We all know that you can start a wildfire on social media, and that posting something online is more or less a permanent action. We may be thankful that some of our dumber moments are as yet uncovered, forgotten or deleted without causing any uproar among our friends. We don’t like to acknowledge that those posts just might be getting spread by total strangers, right now, to thousands and thousands of people, without our knowledge.

Harboring hatred, lust, or envy for someone internally is defined as sin that parallels the outward forms of murder, adultery, and theft. This denies any pretense that being cruel to someone where they can’t see it is somehow excusable.There is a growing trend of what I want to call online “hidden bullying.” Off-line, it’s common and typically harmless to witness something strange (or worse) from a stranger in public, and to then relay the weird details to a friend. If a guy with a bowl haircut throws a tantrum at a restaurant, my wife is going to know about it when I get home. We have an abundance of these moments that have been passed around (and likely exaggerated) and stored in our memories, a humorous collection of the guy that did x or the woman that said y–characters we know, but wouldn’t recognize on the street. When the same thing happens online, however, the effect is amplified, and the face and name stay with the story.

There are multitudes of social media posts being re-shared with mocking commentary, dissected, and meme-ified, all without the original poster’s knowledge or permission. We’re used to laughing at public figures and business twitter accounts when they post something embarrassing, but it is increasingly common for people to screen cap strange statuses from ordinary people to share with the entire internet. These shared items aren’t spread because they were intentionally published to hundreds of thousands of followers, as is the case when a celebrity tweets a slur or a large business makes a sexual assault joke. Rather, people go hunting for these awkward gems, discovering and sharing outlandish, pathetic, or incoherent thoughts that would otherwise go unnoticed save for the source account’s dozen followers that may or may not be bots, anyway.

Why do I know that this guy once tweeted a belly-selfie, boasting that his ab muscles were still hot after he ate McDonald’s? Because Michael Hudson retweeted him, a year-and-a-half later. I also saw that a another stranger’s facebook activity displayed “Started working at Don’t have a job right now” back in February of 2012, thanks to a screengrab Hudson posted last month.  And then there’s Jason Dykes, a beer drinkin’, country lovin’ stranger that posts a lot of cliches about dirt roads, treatin’ women right, and his truck. Hudson peeps Dykes’ status updates from facebook, regularly tweeting along his screengrabs and thoughts about the stranger to Hudson’s 18,000 followers.

The mechanics of this are fairly simply and unpreventable, another inevitability from the ever-growing, all-seeing online machine that we all operate within. On Twitter, it’s becoming more common for a user to post the link to a tweet with commentary, rather than retweeting it with the same; this method means that the original source isn’t tagged with an @ mention, leaving unaware that they are being mocked on someone else’s stream.

Hudson is by no means the most flagrant or mean-spirited screengrabber in this vein, and typically frames his interest as a well-intentioned fascination. There are plenty more proud trolls these days, inciting and/or sharing embarrassing things that other people say online. Additionally, we have a whole “facepalm” subreddit, wherein comically ignorant social media posts are shared and commented on–away from the original poster’s profile. The subreddit includes crackpot conspiracy theories, drunken status updates, and extraordinary revelations of gullibility, usually from acquaintances that are “always posting stuff like this” according to the sharers.

Cutting out the direct line of communication to someone you ridicule might feel more humane, but it also creates human distance that fuels the ridicule itself. It’s not polite to stare, but we’d do it more if we were on the right side of a two-way mirror.

Is it that bad?

There are no shortage of people behaving stupidly in the world, and before there was r/facepalm there was reality programming like “America’s Funniest Home Videos” capturing moronic behavior. Jay Leno’s Jaywalking man-on-the-street segments (hilariously) preyed upon shockingly wide gaps in knowledge from ordinary people–folks routinely didn’t know facts as basic as who the acting president was. But in those contexts, the person playing the idiot is in on the joke. AFV gave prizes out to the silly people on camera, and NBC received release waivers from the butts of their jokes. With this brand of hidden bullying, the idiot player has no control over their portrayal online.

