Reducing the Toxicity of Social Media


Reducing the Toxicity of Social Media

Is it just me, or does anyone else feel that social media has become a toxic environment for communication? It seems to hold so much potential for good—yet the past few years has really brought out the nastiness and toxicity of much of our online communication through social media. Why do we feel so free to name, to insult, to assume worst intentions, to blame, to demean, and to unfriend? Why such a hostile, angry tone to so much of our discourse, especially for those of us who claim to follow Christ?

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires (James 1:19, NIV)    

Perhaps James advice could be applied to social media. If I could paraphrase a bit: “Be quick to listen, really listen to each other, be slow to post (think first before hitting send), and slow to become angry.”

Let me offer a few suggestions as to how we might take first steps toward communicating civilly in an online environment.

Be quick to listen. 

The Proverbs repeatedly call us to listen carefully with the intent to truly understand. One particularly pertinent proverb: “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:10). Good advice for our online communication. Before labelling an individual, before naming them, before accusing them, before assuming their intentions, listen to them.

Stephen Covey speaks of “empathetic listening” as the highest form of listening. He describes it as “listening with the intent to understand, to get inside the other person’s frame of reference, seeking to understand them emotionally as well as intellectually” (7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Listening on this level is difficult in social media. We don’t have all the tools of communication available (body language, tone of voice, etc.) and it is easy to misread the intent or tone of a comment. 

How could we promote more empathetic listening? First by showing more grace and not assuming the worst intentions. Second, by asking questions to truly seek to understand. Not with an agenda, or an aggressive style which will not help. It should go without saying but it certainly means that you don’t attack, call names, become easily offended or angry, or become sarcastic and mean spirited.

I think James admonition to be quick to listen suggests something else as well. We should get outside our “echo chambers” of people just like ourselves and learn to listen to people with different backgrounds and life experiences. My life has been enriched by broad exposure to people from many places around the world and around the country. Civil conversation with those with different backgrounds, ideas and beliefs is a beneficial exercise worth the time and effort. I highly recommend it. I would hope that social media could provide such an environment—perhaps it can—but we must learn to be quick to listen.

Being quick to listen means being a person that seeks to learn, that seeks to understand, that takes the time to really understand where people are coming from and why they believe the things they do.

Being a “quick listener”—a good listener—will almost always open the door for you to share your opinions as well. It can lead to the opportunity to communicate, to encourage, to share your ideas and experiences, perhaps even to testify to what God has done for you. It is more likely to lead to an open door, than trying to shove your ideology and beliefs down the throats of others you’ve not taken the time to get to know.

Be slow to speak (to post, to respond).

Think through your words carefully before you post. Remember others will read what you are writing. Try to put yourselves in the shoes of your intended (and unintended) readers. How will this affect them? How will it impact them? Who might it offend? Can I reword it so that it doesn’t cause unnecessary offense? Can I reword it so it more graciously deals with those who might disagree? Can I reword it so that it more carefully expresses the ideas I wish to express? Have I done the necessary research to make sure what I am saying is actually true? If I am quoting, have I made sure that I am quoting accurately (giving the reference when possible so we can read the context)?

If you are sharing a post, have you checked to make sure that it is true? Is it from a trusted source? If it is from an ideologically driven source? If it is, does the bias overshadow the truth? The internet has opened a world where fantasy masquerades as truth, where misinformation often looks just like fact, and where we must evaluate sources to find the kernels of truth amidst bias. Where we must wade through opinion to find facts. Check your sources well, and if you aren’t sure—don’t share it.

One of the great errors of our day is that we tend to share information that feels true to us. Comedian Stephen Colbert called it “truthiness”—believing that something is true, because I feel it is true. If it speaks to our ideological bias we tend to accept it without perusing it carefully. Pause before you share and make sure that I’m not sharing it just because it “feels right”—make sure it is true. As believers we are called to a standard of truth. We may all, with the best of intentions, fail at points—but we should seek to only spread things that we know are true.When in doubt, there is no need to post.

I certainly think there is no reason why we cannot share opinions about politics or current events, though I have been hesitant to share for several reasons: 1) the toxicity of the environment, 2) the tendency for social media to be driven by extreme ideologies with little room for nuance or moderation, 3) my political views are much less important to me than my opportunity to enjoy interaction with family and friends (who do not all hold the same views—and will more likely be turned off than convinced by a constant barrage of ideologically driven posts from questionable sources), much less important than my ability to encourage and minister and pray for people, much less important than my testimony and witness. Besides that, I can’t think of one political post that has ever changed my opinion on an issue (though they do have a way of changing our opinion of one another). Sure, there is a place for sharing our views, even political, but can we do it in a civil way? Can we allow nuance, differences of opinion, and a civil tone to guide our discussions?

