What does Christian use of social media look like?

To a little fanfare, and quite wide coverage in the media, the Church of England has launched guidelines on the use of social media, and a social media charter, to which I have signed up. The guidelines offer nine directions for how to enable the world of social media to be a better place (though I am wondering whether they missed a trick here in not adding one more…!):

  • Be safe. The safety of children, young people and vulnerable adults must be maintained. If you have any concerns, ask a diocesan safeguarding adviser.
  • Be respectful. Do not post or share content that is sexually explicit, inflammatory, hateful, abusive, threatening or otherwise disrespectful.
  • Be kind. Treat others how you would wish to be treated and assume the best in people. If you have a criticism or critique to make, consider not just whether you would say it in person, but the tone you would use.
  • Be honest. Don’t mislead people about who you are.
  • Take responsibility. You are accountable for the things you do, say and write. Text and images shared can be public and permanent, even with privacy settings in place. If you’re not sure, don’t post it.
  • Be a good ambassador. Personal and professional life can easily become blurred online so think before you post.
  • Disagree well. Some conversations can be places of robust disagreement and it’s important we apply our values in the way we express them.
  • Credit others. Acknowledge the work of others. Respect copyright and always credit where it is due. Be careful not to release sensitive or confidential information and always question the source of any content you are considering amplifying.
  • Follow the rules. Abide by the terms and conditions of the various social media platforms themselves. If you see a comment that you believe breaks their policies, then please report it to the respective company.

I find it interesting that these guidelines are framed mostly in positive terms, though in practice they mostly offer restrictions, such as ‘don’t lie’. The Ten Commandments are mostly framed negatively in their grammar, but in fact negative commandments, like the rules of games such as football, create a space in which to live and work. Some have criticised these guidelines for being bland and common sense, but I am not sure that is fair. ‘Being kind’ is, in reality, much more than bland ‘niceness’; a Jewish saying from the Mishna states that ‘The world stands on three things: obedience to Torah; the service of God; and deeds of kindness’ (Pirkei Avot 2.2). Some critics have also complained that this is all a rather negative approach to social media generally, which wants to mitigate its problems rather than making the most of its opportunities. But in introducing the guidelines (at the London offices of Facebook) Justin Welby was actually more positive about what social media offers.

Social media has transformed the way we live our lives. As Christians we are called to engage in a way which is shaped by the example of Jesus. As we respond to the call on each of us to be witnesses to Jesus Christ, I encourage all of us to consider how we live our lives as witnesses online. Each time we interact online we have the opportunity either to add to currents of cynicism and abuse or to choose instead to share light and grace.

My prayer is that through these guidelines and charter we can encourage regular and not-so-regular churchgoers, sceptics and those who are surprised to find themselves interested, to be open to think and experience more of the Christian faith.

(The live video appears to have only been viewed by 300 people at the time, but since then, at the time of writing, has been watched 85,000 times.)

The charter has points of contact with the guidelines, but goes further in suggesting more positive action:

  • Truth – we should hold ourselves to high ideals of checking that what we post online is fair and factual.
  • Kindness – we are all different and that makes the world an interesting place – and at times a challenging one. Think the best of people, whether they share our views or are speaking against them and aim to be constructive in the way we engage.
  • Welcome – in the language we use and the way we interact. It’s easy for Christians to speak in another language using words that those outside the Church might not relate to.
  • Inspiration – we are called to be witnesses of our faith and to use social media in a way that genuinely engages others.
  • Togetherness – we are one Church and other members of this Church are our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is crucial we treat those around us in this way.
  • Safeguarding – if you have any concerns about the wellbeing of children, young people and vulnerable adults, please contact the relevant diocesan safeguarding adviser.
  • Agree to the Church’s and Archbishops’ social media guidelines.

I think I would make the first one more proactive; again it is framed in negative terms (i.e. ‘Don’t say things that are untrue’) which is certainly needed, in the light of manifestly untrue internet memes that I continue to be sent, and the amount of spam that is around. But it goes further than this; truth is not merely the absence of lies, but the positive assertion of the reality of the world and God. Given the impact of the internet generally in making us all more superficial and dumbing everything down (which we appeared to be concerned about as social media grew, but we seem now content to accept as part of the cost of connectedness), I think there is a place for active campaigning and disseminating the truth. My social media use is probably rather unusual, but one of the things I value is the connection with New Testament academics and theologians around the world, and these connections offer a significance forum for discussing serious academic issues in teaching and research.

