Social Media Connects Faith Leaders With Believers and Haters Around the World

(Illustration by Aaron Thorup Images of figures from Shutterstock)

(Illustration by Aaron Thorup Images of figures from Shutterstock)

The Anti-Defamation League has been tracking online harassment since the founders of Facebook and Twitter were toddlers. Staff members scoured the early internet for Holocaust deniers and hate-filled messages.

“Our first report on this goes back three decades to the days of bulletin boards and dial-up modems,” said Steve Freeman, the organization’s deputy director of policy and programs.

The mission of ADL, a more than century-old Jewish civil rights group that works on behalf of all minority communities, hasn’t changed since this work began in the 1980s. But the internet has evolved, becoming a complicated web of opportunity and risk for faith groups and religious leaders.

“People who thought the internet would be free of all the nastiness we see in the streets were kidding themselves,” Freeman said. “The internet was always going to be as hopeful and dark as the world writ-large is.”

Social media sites illustrate the internet’s best and worst traits. A tweet from Pope Francis about Jesus’s love simultaneously elicits gratitude and anger.

Religious organizations deal with online abuse in a variety of ways, blocking personal attacks and reporting threats of violence to the people who run social media sites. ADL hopes to offer more tools, through an initiative that involves digital giants like Google and Facebook, to stop harassment before it spreads.

In March, the ADL announced a new Silicon Valley center on cyberhate, technology and society, which will amplify efforts to end online abuse and produce policy recommendations for government leaders.

Staff members, under the direction of a former government cyber security expert, will continue to analyze cyberhate trends, while also challenging technology industry leaders to create new ways to keep faith groups safe online.

“We’re going to build bridges and increase communication with the industry and shine a light on what’s going on,” Freeman said.

Construction on the new center is expected to begin in the fall, according to ADL.

Consequences of online abuse

In spite of struggling with online harassment, few religious organizations or faith groups can afford to stay off social media, said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“You pretty well have to have an account,” he said, noting that tweets and Facebook posts are the best way to connect with faraway supporters and spread information.

Eight in 10 online adults in the U.S. used Facebook in 2016 and 1 in 4 used Twitter, according to Pew Research Center.

Although social media accounts for famous churches and faith leaders may be plentiful, the potential for harassment limits how and when pastors and faith groups engage online.

For example, Russell Moore, a prominent evangelical Christian leader as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has turned off Twitter notifications from people he doesn’t follow. Sifting through responses was time-consuming and dispiriting, even if there were plenty of positive comments mixed in with the hate-filled ones.

“I hated to (turn off those responses) because I enjoy interacting with people,” he said.

Simran Jeet Singh, a religion professor and regular commenter on issues affecting the Sikh community, said Twitter has forced him, again and again, to confront the worst parts of being a member of a minority religious group.

“I’ve received everything from messages of hate to death threats. It’s real ugliness that we only really see in our world when people can hide behind anonymity,” he said.

Sometimes, Singh will retweet troubling messages, encouraging his nearly 18,000 Twitter followers to recognize the limitations of discussing religion online.

“I think it’s important for people who don’t experience this to know what some communities face,” he said.

Eight in 10 online adults in the U.S. used Facebook in 2016 and 1 in 4 used Twitter, according to Pew Research Center.

Although social media accounts for famous churches and faith leaders may be plentiful, the potential for harassment limits how and when pastors and faith groups engage online.

For example, Russell Moore, a prominent evangelical Christian leader as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has turned off Twitter notifications from people he doesn’t follow. Sifting through responses was time-consuming and dispiriting, even if there were plenty of positive comments mixed in with the hate-filled ones.

“I hated to (turn off those responses) because I enjoy interacting with people,” he said.

Simran Jeet Singh, a religion professor and regular commenter on issues affecting the Sikh community, said Twitter has forced him, again and again, to confront the worst parts of being a member of a minority religious group.

“I’ve received everything from messages of hate to death threats. It’s real ugliness that we only really see in our world when people can hide behind anonymity,” he said.

Sometimes, Singh will retweet troubling messages, encouraging his nearly 18,000 Twitter followers to recognize the limitations of discussing religion online.

“I think it’s important for people who don’t experience this to know what some communities face,” he said.

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SOURCE: Deseret News
Kelsey Dallas

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