they are called on their specific behaviors. Of course, when one goes that route, the clever bully gaslights AND proclaims triangulation, all while claiming to be the victim.

Kristin Fontaine

Eric, I’m sorry you’ve experienced bullying in church and I don’t have an answer for your particular situation.

I do think it is important to remember that bullying can come from anyone, priest, congregant, co-worker, boss, or peer.

One of the best ways to stop bullies is to avoid triangulation. Don’t listen to people who are trying to get you to take their issues to someone and don’t be someone who only mutters about what is going on to other people.

Ideally the church should be a place where everyone feels safe and no one abuses anyone. However, people are messy and sometimes terrible. I saw a church that was held hostage to the whims of people who were heavily involved in the church music program and it was Not Fun. One bully can destroy a church.

In my personal experience you have two choices with bullies– stand up to them and tell them to stop the behavior (it helps to list the specific behaviors and not just call them bullies) or if that doesn’t work, walk away. I’ve done both with mixed results (one priest stopped saying god caused AIDS in his sermons, one boss fired me).

It has been easier to make bullying actionable in the schools because no parent wants to see that happen to a kid. It’s harder to deal with in adult groups because bullies are good at hiding their behavior and gas-lighting people.

It’s a tough problem. Teaching compassion and having a very low tolerance for bullying seems to have helped in the schools, maybe as this generation grows up we will see an overall improvement.

Eric Bonetti


Good points. One related thought: As a church, we really need to grapple with the issue of bullying, including by adults in the church.

Bullying in schools is legally actionable, and many states have laws requiring schools to have an anti-bullying policy. Similarly, while much work remains to be done, corporate America generally takes action to address such issues. Yet bullying is alive and well in TEC, and the church typically tacitly condones bullying by clergy, since it takes no action when someone complains of abusive behavior by clergy. I can tell you based on personal experience: If it doesn’t involve sex or violence, you are on your own when it comes to abuse in the church.

How very sad that we hold ourselves to such a low standard.

Kristin Fontaine

I disagree that ‘a culture of abuse’ is new. We are actually doing much better than 20 years ago in dealing with things like bullying– especially in schools. I think social media has allowed us to do three things: expose abuse that has been going on since before the internet existed, allow marginalized people to find each other and create support groups, and start creating a society that is pushing back against abuse. Just right now we are at the band-aid is off the non-healing wound & treatment has begun but not to the fully healed stage (which may take more than one generation to accomplish). I look at the difference between my son’s school experience and mine and see an amazing, inclusive, compassionate group of budding adults and it gives me hope for the future.

I do think that social media and internet actors need to provide easy to use tools to report abuse and have effective ways to allow the user to shut down abusers.

I also agree that it up to each person using the internet to be their best selves and to treat their digital life as as real and full of consequences as their in-person life.

Rod Gillis

“Well, ya got trouble, my friend, right here,
I say, trouble, right here in River City.”

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