Whisper It: Tackling Hate and Abuse on Social Media

Facebook doesn’t always make a great read. If it was an actual book, subtitled ‘An edited collection of young micro-essayists’, the reviews would be awful: poorly developed opinions with a lack of evidence, extreme polarisation of views without any nuance and an overload of irrelevant food photos.

That there is no editor for Facebook is part of the problem. We go straight to the article we want on our favourite news site, bypassing the choice and diversity a newspaper or homepage presents. Have you ever been on Buzzfeed’s homepage? We narrow our ears and our world to be surrounded by views we like, people we like.

Until an event happens that is too big to ignore. The Paris Terror attacks. Stephen Fry’s comments on child abuse. The realisation that your friend supports far-right group Britain First.

We confront, defend and broadcast our view to the world believing it’s the only rational view possible. We get picked up in the hurricane and keep fuelling it.

‘A hurricane wind ripped through the mountains and shattered the rocks before God, but God wasn’t to be found in the wind; after the wind an earthquake, but God wasn’t in the earthquake, and after the earthquake fire, but God wasn’t in the fire; and after the fire a gentle and quiet whisper.’ (1 Kings 19: 11-12)

This short passage from 1 Kings, where God is speaking to Elijah is surprisingly useful for thinking about our lives as Christians on social media. We should be speaking into situations with the same whisper of love, truth and justice that God represents throughout the Bible. What makes the response ’Christian’ isn’t always the viewpoint but mainly the way we respond: considered, polite and willing to change our minds.

#NoBystanders on Twitter

Recently, two people I follow on Twitter sent out homophobic slurs, the kind that I couldn’t just scroll by. I had to call them out and tried to speak with that same whisper of truth Elijah heard. Here’s what the first conversation looked like (names changed):

Sam: I bet he’s nonced a few boys in this time
Me: That’s a homophobic and offended me
Sam: Sorry Joey – will delete it
Me: Thanks mate

Sam is a friend of mine with an inclusive heart but his ‘banter’ blinded him from the truth that his comment was derogatory. As Stonewall’s #NoBystanders campaign reminds us, the intention behind words doesn’t always matter. The normalisation of abusive, offensive language continues at the expense of someone else. I wasn’t asking Sam to take his comments back, but I was delighted he did.

Sadly the second conversation wasn’t so positive:

MailOnline Headline: Muslim contestant walks off Bear Grylls reality TV show The Island – because he couldn’t handle ‘living with half-naked women’ in bikinis
Matt: ‘What a f**king bender!! Bet he has gone Brighton now
Me: That’s deeply homophobic and culturally/religiously very disrespectful

Matt blocked me. He probably would have blocked me if I’d been the hurricane wind instead of the whisper.

A few days later, I read an article in The Observer from a daughter of the controversial Westboro Baptist Church, known for picketing funerals with repulsive signs like ‘God hates fags’. In it, she talks about leading the church’s Twitter account and, over time, learning to empathise with people on the outside, “to see them as human beings rather than people to condemn.”

Social media can take you to unexpected voices and unexpected views. Sometimes people may shut them down and one comment won’t be enough. But as Megan's story shows, the whispers we all say will be heard.

How to whisper on social media

Your friend shares something you find challenging or offensive online. What do you do? Here’s five points to help you consider a response.

  1. What is the comment saying? Is it an ill-phrased/ill-judged comment, or an actually offensive view and language?
  2. Have a drink and step away. You’ll either let it go or you’ll go back with a clearer head to reply.
  3. Take your time on a polite and positive reply. What whisper of truth can you say in 140 characters?
  4. Hear their reply back (if any) but you don’t need to respond. You could find yourself being drawn away from a whisper back into the hurricane
  5. Consider if you want to unfriend or unfollow them. Only you can decide that. Are they genuinely a friend or just someone you follow? You may want to keep the communication channels open. You may not want to give them the illusion their views are heard and supported.

Joey is a Community Fundraiser for Christian Aid in South East England. He blogs about everything from his love of Lorraine Kelly and Songs of Praise to being a gay Christian and men's health. You can follow him on Twitter @JoeyKnock.