These pseudo-private displays of stupidity are being shared in a way that escapes some of the more black-and-white ethics of decency. Personal information is usually revealed in these re-posts, and the person subjected to ridicule are not actually notified that anyone is pointing fingers.

The reddit facepalm forum requires that personal names and pictures be redacted from the screengrabs, along with any clues to trace something back to its source, such as a Facebook URL, the person’s location, or specific hashtags. Were those doing the mocking to cross certain lines–directly chastising their subjects, sharing private information for a joke–they would open themselves up to detection or worse. That’s the kind of thing that can get you blocked (and the material dries up) or reported for harassment.

Take for example screengrabs of public posts, like this update on Jason Dykes’ (the country boy) relationship status. Michael Hudson and his fans likely view these as fair game for open mockery, since technically, a status update to a public audience, or even to “friends of friends” on Facebook is a very public act. Just as if someone ranted profusely in front of a group of people, it can be reasoned, the cat is out of the bag and those that heard the comments are free to tell others what they heard.

While this practice avoids most legal quandaries about privacy and harassment, it still raises moral concerns. Like pretending that everyone is reading the fine print in their usage agreements before selecting “Yes” on the form, insisting that any online status is inherently fair game betrays some of the internet’s elusive qualities. If I ramble about politics to a handful of people in real life, then I have certain expectations as to whether those people are trustworthy, as well as a general idea of where my comments could spread in a worst-case scenario. Online though, many, many people aren’t able to read the room in this way. We’ve all known someone who is oblivious to the fact that their settings are set to “public”. I’ve often forgotten to revert my own preferred privacy settings after intentionally sharing a single link publicly. Just because someone puts something out to the public, doesn’t mean it was intentional.

For the Christian, the burden of proof goes beyond the intentions of the original source. If a comment would be abusive in someone’s inbox, does it cease to be so when broadcast to everyone else? Harboring hatred, lust, or envy for someone internally is defined as sin that parallels the outward forms of murder, adultery, and theft. This denies any pretense that being cruel to someone where they can’t see it is somehow excusable.

Mockery’s limits

But mockery isn’t always wrong. Humor is a valid mode of truth telling, even when mockery is necessary. Christ and Pop Culture just ran an entire issue on the theology of mockery. However, the biblical case for mockery is rooted in correction and edification–not merely entertainment. A chapter before Jesus makes fun of his enemies (Matthew 6), he issues a hell-fire warning to anyone who would insult their brother as a fool (Matthew 5:22).

Adam Rensch is a comedian and musician who tweets off-kilter jokes that feel more at home beside the absurd and abstract world of “Weird Twitter” comedy–where a fake Michael Jordan muses about walking down the stairs, and a crab details his taste in women–than the more conventional twitter comedians. It is often these type of accounts–the kind that intentionally use incorrect grammar and make meta-jokes as if they are internet incompetent–that have a firm grip on the hazards of online communication, and a nose for those who don’t. Rensch mostly doesn’t identify with Weird Twitter any longer, having developed an approach that is more socially grounded in content and purpose. He uses the power of ridicule as a comedian, but thinks the targeted, unlinked approach I’ve described is an embarrassment to the craft.

“People will screenshot a rant of someone on Facebook, or worse, an image of them, for essentially no reason other than to hold them up as something to laugh at–to obliterate their personhood into whatever perceived quality we’re supposed to find amusing,” says Rensch, adding that the subjects of mockery aren’t only united by a common naivete. “These qualities typically fall along socioeconomic lines, and those who are mocked tend to be very clearly underprivileged: poor, overweight, uneducated. As though their lives weren’t difficult enough, often by virtue of having born in a place that makes upward mobility remarkably difficult, they’re now being used a kind of psychological punching bag for people online to essentially laugh at and say ‘Well, at least I’m not them!’ This, to me, isn’t funny.”