The language of ‘welcome’ is well chosen; ideas of welcome and participation are both more substantial and have a better theological basis than the empty cultural trope of ‘inclusion‘. It is good to see the communication of faith listed as a positive; ‘inspiration’ might sound anaemic, but this list is designed to appeal widely across traditions in the C of E. ‘Togetherness’ will be read by some as either bland or unpalatable—or perhaps both at the same time!

Kindness is always welcome, but I don’t wish to ‘welcome’ or be ‘together’ with those who don’t respect the right of every individual to live with equal human rights. Turning the other cheek to intolerance is appeasing it. As Karl Popper said: if we extend unlimited tolerance even to those who are intolerant, then the tolerant will be destroyed, and tolerance with them.

Way back in 2011 (which antediluvian in internet chronology) I wrote a short article on the uses of Facebook (which found its way into a Grove booklet). Already then I saw the need to break out of both social and social media bubbles, and with our enslavement to Facebook algorithms which generally make us see more and more of fewer and fewer kinds of post which generally serve to reinforce our views, this is even more important. Then, I expressed it in these terms:

1. Building relationships beyond my immediate (Christian, churchy) circles of friends
I am very conscious that as an ordained person in a theological college environment, it would be possible to live in a bubble. So being FB friends with other people outside this context is a good connection with reality.

I would now add: switch from ‘Top Stories’ to ‘Most Frequent’ in your newsfeed, or install a social media plug-in that does this for you. Justin Welby does not have to make decisions about whom he connects to, since he has a Page rather than a personal account. But I consciously decide to accept or extend friend requests to people with whom I know I will disagree, so that I am actively engaging with and listening to a wider range of views. (On Brexit, for example, I have many friends on both sides of the debate.)

I would also want to expand or revise the line ‘be a good ambassador’ in the guidelines. Depending on the ministry situation we are in (and all Christians are ministers) there is a real opportunity to communicate holistically. Back in 2011 I offered this reflection:

3. Modelling lifestyle
I aim to comment (in status updates) on the different things I am doing—involvement in other ministry things and organisations, but also what I am doing with my children and holidays. My hope is that the pattern of my updates reflects a balanced life engaged in the world outside college, and including disciplined and healthy patterns of living.

Contrary to the suggestions of the guidelines, I don’t believe that I should offer a strict demarcation between different aspects of my life—even though I am actually highly selective in what I share.

A third dimension I would add is ‘courage’. I think Christians should be courageous in what they share online, being ready to say things that the online community might not like, and being ready to questions assumptions—though with consideration and kindness. The real danger with (written unwritten social media protocols) is that we either lapse into angry rants or sullen silence. What is needed is clear, gracious and honest statement of what we believe is true—which goes far beyond the anodyne and unsustainable language of ‘good disagreement‘.

That leads into the last area of major concern that has been expressed with these guidelines. Leyla Sanai pulls no punches in her Spectator blog:

News that the Church of England has published social media guidelines promoting ‘truth, kindness, welcome, inspiration and togetherness’ sounds welcome. Surely we all want to live in a world which live and let lives, where kindness and tolerance are key, and everybody has the same human rights, regardless of gender, race, colour, sexuality, nationality, or religion?

Well yes, but hold on. These values are only meaningful if everyone adheres to them. Often the acrimony on social media stems from fighting about very real social ills: anti-Semitism in the Labour party and the Islamic world; racism; sexism; homophobia; the allowing of violent psychopaths access to their victims, whether they’re male rapists in a women’s prison or dictators starving and killing innocent citizens. Surely opposition to injustices like these should be vigorous and fearless? If we are all cowed into beatific ‘tolerance’, none of the evils in the world would be challenged, fought, or overcome.

