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How to encourage positive social interaction in the age of trolls and cyberbullies

Photo by Grianghraf on Unsplash
Photo by Grianghraf on Unsplash

Part of the church ministry is building relationships. Like in-person relationships, online communication should include both parties.

When you (or another ministry leader or volunteer) are interacting on a social media channel on behalf of your church, you want to encourage comments and conversation. If you’re unsure how to encourage engagement and cultivate online relationships, here are a few ideas to get you started.

 

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  • Pose thoughtful questions.
  • Post guest blogs.
  • Reshare interesting content.
  • Use visual elements.
  • Share a story.
  • Create polls and surveys.
  • Talk about current events. (Take care to avoid fueling political debate.)
  • Post often and consistently.
  • “Like” and respond to comments.

Unfortunately, cyberbullies and trolls often complicate online conversations. 

Cyberbullies aren’t that different from in-person bullies. These individuals send threatening messages or make maligning posts. They sometimes send derogatory emails or create social media pages or websites to target individuals, churches or ministries with the intention of harassing and intimidating. 

Trolls are similar to cyberbullies, but their harassment is usually limited to obnoxious or lewd posts and comments. Trolls entice people into online arguments and seem to gain enjoyment from negative reactions. They use criticisms, insults or inflammatory or outrageous opinions to intentionally make people angry and draw attention to themselves.

According to a Pew Research study, 73% of adult internet users have witnessed online harassment, and 40% have experienced it. The numbers continue to grow, and churches, pastors and ministry leaders are not immune. What can you do about internet bullies? How do you create meaningful online conversation and experiences while dealing with difficult people?

Eliminate anonymity

It’s easier to say and do things when no one knows who you are. Hiding behind a screen often emboldens people. Whenever possible, require commenters to identify themselves.

Establish the rules

Investigate each social media platform to determine what rules you can put into place. For example, Facebook requires that you create a list of rules when establishing a group and you can include it in your page info. Consider posting a comment policy on your Facebook page so that everyone knows what is expected. Many website hosts encourage bloggers to write a short policy about the types of comments that are deemed acceptable.

Emphasize empathy

Though difficult, it’s important that you not only preach empathy but also demonstrate it, even when dealing with people who seem determined to cause problems. Pray before responding, and do not be dismissive, defensive or combative.  Remember, your social media audience is watching to see how you will handle the situation. Don’t seek revenge, and set a good example in your response. Avoid publicly embarrassing the bully. Try to address the issues in private via direct messages or other means.

Evaluate motive and influence

It’s never easy to determine why people do the things they do. However, it never hurts to try. When someone makes a negative comment or post, ask yourself a few questions:

  • Does this person have a legitimate concern or an honest critical review?
  • Is this person a part of your regular online or physical church community, or is this someone who just seems to have popped into the conversation?
  • Does this person’s opinions or comments seem unnecessarily malicious or hurtful?
  • Is this person targeting a person or a position?
  • Does this person have a history of causing conflict? (Check their social media pages and public information.)
  • How much influence does this person really have? Is this just a ploy to get attention?

     

By evaluating the motive, you can better decide whether a cyberbully needs confrontation or prayer and whether a troll needs to be blocked or could benefit from a friend.

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Endeavor for a peaceful resolution

How do you advocate for peace when negativity hits your Facebook page and other social media accounts? While each platform offers a variety of responses for how to deal with bullies, consider the basic five choices.

  • Ignore the person’s comments.
  • Hide comments.
  • Respond directly or privately.
  • Delete the comments and block the person from your accounts.
  • Report the person to the proper authorities.

If you choose to respond, remember to do so with love and discretion. If the person is someone you know personally or someone in your local church body, find a way to move the conversation away from the computer screen and into a live conversation. If an on-screen conversation is needed due to health or other concerns, move away from text and opt for video chats so that you can see each other to humanize the situation. Look for common ground, and don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself. Limit your responses. If a person ignores your attempts at peacemaking, don’t allow yourself to become engaged in a full-blown argument. While negative comments about policies or positions may be ignored, bullying should never be allowed.  

Learning how to fight cyberbullies and trolls is an important step in creating a positive experience for your online community. To work toward peaceful resolutions for online conflicts, create a response plan as part of your church’s social media guidelines.  

  1. Determine who is responsible for monitoring and responding to negative comments or reports.
  2. Brainstorm the types of comments or situations that should be ignored and those that warrant a response.
  3. Create an action plan on what steps should be taken when a cyberbully or troll attacks and in what order they should be taken.
  4. Outline and be aware of potentially dangerous comments or posts. Determine what authorities should be notified when a physical threat is made or perceived.
  5. Set filters to automatically hide key offensive words, and update the list as necessary.

While many churches had some form of social media presence, the coronavirus heightened church awareness of the need for more online interaction. Simply having a website isn’t good enough anymore. Posting Facebook Live services once a week won’t cut it. To effectively reach your congregation, community and world online, you need to create a plan to handle trolls and cyberbullies, and actively pursue positive virtual relationships.

 

 


Tricia Brown

Tricia K. Brown is a writer, editor, keynote speaker and Bible teacher. In addition to being a wife and mother of four sons, she is the sole proprietor of The Girls Get Together, where she and her team provide women's event programs for churches and other organizations. Her latest book, A Year of Yearning: A 12-Month Devotional to Help You Study God's Word More, is available from Amazon.