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.”
Trolling 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.
For 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:
“Finally, 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.
We 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
Along 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.
Those 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 have said.
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
Do 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 red flag.
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.
Instead of 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 more.
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?
Actually, I don’t want to discount entirely the possibility of complete withdrawal, at least as an option for some people, or as a periodic discipline.
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 break.
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)?
If you know people like that, and if your relationship with them makes it possible, you might try (privately, of course) bringing up the issue with them.
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.
Are 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 smaller doses.
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.
If 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 media.
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.
There 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.
Others 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.
For 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.
Look 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.
Our 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.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!