(Photo of man: us.fotolia.com/Antonioguillem)
Not long ago Time magazine ran a cover story about Internet trolling with the alarming but not inaccurate cover blurb “We’re losing the Internet to the culture of hate.”
and other antisocial behaviors are widespread online. They can even be
found in devout Catholic circles, though outright trollery and the
“culture of hate” are perhaps more easily recognized and avoided than a
more subtle but related phenomenon: what might be called a culture of
wrath, of rage.
Wrath is one of the seven capital sins. Not all anger amounts to the sin of wrath; there is such a thing as righteous anger, as Jesus’ own example demonstrates.
those of us who are not Jesus, though, righteous anger easily slides
into the unrighteous kind and the more we are provoked to anger and
outrage, the likelier it is that we will do so.
How much we are
provoked to anger and outrage how much mental energy we give to topics
that we find outrageous, scandalous and offensive is thus an
important concern. If there is one biblical exhortation most commonly
transgressed on social media by otherwise sincere believers, I suspect
it is these well-known, well-loved words of St. Paul:
brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is
any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these
things” (Philippians 4:8).
These words mustn’t be taken
too absolutely. There is a place for naming and resisting evil, for
alerting and warning others of danger, for outrage, for righteous anger.
St. Paul does not mean that dishonorable, unjust, impure things, things
worthy of condemnation rather than praise, should never be thought of.
cannot take Paul’s words seriously, though, without taking stock of
just how much of our attention and energy we give to thinking about
dishonorable, unjust, impure things that are worthy of condemnation, as
opposed to honorable, just, pure things that are worthy of praise.
How social media spreads the culture of wrath
with the many benefits of social media, there are also pitfalls. Take
the conclusion of a social media study a few years ago that rage spreads far more quickly on social media than emotions such as joy, sorrow, pride, or sadness.
As a general rule, people pay more attention to bad news than good news,
possibly because our survival instinct has conditioned us to prioritize
potential threats over potential benefits. The news media, of course,
noticed this long ago (“If it bleeds, it leads”).
Social media ups
the ante in various ways. With ever-rising levels of Internet
information overload, competition for eyeballs is fiercer than ever. On
social media, we tend to see what attracts the most attention: what gets
the most likes and shares.
Outrage is a call to action. We feel the need to do something. Anger is part of our fight-or-flight response; bypassing the critical-thinking centers in our brains, it primes us to act now and ask questions later.
Social media exploits the motivating power of anger
by giving us a cheap, easy outlet for “action.” By clicking “share,” we
feel we are doing something about injustice or evil; we are alerting
others and raising awareness. Abetting this, studies show that people feel more comfortable with anger online than in person.
with whom we share provocative content respond the same way and wrath
fills our feeds. Worse, as anger-inducing ideas spread online, they are
reshaped and colored in different ways and the most infuriating versions spread the fastest.
The worse something sounds, the likelier people are to share it, even
if it’s not the truest or most balanced account of the topic.
All this skews our view of the world and warps our
souls in the process. Your psyche develops grooves over time from your
habitual thoughts: the daily pattern of topics, angles, and moods to
which you give regular time, attention, and energy.
The wheels of
your mind run to those grooves, wearing them deeper over time,
increasingly defining who you are and how you see the world. “We become
what we think about all day long,” as Ralph Waldo Emerson may or may not
The pitfalls of human nature being what they are, to dwell excessively on negative thoughts and preoccupations to give free rein to outrage, anger, fear, antipathy, and, all too easily, hatred is a constant temptation. (It’s a special hazard during election seasons, but the problem is perennial.) That which is dishonorable, unjust, impure, and worthy of condemnation drowns out what is honorable, just, pure, and worthy of praise.
Take your social media temperature
you use Facebook, Twitter or some other social media service? Look at
your feed, at what others are sharing with you. Then look your own wall
or stream, at what you are writing and sharing. Look at the last 20
things posted by people you follow who post frequently, or the last 20
things you posted. Do it right now.
How much of what you
see from people you follow is polemical, critical, hostile, outraged,
angry, dismissive, contemptuous, or otherwise negative? How many of your
own posts skew negative? The tone and substance of what you consume and
produce on social media is an index of your state of mind, which is
linked to the state of your soul.
I’ve seen devout Catholics, even
priests, whose entire stream, day in and day out, is completely or
almost completely devoid of anything but provocation. The targets of
their outrage are often legitimately serious and evil: abortion; Islamic
terrorism; attacks on the faith; attacks on religious liberty or the
family. The rightness and justice of the cause, though, is no safeguard
from the pitfalls of the culture of wrath.
On the contrary, it can
make them more dangerous. Precisely because our cause is just and
vital, we may be inattentive to the effects of our campaign on our
souls. A religious priest, a member of a religious community dedicated
to pro-life work, once confided to a friend of mine, “The danger of
full-time pro-life work is that eventually you come to see the blood of
unborn babies and nothing else.”
How much polemicism is too
much? As in many areas, while it’s impossible to draw hard and fast
lines, it’s often possible to recognize the problem when you see it.
Certainly if anything like half of what you’re reading or posting is
negative or polemical, I would say it’s time to take stock of where your
head is. Even one negative or polemical post in three or four may be a
Pay attention, too, to your use of language,
particularly the way you talk about people you disagree with. The more
important the topics we are concerned about, the likelier we are to tell
ourselves and one another over and over how wrong, dangerous,
malicious, and evil our enemies are, with the comforting corollary that
we and our allies are right, good, brave, and heroic.
people who disagree with us, we look at those on the other side and
perceive a sea of idiots, nutjobs, trolls, fools, monsters, devils. We
give demeaning nicknames to leaders or candidates we don’t like. We
normalize insulting, abusive language until we don’t even notice it any
Saving your soul from the culture of wrath
Short of withdrawing from social media entirely, what can you do to minimize your risk from the culture of wrath?
