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.

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