The perils of the online comment section

Let’s talk about Deinviduation.

Deinviduation is a sociological theory which explains the change in behaviour brought about by a combination of loss of responsibility and accountability and an increase in anonymity. More specifically, deinviduation explores how this can lead us to behave in ways which we normally wouldn’t do in situations where responsibility, obligation, visibility etc. are more ‘felt’. In its most extreme form, deinviduation can take the form of what has become known in recent times as ‘trolling’ whereby individuals have been seen to deliberately post offensive online comments toward individuals where a more expected response might be one of sympathy or empathy. Such cases have attracted national media attention and the firm hand of the criminal justice system,  with a number of ‘trolls’ being found guilty of ‘hate speech’ crimes.

Whilst the growing prevalence of trolling should provoke concern and sadness, the fact that the internet has proved to be a catalyst for Christian discipleship, encouragement, knowledge building, evangelism etc. is a cause for thanksgiving. This is particularly the case in regard to written, video and audio content now increasingly commonplace on evangelical blogging platforms and many church websites. In spite of all these positive developments, I have been increasingly struck by something of a honey-trap almost always present in such content, the comments section.

For the uninitiated, most online output now provides the opportunity for the reader to submit ‘feedback’. Usually, this comes in the form of a comment box at the bottom of an article/video/photo etc. In theory, such a facility should provide a forum for thoughtful and gracious dialogue on the topic concerned. Yet too often (yes, even in Christian circles) the comments section is home to petty disputes, bitterness, anger, slander and division (if not quite trolling!), all things which Paul warns against in Colossians 3:8. Whilst of course loving and truthful rebuke is sometimes necessary and helpful, in my experience the comments found in comment sections are rarely either. Don’t believe me? Go onto any well-known Christian blog or website, or even your Facebook newsfeed or Twitter timeline and I’m pretty sure it won’t be too long until you come across this.

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The question is though, why is such disappointing behaviour so common? While the short answer is sin, I believe this in many cases to be played out through deinviduation. In other words, when on our own with only our keyboards/touchscreens separating us from expressing our thoughts about the person and/or content in question, plus the vast unlikihood that this (and any other) person will ever know who we are or confront us directly in regard to our comments, what’s stopping us from giving that person a piece of our mind? It’s also worth saying that this phenomenon might not only exist in unhelpful commenting, but when we revel in an online argument between others, without necessarily commenting ourselves.

So, how can we avoid exhibiting this behaviour? As always, the Bible has much wisdom to offer.

Let us consider the Proverbs 29 in regard to speech.

v11: A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.

v20: Do you see a man who is hasty in his words? There is more hope for a fool than for him.

The Biblical concept of building each other up in Christ (that is, seeking someone’s ultimate good in helping them become more like our saviour) is also helpful. The apostle Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians writes (chapter 5 verse 11):

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

Paul also says in Romans 14:19:

So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

The book of Hebrews meanwhile says (chapter 10 verses 24-25)

And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.

In terms of applying these verses in the specific context of online commenting (and online conduct in general) helpful application questions that we might ask ourselves when engaging online include:

  1. In writing this response, am I seeking to build up my brother/sister in Christ?
  2. Conversely, am I writing this comment in order to stir up or provoke an argument just for the sake of it?
  3. Have I taken time to consider my response carefully, considering the effect of my words on both the content producer and those who might read my comment?
  4. Have I considered whether my comments would be helpful in bearing witness to Christ and the gospel, especially in regard to those around me who might not believe or might be very new to the faith?
  5. Will making a comment draw me into an unhelpful ‘war of words’ which won’t lead anywhere particularly helpful?
  6. Am I reading this comment thread in order to be built up, helpfully informed etc. or am I seeking pleasure from gossip, slander etc.?

At this point, let me say that I’m not suggesting that comments sections on evangelical websites should be banned, or that Christians should never engage in online commenting. Indeed, with the right motives and understanding, online commenting can be helpful in building up the body of Christ, both on an individual and corporate level. As such, contributions should be made with the intention of seeking the good of the content producer and the wider body of Christ, not with the intention of exalting oneself at the expense of another, spreading gossip or indulging other sinful behaviour. It’s also worth asking whether the disagreement or perceived error concerned might be better resolved by speaking with the person in private rather than airing your grievance in public.