Before you post, perhaps we should ask, Will this post lead people to think about such things as these:

“whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

If we were more careful about our speech, more civil in our interaction, perhaps social media could be a place to not only “friend” people, but to build friendships through thoughtful interaction. Instead of finger pointing and tired talking points pushing the extremes of ideology, we might rationally discuss issues in a way that allows cooler heads to find common ground and reasonable solutions. Perhaps social media could lead to deeper friendships and less strained relationships between friends. Maybe that’s a bit much to ask. But wouldn’t it be nice to get back to a place where we can enjoy social media? It just isn’t as fun as it used to be.

Be slow to become angry

Online interaction is difficult to do well. We make ourselves vulnerable to the passing, thoughtless comments of people we barely know (if at all). We share our thoughts, only to be misunderstood. We mean things one way, but they come out another way. Someone with strong opinions attacks us and we wonder why. This is where James’ next admonition is needed: “Be slow to become angry.”

It is easy to be hurt by the thoughtless comments of others. There is something about the nature of online communication that frees some people to comment in the most inappropriate ways. We tend to feel free and unaccountable for our words. But words matter, and they do hurt, despite the wishful thinking of childhood rhymes that “words can never hurt me.”

When someone “unfriends” you, insults you, calls you a name, labels you, misunderstands you, questions your motive, or is just hard to deal with, show grace, and try not to respond in anger.

The world teaches to return insult with insult. Jesus taught another way, “turn the other cheek.” The issues that underlie the anger may need to be dealt with—the cause of the anger may require further discussion. Still, don’t respond in anger. With a “cooler head” you may be able to deal with the issue. Or perhaps after thinking it through and praying it through, you might just take it to the cross and forgive. Forgiveness is always appropriate and healing.

At the heart of the problem, it seems to me, is that we have allowed anger to grow into contempt. Our blaming the other, and naming the other, has led us to a place where we feel contempt for those with whom we disagree. The prejudice, hate and contempt that has been directed toward candidates and politicians from both parties is uncalled for, and will naturally lead to violence and worse. There is no place for contempt for President Obama or President Trump. There is no place for contempt driven by political ideology. Of course we may disagree, but enough with the contempt. As Christians, we must remember and live out the teachings of Jesus who taught us not to allow anger to turn to name-calling contempt (Matt 5:21-24).

I have been slow to speak on controversial issues, hesitant to get involved in political discussions. This is my default setting and I’m not likely to stray far from it. I remain skeptical that social media contributes to thoughtful, civil discourse. However, I have over these past few years found myself wrestling with the fact that remaining silent can have unintended consequences. Sometimes we must stand up and speak up for the vulnerable, the marginalized, for those who voices are lost in the noisy crowd. As scripture says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute” (Proverbs 31:8, NIV). So there is a time to speak. Yet, most of us would do better to speak less, and more carefully.

Social media suggests to me that we are more formed by the political ideologies of the media sources we prefer than we are formed by the truth of scripture. Most of us would do well to broaden our perspectives by listening to those with whom we might tend to disagree, and less to the echo chamber of our own ideology. If what you are listening to produces anger and contempt, perhaps it is time to shut it off. Listen less to political pundits who would shape your ideology, and more to the voices of scripture who would form you into the image of Christ.

Does our social media feed demonstrate the humility, love and gentleness of Christ? Is the fruit of the Spirit demonstrated by our lives? Is Jesus being lifted up, or do our political opinions drown out our witness to those who don’t see things the way we do?

Be quick to listen. Be Slow to speak. Be slow to become angry. This is good advice for communication generally, but especially relevant for our interaction on social media. Enough said for now.

Pastor Jeff Syverson

About pastorjeffsneighborhood

Born and raised in Minnesota, I have served in churches in Minnesota, Ohio, Oregon and California. I am a graduate of Crown College (MN) and George Fox Evangelical Seminary (OR). I have also done additional graduate studies in New Testament Studies at the Center for Advanced Theological Studies at Fuller Theological Seminary (CA). I am also a graduate of the College of Prayer. Having served as the Academic Dean and Program Director at Horizon Institute of Los Angeles for several years, I have returned to the pastorate and serve as Pastor of Big Trees Community Bible Church in Arnold, CA.
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