I don’t want to discount entirely the possibility of complete
withdrawal, at least as an option for some people, or as a periodic
When well used, social media can be very beneficial,
but no one who uses social media is entirely spared the downsides. For
some, particularly those who have struggled with social media addiction
or other problematic behaviors, the simplest solution may be a clean
Others may simply feel that their time is better spent in the real world. No one is obliged
to be on Facebook, Twitter or other platforms. Even those who use
social media ought to consider periodic breaks, perhaps especially
during Lent, or on Sundays.
For those who choose to use social media, here are a few commonsense guidelines.
1. Place reasonable limits on your involvement. Users
with families must not allow social media to encroach on time they
should be spending with their loved ones. Single adults living alone may
have more freedom to spend time on social media, but unplugging and
connecting with people in the real world is important for them as well.
2. Avoid outrage “hot spots.”
When you checked your feeds, did any of your social media friends or
follows stand out to you as frequent sharers of outrage or polemics?
Particularly the sort of outrage or polemics most likely to rile you
(either in the same direction or in the opposite direction)?
you know people like that, and if your relationship with them makes it
possible, you might try (privately, of course) bringing up the issue
If for whatever reason bringing it up is unlikely to be
helpful, consider putting some distance between yourself and them. On
Facebook, this might mean quietly unfollowing, or, if the problem is
severe enough and it wouldn’t damage important real-world relationships,
unfriending. On Twitter, unfollowing is usually the best course.
you a member of a Facebook group (perhaps even one to which you were
added by someone else without your consent) that throws polemical
content into your feed? Leave the group and select the option to
prevent others from re-adding you.
There may be other “hot spots”
in your life beyond the world of social media: broadcast or other
sources of outrage that you might be better off without, or at least in
3. Stop and think. The next time an outrageous meme or news story crosses your feed, what should you do?
First, consider whether the item in question needs any response from you at all. Most
of the time the best response to a potential online provocation,
whether you strongly agree or strongly disagree, is no response at all.
(Remember the original “Bill is smart…Be like Bill” meme?) Pick your battles carefully.
Before forwarding or passing on an enraging meme or news item that you agree with, ask yourself: Is it true? Confirmation bias is a powerful force; it’s very easy to assume that something is true because it sounds true to us, because it fit our overall outlook on life.
Politicians we hate say so many things we find outrageous, so it’s easy to believe that this politician really said that thing but maybe the meme misquoted them, or took them grossly out of context.
4. Consider the source. Fake news I don’t mean actual satire via legit humor sites like TheOnion.com, but so-called “satire” or, more frankly, lies via dodgy sites like DailyCurrant.com has become a weirdly prolific cottage industry. Then there are stories at tabloids like DailyMail.co.uk
that often have a basis in fact, but can’t be relied upon, particularly
regarding anything in any way controversial or disputed.
Google it. Try to find confirmation from a reasonably credible source: a reliable news source or a well-known resource like Snopes.com
or Wikipedia. (Neither is perfect, but both are often a good place to
start, and to locate other resources.) Try to get the big picture: not
just what happened, but why.
Conversely, don’t assume just because
a story challenges your preconceptions that it’s false. Whatever biases
the mainstream media may have regarding the Church or politics, we
shouldn’t assume that every story that paints a church leader or a
political leader we like in a bad light is simply a dishonest hit piece.
a friend shares something dodgy, let them know. If they have a habit of
sharing dodgy stuff, you might try educating them. Here, too, pick your
battles. You can’t be a self-appointed fact checker for all social
5. Seek out and share valuable, non-outrageous content. Given the social-media advantage enjoyed by bad news, it takes extra effort to find positive content worth sharing.
are many ways of using social media. Some people use it to share family
news and personal photos with close family and friends, and to keep up
with the lives of people they care about. If that’s how you use it, and
you don’t go in for divisive subjects, then you don’t have to worry
about any of this, except insofar as it may affect your loved ones.
have a fondness for fluff and ephemera (funny memes, cute cat videos,
etc.), or for pious inspirational memes. There’s nothing wrong with any
of this in principle. Some inspirational memes are sappy, dubious or
worse, particularly the coercive variety that try to extort likes,
shares or replies of “Amen” from other users. (Frankly, they tempt me to
wrath as much as anything.)
Then there are those who use social media as a source of news, information and ideas. For some, it’s their main source of news and information.
these users, the challenge is to resist the tide of negativity and
outrage and catch currents of substantial, positive content: thoughtful,
constructive, informative articles or essays that enlarge your
understanding of the world or of your faith; thought-provoking news or
information that raises important topics or questions you hadn’t thought
about before; genuinely uplifting stories of moral goodness or heroism.
for hopeful stories that challenge your usual narratives. If you’re
concerned about Islamic terrorism, take note of stories about Muslims
helping Christians or rejecting extremism. If you’re concerned about
excessive use of force by police, check out stories about police heroism
or community outreach. Notice when politicians you don’t like say or do
good things, not just bad things.
When you find valuable content,
share it, and encourage others to do the same. Look for opportunities
to connect with people of different points of view, to build bridges,
not just fences. Those connections may lead to opportunities to bear
witness to Christ where you would never have thought possible.
mission to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world is as
pressing in the world of social media as it is anywhere. Amid the
darkness of online wrath and outrage, be a beacon of something better.
The soul you save could be your own.