Presumably, Michael Hudson has never spoken to the country boy featured so heavily in his tweets. Hudson doesn’t seem the type to visit a “redneck dating group” in person; if he had bumped into Dykes there instead of by snooping on an online redneck dating group, calling him a “grown up Bobby Hill” would make him a jerk and a bully.

In fact, the screengrabs themselves presuppose a naivete in the subjects they mock. At best, we’re counting on these people never developing enough social media savvy to discover a multitude of LOLs at their expense. While Rebecca Black may have been mortified when she found the first Youtube parody of “Friday,” I would imagine it would be a deeper discomfort to search your name in Twitter and find dozens of what you thought were your mundane status updates being ridiculed.

“I’ve joked before that the internet is one of the worst things that’s happened to us,” says Rensch. “In some sense I stand by that, for this very reason. It exacerbates this kind of powerlessness–you have no body, literally no voice–while at the same time offering the promise of a fleeting kind of recognition: to become a meme, to go viral, to execute a flawless troll. It’s not surprising that this devolves into the shaming and exploitation of other people. If you can’t raise yourself, you can lower others. It’s a classic bullying mentality, but whereas corporeally you have real consequences, real pain, online there is nothing. You can close your web browser and walk away.”

In addition to the heart of the matter, Rensch believes that online accounts are emboldened by the veil of anonymity. “I mean, of course it’s probably more complicated than that, and I don’t want to reduce everything to the fact that the internet offers the ability for one to create a new self, a new identity, and remain totally anonymous — or, even if you’re not anonymous, you’re nevertheless ‘protected’ by its virtual nature,” says Rensch. “I do think it plays a major role, if only in aiding an otherwise troubling mentality and giving it a convenient tool to express itself.”

Rensch believes blunt comedy is capable of being subversive without using individuals as punchlines. “The point of comedy, in my opinion, is to get people to see things in a new way — to take something and shift perspective so that thing, whatever it is, can be seen in a new light,” says Rensch. “When I ‘mock,’ it is typically from the standpoint of an ideology, not a single person. So, I’ll adopt the logic of hard atheism — or, on the other end, religious fundamentalism — with hopes of pointing out its contradictions or shortcomings.”

And while many facepalm-worthy posts come from friends, friends of friends, and family members who are impossible to reason with, those that plaster photocopies of the worst in others all through the online hallways can be just as hard to confront with criticism. Rensch says it’s difficult trying to correct what he views as cruel mockery because the perpetrators are always defensive, and he’s seen cases where a call for decency only made matters worse. A tweeter can sic their large following on voices of dissent immediately, and any perceived scolding is often returned a hundredfold to the critic.

How then shall we mock?

Generally, I think Christians ought to abstain from this kind of indirect poking fun. Since the original poster is being cut out of the ridicule cycle, retweeting a screengrab is quite obviously not a good strategy for edification and love. Frequenting social media can make us calloused to the implications our actions can have for real people and in our hearts.  As more and more young Christians develop while deeply embedded in social media, seeing “comedy” like this proliferate will instill a sense that it is normal, that the internet operates with less demanding boundaries of respect and kindness toward others. The challenge is for believers to make sure their communities help shape our online behavior as individuals.

With some semblance of accountability, as Rensch mentioned, there is a greater deterrent to give full vent to your online wrath. Cultivating relationships like this were never easy. Now that our neighbors are prone to share so much publicly, the stakes of online correction very much require a pick-your-battles approach. Aside from abstaining from being ruthless online ourselves, knowing and understanding others well–are they ignorantly mocking, or unleashing pure hatred? how seriously have they been taught to love the poor, hurting, and simple?–will be of much greater use than calling out a bully each time we spot their moral crimes. This is ultimately just another aspect of the inhumanity of the world, and another chance for the church to embody the posture of Jesus within it.

The demands of love would suggest we don’t broadcast someone’s embarrassing moments to a world they didn’t know was watching, even if they naively hit “Post.” And if and when there is a facepalm-worthy post that shouldn’t go unaddressed, may we find a way to respond with efforts to build up our neighbors, preserving their dignity online and IRL.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out Seth’s graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

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