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Social media connects faith leaders with believers around the world - and haters, too

Posted May 23

The Anti-Defamation League has been tracking online harassment since the founders of Facebook and Twitter were toddlers. Staff members scoured the early internet for Holocaust deniers and hate-filled messages.

"Our first report on this goes back three decades to the days of bulletin boards and dial-up modems," said Steve Freeman, the organization's deputy director of policy and programs.

The mission of ADL, a more than century-old Jewish civil rights group that works on behalf of all minority communities, hasn't changed since this work began in the 1980s. But the internet has evolved, becoming a complicated web of opportunity and risk for faith groups and religious leaders.

"People who thought the internet would be free of all the nastiness we see in the streets were kidding themselves," Freeman said. "The internet was always going to be as hopeful and dark as the world writ-large is."

Social media sites illustrate the internet's best and worst traits. A tweet from Pope Francis about Jesus's love simultaneously elicits gratitude and anger.

Religious organizations deal with online abuse in a variety of ways, blocking personal attacks and reporting threats of violence to the people who run social media sites. ADL hopes to offer more tools, through an initiative that involves digital giants like Google and Facebook, to stop harassment before it spreads.

In March, the ADL announced a new Silicon Valley center on cyberhate, technology and society, which will amplify efforts to end online abuse and produce policy recommendations for government leaders.

Staff members, under the direction of a former government cyber security expert, will continue to analyze cyberhate trends, while also challenging technology industry leaders to create new ways to keep faith groups safe online.

"We're going to build bridges and increase communication with the industry and shine a light on what's going on," Freeman said.

Construction on the new center is expected to begin in the fall, according to ADL.

Consequences of online abuse

In spite of struggling with online harassment, few religious organizations or faith groups can afford to stay off social media, said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"You pretty well have to have an account," he said, noting that tweets and Facebook posts are the best way to connect with faraway supporters and spread information.

Eight in 10 online adults in the U.S. used Facebook in 2016 and 1 in 4 used Twitter, according to Pew Research Center.

Although social media accounts for famous churches and faith leaders may be plentiful, the potential for harassment limits how and when pastors and faith groups engage online.

For example, Russell Moore, a prominent evangelical Christian leader as president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has turned off Twitter notifications from people he doesn't follow. Sifting through responses was time-consuming and dispiriting, even if there were plenty of positive comments mixed in with the hate-filled ones.

"I hated to (turn off those responses) because I enjoy interacting with people," he said.

Simran Jeet Singh, a religion professor and regular commenter on issues affecting the Sikh community, said Twitter has forced him, again and again, to confront the worst parts of being a member of a minority religious group.

"I've received everything from messages of hate to death threats. It's real ugliness that we only really see in our world when people can hide behind anonymity," he said.

Sometimes, Singh will retweet troubling messages, encouraging his nearly 18,000 Twitter followers to recognize the limitations of discussing religion online.

"I think it's important for people who don't experience this to know what some communities face," he said.

For the most part, faith-related social media accounts meet harassment with positivity, discussing the issues that concern them rather than being consumed by angry or false claims.

"I don't recommend that our team engage with the real extreme haters," Hooper said. "It drains your energy and resources."

Even the pope's social media team has to focus on embracing the good parts of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram without getting overwhelmed by the bad ones, said Bishop Paul Tighe, adjunct secretary of the Pontifical Council for Culture, to BBC News in March.

"There's a lot of trolling, a lot of negativity. But if the people who want to use it for good withdraw from it, then the trolls have won," he said. "There is a potential here to build connections, to learn from people who might surprise us."

ADL's new cyberhate center

As part of its work to address cyberhate, ADL has advocated for the strategies Singh and others described.

The organization offers a Cyber-Safety Action Guide, which instructs people on how to report angry or threatening posts on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, as well as on other popular websites, such as Pinterest and Amazon.

By reporting threats or unacceptable comments, people of faith can help social media directors address the problem and improve their websites.

"The volume of cyberhate is so enormous that these sites can't watch it in real time," he said. "They have to rely on people telling them."

The drawback of this report-hate-when-it-happens approach is that it does little to actually end the abuse, Freeman noted. Angry social media users can create new accounts when one is shut down or encourage friends to replicate blocked posts.

"The things that you can do in terms of blocking out the hate … doesn't eradicate this stuff from the web," he said.

The goal of ADL's new cyberhate center will be to develop methods to stop online harassment, rather than simply reporting it when it happens. By working with Silicon Valley insiders, law enforcement officials and other industry experts, ADL hopes to harness technological advancements to solve some of the internet's most persistent problems.

For example, the organization is already working with Jigsaw, a subsidiary of Google, to use artificial intelligence to combat hate. Jigsaw's program automatically searches for and flags bigoted messages or propaganda, and it can be used to delete problematic messages before they spread.

ADL's new center will be headed up by Brittan Heller, who worked on internet safety issues at the U.S. Department of Justice before accepting a job with ADL. Her team and workspace in Silicon Valley were made possible by a six-figure donation from Omidyar Network, a charitable group established by the founder of eBay.

"We think it's really important to act now to keep dangerous trends from becoming the norm," said Stephen King, leader of Omidyar Network's civic engagement initiative, to The Washington Post.

In addition to addressing current online abuse, ADL's ongoing cyberhate work will look to the future and urge companies like Facebook and Google to design new products with the potential for harassment in mind, Freeman said.

The organization will also continue championing programs that make young people better citizens of the internet, he added, noting that if social media users are taught about online abuse and cyberhate from a young age, they may become leaders in the efforts to end it.

"We're looking for ways to educate people about how to engage with social media in a positive way," Freeman said.

The promise of social media

Moore is a fan of Twitter. It puts prayer requests on his radar and connects him with pastors who need spiritual support.

Once, it even made him appear to have super powers.

Moore had been meeting with Catholic and Orthodox Christian leaders when a new face appeared at the door. The visitor, who was also an evangelical, had seen Moore's tweets about the event and stopped by to chat.

"He asked if I could pray for him and talk about some things going on in his family," Moore said.

The other faith leaders were stunned. How had Moore and this man found one another?

"They knew nothing about Twitter or social media," Moore noted. "They said, 'Wow. These evangelicals just seem to know when one of them is going to be somewhere.'"

Freeman likes to hear light-hearted stories like Moore's. They emphasize the best parts of social media at a time when it's easy to get bogged down by the negative aspects.

"Faith groups should keep putting positive things out there," he said.

Although Singh is still baffled about how he became such a high-profile Sikh, he works hard to use his platform to increase awareness of his community.

Singh tweets articles about Sikh musicians, campus life and his love of the NBA's San Antonio Spurs. He's trying to teach people about Sikhism and also show what it's like to be a follower.

"Even those who have an understanding of the Sikh tradition or positive feelings about it may not know people in real life who look like me," he said. "I try to use social media to humanize my community."

In addition to raising awareness of little-known faith groups, social media has the potential to change the people who use it to spread hate, Hooper said. He shares informative articles and research in an effort to educate those who might otherwise harass anyone associated with the Muslim community.

"After 9/11, I got an email from somebody criticizing Islam. Since then, I've interacted with him from time to time online to explain why he was wrong," Hooper said. "He recently emailed me to apologize after 16 years."

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

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