Finally, let me say that these reflections on online commenting speak as much to me as anyone else; I know that I am guilty in exhibiting much of the negative behaviour cited in this article. Yet, despite our sin, we have a saviour who has once and for all paid the price for our sin, facing the wrath of God on our behalf. Further, we have a Father who in total grace is working all things for our good, that we might be conformed to the image of his son (Romans 8:28, 29). Lastly, as a result of what Jesus achieved on the cross for those who believe we can continually approach God for forgiveness and to help us in our time of need.

Why Christians should stand up for freedom of speech

Over the past week or so, news screens across the world have been filled with the shocking and tragic scenes of the Charlie Hebdo murders. For those unaware, Charlie Hebdo is a Paris based satirical magazine, known for pushing the envelope regarding political correctness and offence. Many individuals, groups and religions have not escaped its ridicule with front covers mocking Michael Jackson to Jesus Christ and Muhammad.

Wednesday’s terrible killings have brought back into the spotlight issues regarding freedom of expression and speech and how absolute this right should be. With this in mind, how should Christians regard the issue of free speech today?

Many believers around the world will testify to the saving and transforming power of the gospel (the video below offers a biblical explanation of what this gospel is.) Indeed, it is no coincidence that Paul in his letter to the Romans says ‘I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of salvation for all who believe’ (Romans 1:17-18.) As such, this truth cannot be underestimated in terms of its significance; it changes not only life in the here and now but also ensures a perfect eternity with God (Revelation 21 and 22.) On the other side, the Bible gives stark warning that those who refuse to believe and repent will face judgement (Hebrews 9:27) and an eternity in hell (Matthew 18:8, 25:46.)

Given the magnitude of the above, we if we believe it to be true for ourselves should surely be telling others about this and praying for opportunities to this effect. In saying this, I am of course aware my own sin gets in the way of my own evangelism and that I need God to help me be bold amongst my unbelieving colleagues, friends and others who I might happen to meet.

Yet, as well the of the gospel having the power to save and change lives, we also know that it is ‘an offence to those who are perishing’ (1 Corinthians 1:18.) In addition, some of what the Bible says is counter cultural to the beliefs and values of today’s age. Therefore, we should not be surprised that the gospel and Bible are considered offensive by numerous individuals and groups. In saying this, we should not in any way deliberately aim to be offensive. This would run counter to scripture which exhorts believers to love our neighbour (Mark 12:31) and to not be quarrelsome (2 Timothy 2:24-25.)This sharing of the truth without going out to cause offence can be summed up in the following phrase: ‘share the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:14-15.)

For all these reasons, I believe Christians should be interested in upholding the principle freedom of speech through political, judicial and social means. Such activity will vary depending on each individual, from deciding to choose political candidates and parties who uphold this principle, defending it in conversations, to directly getting involved in activity to this end. Further, whilst it is regrettable that offence could be caused from sharing the gospel and Bible with others, the imperative to share what we believe to be true and of maximum importance is surely greater.

We must also be aware however that God is sovereign and is in full control of all circumstances – past, present and future (Isiah 46:9-10, Romans 9.) Ask yourself this; did the severe persecution of the apostles, and members of the early church stop the spread of the gospel to more and more parts of the World? No it didn’t (Acts 4:1-4 is just one example.) Further, look at the persecution faced by Christians around the world today, from Nigeria, to China to North Korea (amongst many other places.) Has this modern day oppression curtailed the advance of the gospel? Again, the answer is negative. In China for instance, despite opposition of various kinds, the number of professing believers has grown massively – there are now as many Christians as there are members of the Communist Party! The point here is clear, not even the most severe persecution will halt the advance of the gospel to the ends of the earth. Whatever the circumstances in this present age, God will build his Church which will last into eternity (Matthew 16:18 .)

Thus, whilst Christians should be looking to uphold free speech, even when it unfortunately causes offence, we should not let any assaults on this principle deter us from the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) – to make disciples of Christ Jesus.

N.B. As Christians, we should not take ‘freedom of expression’ to mean murder or physically harm another person or group in name of Christianity, or incite to that effect. Put simply, there is no Biblical mandate for this. (Matthew 5:38-42, Ephesians 6:12)