Scrolling through social media brings endless surprises, many of them unwelcome.

Maybe you’ve experienced this: you come across a post from an acquaintance at church or a distant family member, and the person’s opinion is either uninformed or inflammatory, and their responses to comments get heated. You cringe at the leaps of logic, the “what-about-ism,” the tendency toward conspiracy thinking, the articles shared, or the ad hominem attacks. Whatever the subject (politics, the pandemic, or public debates), you’re surprised to see this person engaging this way.

How should you respond? Should you respond?

More Than Their Online Profile

Whatever decision you make, remember: That person is more than their online profile. You know this instinctively. That’s why you were surprised at the online behavior—because you’ve been with that person in person.

In that moment, you should probably say to yourself: This isn’t her at her best.

Or, He’s wonderful in many ways, just wrong in what he’s saying here and in how he’s saying it.

Or, I know her, and she’s much better than how she’s coming across here.

There’s more to that person than the ill-timed tweet, the misinformed blog comment, or the inflammatory Instagram post. You think back to when that lady organized the meal train for someone facing a serious illness. You’ve seen that guy volunteer every week to do homework with disadvantaged students. You recall the person going on a mission trip or providing housing for a single mother in distress. Yes, you still cringe at the way he or she comes across online—perhaps angry, ignorant, defensive, or a combination of all three—but you recognize an important truth: the real person cannot be reduced to an online persona. There’s someone more real than that profile pic and status update.

Benefit of the Doubt

Now, let’s expand your assumptions and your actions in this situation to the rest of social media, including people you don’t know. You come across a cantankerous comment from someone with a smiling profile pic. They seem angry. They’re sharing misinformation. They’re invincible in their ignorance on a particular topic.

In that moment, you have a choice. Will you dehumanize that person? Will you divorce them from their past or present context? Will you see them as little more than their avatar or profile pic? Will you reduce them to their political views?

Or . . . will you choose instead to expand your assumptions, based on people you know, to people you don’t? Will you say to yourself, This person is probably better than how they’re coming across right now. This person may look like a jerk online, but I won’t reduce him or her to this moment of bad behavior. This guy may be pretty decent in person. That woman may be someone who serves well in her church or community.

Obviously, you can’t know for sure that the person online is better than their online persona, but since you know there are cases in your own family or congregation where people are frequently kinder, and more patient and loving than they come across online, could you extend that “believe the best” mentality to others?

Hazards of Social Media

To be sure, there are terrible trolls online. Nothing I’ve said here should excuse bullying or malicious behavior. There are plenty of bad actors on social media whose online deeds are best described as evil. But there are also people who come across in ways that don’t really capture the best of who they are, what they’re about, or how well they love.

Since so many of our connections these days have moved online (a trend sped up by the pandemic), it’s easy to see social media as a cesspool of gossip and hatred, as people relentlessly critique and troll, with some spouting off uninformed opinions on any matter of issues, as if we are all experts in every field of life these days. It’s enough to cause even the bravest social media soldier to want to throw in the towel sometimes.

Hoping the Best

But the reality is, people say and do things on social media that don’t capture the fullness of who they are as people. Just as we can dehumanize one another through rhetoric online, we can also dehumanize each other by seeing in the dehumanizer a dehumanized person themselves. We demean or diminish the image of God in the person whose behavior leaves much to be desired.

Plus, once you realize that social media feeds are manipulating us to see conflict, to increase engagement, and to elicit the biggest reaction (Facebook, for example, has admitted to this kind of manipulation), you recognize you’re getting an incomplete (even distorted) view of the world every time you log on. Maybe people in our country aren’t as bad as they come across in news stories and online. Maybe you’re not seeing the best of your fellow citizens, but the worst, which means that people are far more decent than you’d expect.

When you rethink your assumptions, you can keep from diminishing or dehumanizing the person whose views make you cringe. You choose to believe that a person coming off badly online may not actually be as bad as they seem. You decide to see something more than an avatar or a profile pic and instead believe that this person is made in God’s image. And then you thank God that neither your life nor theirs can be reduced to an ill-timed tweet or fiery Facebook post.

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