This is why we need to regularly exercise courage, in small ways and large, in what we say. But she goes further, and worries about the possibility of censorship:

The guidelines also request that people report social media users who post ‘inappropriate, unsuitable or offensive’ material. They say that they will delete, block, or report these comments as necessary. But who is the arbiter of what is inappropriate, unsuitable, or offensive? If an Imam reports that he finds photos of gays carousing at Pride ‘offensive’, will they be removed? What about photos of unveiled women? What if Ken Livingstone takes umbrage at someone stating he was wrong to say Hitler was a ‘supporter of Zionism’? What if Putin’s cronies demand people retract comments pointing the finger at Russia for the deaths of Alexander Litvinenko, or the Salisbury poisonings? Or if a pal of Kim Jong-un’s bleats that it’s unfair to suggest that Otto Warmbier’s coma was the fault of North Korea.

Turning the internet into a nursery with a naughty corner is not only infantile, it is dangerous. Deleting written commentary that does not breach any laws is censorship.

I actually think that the comment about deleting posts is particular to protect Church House staff who need to read these things, and who, unwittingly and anonymously, become a lightening rod for everyone’s gripes with the Church and religion in general. But the question of ‘offence’ is hardly trivial, as Adrian Hilton also explores on the Archbishop Cranmer blog.

What happens when ‘Truth’ is deemed to be ‘unkind’ or ‘unwelcoming’? What happens when it impinges upon ‘Togetherness’?

Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell‘ isn’t very ‘kind’, is it? A bit ‘disrespectful’, isn’t it? Possibly a tad ‘inflammatory, hateful, abusive, threatening’, don’t you think?

But Jesus, said unto them, A prophet is not without honour, but in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.’ The #CofECharter nullifies the prophetic because it demands that everyone be unfailingly courteous, respectful and ‘nice’ to one another. If the Bishop of Leeds believes and preaches from the pulpit that Boris Johnson is an “amoral liar”, why may he not say so on Twitter? Doesn’t Twitter just speak what the heart is full of?

This is an issue beyond social media and relates to the current cultural moment we are in. It is rooted in a confusion between objective boundaries and subject perception. I was struck by noticing the two halves of a dictionary definition of ‘offence’:

Notice that meaning 1. is objective, focussed on the action, well defined, and easily testable, including in law. But notice how meaning 2. is centred on the perception of the recipient rather than on any act itself, which means it is both ill defined and untestable in its subjectivity. Social media has not caused the confusion between the two, but (as with many other things) has magnified it and accelerated the confusion. What should a friend of mine do when the diocesan safeguarding officer phones them because someone in another diocese has told a clergy person there that they are offended by my friend’s social media declaration of ‘pride’ in the Church’s current tradition teaching on marriage being between one man and one woman? At what point do we recognise the transition from the objective to the subjective?

This issue is not caused by the Church of England’s social media guidelines and charter, which I think are still to be welcomed. But at some point they might need to address it.

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13 thoughts on “What does Christian use of social media look like?”

  1. Yes, that’s fair.

    How could the guidelines be more specific when speaking of ‘offense’? One of the great strengths of the guidelines is their brevity (well, compared to some) and I can’t conceive of a good way they could be rephrased so as to make clear precisely which meaning of ‘offense’ they intend to qualify.

    • I think I would avoid using the words ‘respectful’ (which in practice is mostly empty) and ‘hateful’. What does that second word mean?

      I think there are much better ways, even briefly, of expressing the requirement to treat your interlocutor well. I think I managed to avoid this language in my earlier reflections…

  2. I sometimes think that if every post on social media was in some way directly traceable to those who wrote it and they could be positively identified, then many people would think twice about what they posted but I guess this is not technically possible.

    • Hi Chris, I have thought a lot about this. I use a pseudonym for very public forums for a number of reasons. Firstly, I have an unusual surname which makes one more easily traceable; also in mentioning personal anecdotes this also makes it easier to trace the people you might refer to in them. It acts as a protection against internet hate mobs of course. Sometimes I use it to try out a new idea to see what the response is; if I used my name I would forever be tarred with that brush even if the idea proves to be naff. That said, I do aim to stick to my rules of respecting others even pseudonymously.

      • Hi Peter,
        Thank you for your reply and I appreciate that point of view which I think is a very valid one.

