I used to get excited to see my Twitter mentions spike. Now I dread it. All that attention inevitably means I’m getting called out for something wrong—maybe a typo or broken link, maybe a bad joke or hasty observation.
Posting on social media has always risked irking angry employers, incessant trolls, or vengeful doxxers, but lately we face backlash from our own friends and feeds. The bar for what merits a public reckoning has fallen as the internet incentivizes us to speak up, call out, and shout down.
Last December, The Atlanticdeemed it the “dark psychology of social networks,” noting studies that found tweets using heated language like “wrong” and “shameful” were 20 percent more likely to go viral. Facebook posts professing “indignant disagreement” got about twice as many likes and shares.
Being on the receiving end of a barrage of negative feedback can ruin your day, your year, or your career. Any defense, explanation, or apology could rile up further condemnation. This critical attitude dampens our dialogue and betrays a cynical attitude toward our digital brothers and sisters.
In a community of believers, “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7, ESV). In short, we hope for the best and forgive one another quickly when others inevitably fall short.
Yet even among Christians, today’s online chatter is far less “believes all things” and far more “show us the receipts.”
It can seem harsh and ungracious for commenters to go after a single misworded tweet or poorly formed idea. Why so suspicious from the get-go? Why not give someone the benefit of the doubt? But we must also remember the broader context for this chatter. Christians are sadly learning their lesson for what happens when bad actors get the benefit of the doubt.
There are hundreds of stories of abuse, racism, fraud, manipulation, corruption, sexism, and other unbiblical offenses that have come to light in just the past few years—often thanks in part to online whistleblowers.
Looking back, we wonder, why weren’t they challenged over their behavior or remarks? Even when it’s just a single line in a sermon or quick tweet, some would rather call them into question right away than let it go and risk overlooking what could be a bigger underlying theological, ethical, or moral issue.
Part of me gets this instinct. Journalists pay attention to the smoke before the fire and investigate where trouble could be looming, even among those we’d normally trust as good people; as the adage goes, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Scripture provides inspiration here too. We’re called to be discerning, to protect the flock, to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16, ESV).
The recent offense-seeking and finger-pointing grows out of our lack of trust in the institutions and leaders who have proven corruptible. “Without trust, we become fearful and desperate to exert control,” Kat Rosenfield wrote for the Jewish magazine Tablet. “We are less charitable, more judgmental, and more likely to go to extremes.”
Sharon Hodde Miller, in her book Nice, describes “a world that swings between sweetness and outrage.” I think of my desire to go silent when confronted by the Twitter mob. Miller directs us to a biblical grounding that is still unafraid of causing offense: “Jesus understood the difference between graciousness and personal compromise, between speaking truth and needlessly alienating people.”
Critics deem call-out culture too sensitive and overreactive. But if we long to return to a time when our corner of the internet assumed the best in each other, we might also try to assume the best of the users who boldly push back against us. Among them are people who want to see those who claim the name of Christ better reflect his values.
It is not an entirely bad thing that our mercurial social networks have forced us to think twice before we post, spurring us to be slow to tweet and quick to listen. We can learn from the faithful voices reminding us to avoid careless language, sloppy analogies, poor theology, and narrow-mindedness.
The body of Christ is directed to live out the call to “believe all things” and be “wise as serpents,” to be a model of loving, truth-seeking community—even online. But we will not restore trust by shouting at or shaming the voices who push back or rush to judgment. We will only do it by offering a steady, faithful witness over time—living our lives and filling our feeds in a way that proves that we can be trusted.
Kate Shellnutt is senior news editor at Christianity Today.
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