        I did used to post with a pseudonym on other forums. However, I felt that when I was debating points with someone who wasn’t, I was setting up an asymmetrical relationship with them which gave me an advantage and meant I could say things which I probably wouldn’t do face to face if they knew who I was.

        This is what Trolls do of course and we get them on here- I hasten to add that I do not in any way consider you one of those!

        Doing this disciplines me to post judiciously – and for all the reasons you have cited.
        However I do take your point – particularly the inadvertent identification of others.

        Perhaps a workable compromise would be for the host of a forum (in this case Ian ), to insist that permissions to post are only granted if he can verify who the poster is.
        This information is confidential only to him but still allows others to post anonymously. Those who do post in this way then do so with the knowledge that someone knows who they are.

        PS I did post as ‘Bishop Chris’ once and managed to fool a certain individual for a short while that I was a Bishop in the Church of England ( and I’m a Baptist!)

  3. Thanks for this Ian – an admirably balanced assessment.

    I’m a bit worried about these to be honest. Guidelines or codes like this are being used around the world at the moment to suppress and censor socially conservative viewpoints. The interpretation of terms like kind, respectful, hateful, offensive is often skewed against social conservatism, especially defenders of the family, nation state, unborn life and orthodox religion. As Cranmer points out, many bishops and others don’t hold back in their criticism of figures on the Right, but I suspect that isn’t what the framers of this charter have in mind.

    Your example of the person who received a call from their diocesan safeguarding officer over something they’d said defending marriage shows the place our culture has got to in censorship, silencing people of socially conservative views as much in the church as elsewhere. Institutional intimidation or bullying you might call it, and the C of E seems to be competing with the secular world in this area – as I know from my own experience.

    The biases of Facebook, Twitter, GoFundMe etc are well known and conservatives are frequently on the sharp end of bans and breaches of policy. I’m all in favour of people behaving better on social media (there is some truly shocking conduct) but for some reason I don’t quite trust our digital overlords to enforce this in an impartial manner that doesn’t censor and intimidate (and humiliate and ruin) social conservatives (and some lesbian feminists for that matter who object to transgenderism) and suppress debate.

  4. Thanks Ian. Is there anywhere on your blog site that sets out the boundaries you expect people to respect when engaging here? I may have missed them and would find it helpful what you expect..

  5. “Do not post or share content that is sexually explicit, inflammatory, hateful, abusive, threatening or otherwise disrespectful.
    Be kind. Treat others how you would wish to be treated and assume the best in people.”

    Great that you signed up but I think you’re lying to them or you’re deluded here. You are hateful and abusive to us lgbt folk. And I’m sure you wouldn’t like to be treated in the same way as you treat us.

    • Origen, many have experience of being called ‘hateful’ for doing something as mild and everyday as disagreeing!

      If one has 100 discussions with a given person, it is not at all unlikely that one will disagree 50 times.

      To pretend one agrees when one disagrees is to lie. But for anyone who engaged in that dishonest practice, there would be no point in engaging in debate at all, nor any motivation.

      Further, it brings something *rational* (debate) down to a lower and less mature *emotional* level.

      Let us suppose that there are 1000 ways one can measure the discrepancies between different groups of people. Let us further suppose that homosexual people score better in 40% of these, and heterosexual people in a further 40%, and in 20% it is too close to call. (No reason at all to suppose that these are the actual figures: this is hypothetical.) If that happened, then one might be unsurprised because of the law of averages. OK then – it is unremarkable if homosexual people score worse in 400 matters. Yet we are in a climate where a person will be called something called ‘homophobic’ if they state *Even When The Statistics Firmly Back Them Up* that homosexuals score worse in even one single matter. This is crazy, and anti-science (also: anti-honesty! – but what sort of person would want to be anti those things?). There would be nothing especially wrong in homosexuals scoring worse in 400 matters, given how many different things can be measured. (Of course it partly depends what those 400 matters are.)

      Do you get this point?

  6. Origen Adam, we look forward to the day when an individual who disagrees with you is not automatically labelled “hateful”. Let’s engage with others’ points of view and not resort to attempts to shut down dialogue by name calling.


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