Awareness of abuse has been growing in the church. Among this awareness are more discussions about spiritual abuse and the various expressions of it. Still, despite more discussions about the various aspects of spiritual abuse, there is still little discussion about the rise of cyber-bullying within the church. Cyber-bullying is a form of abuse, and when it is done by Christians under the banner of Christ, it is spiritual abuse. What we are seeing on the internet today is a rise in abusers exposing themselves through the medium of social media. They are doing this by practicing cyber-bullying. Here are some of the signs of cyber-bullying you should consider:
- Harassment – One of the ways an abusive person practices cyber-bullying is by harassing someone they disagree with. Whenever a person they do not like posts something on a social media platform, they comment with negativity. They post a snarky comment, an insult, a clear misinterpretation of what the person said, a screenshot that is shared with a dishonest commentary, etc. The goal of this harassment is to silence a person. Abusers believe that if they harass a person enough, they can instill a fear in that person that keeps them from speaking. They persist in harassment so that every time that person comments, they have to wonder whether or not that individual will show up in their comments and with what that individual will say. This bullying tactic is also called “trolling,” it is done most often by anonymous people, but there is a growing increase of actual people, even pastors, doing this in the open. They are rarely seen as abusers and are often not held accountable for their abusive behavior and their bullying. It’s also important to understand that bullying itself, especially harassment, is about power. There are people who desire the power of being known. This power can be pursed through flattery and through harassment. Flattery is a form of manipulation that seeks to cause another to “know of you” in an exaggerated yet positive light. Harassment leads someone to “know of you” but in a negative light. The person who desires power often does not care what someone thinks about them, they just want to ensure they are being thought about. They want the power to dwell in your mind “Rent-free” and they will seek to do that through harassing you so that they are constantly in your head and they are able to leave you wondering if and when they will show up.
- Slander/libel. Slander is the act of speaking falsehood about another person, which is damaging to them. Libel or Defamation is the act of writing/publishing words that are false and damaging to an individual. Both of these things are grievous sins and are very common on the internet. Slander is commonly practiced through podcasts, vlogs, & various other video and audio mediums. Libel is common on Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Cyber-bullies, aka abusers, will frequently misrepresent someone in such a way that it does not only damage their reputation, but it also leads to an onslaught of point 1 (harassment). Slander/libel is often used to motivate or invigorate someone’s base into a groupthink mob of hate. This is especially common on Twitter. Someone, including Christian pastors & influencers, will publicly misrepresent someone. Their base will see that misrepresentation and assume what the person they follow said is true. They will then all begin to malign and dehumanize that individual, and within a moment, a cyber-hate mob is cultivated. Often, the original slanderer will not interact with the mob they’ve created. They’ve created this mob through their misrepresentation, but because they are a pastor or Christian influencer, they desire a degree of plausible deniability. In other words, they want to incite a mob after someone, but they want to distance themselves enough so that if they are ever accused of leading it, they can claim they aren’t responsible for other people’s actions. Such people are not only bullies, but they are also manipulators and abusers as well. Again, we see this often on social media platforms such as Twitter. Someone of some degree of influence within a “Christian” faction will post something deeply unkind about another person. Their comment thread will then be filled with all kinds of hate and vitriol from others who have lashed onto the original post and have used it as an excuse to dehumanize said person. Often, though the original poster is responsible for inituating the mob, they will rarely comment or like the comments that their original post has generated. This allows them to incite a mob but then claim ignorance and innocence once the thread spirals into a mire of hate. It is important to understand that such people are not simply enablers, they are abusers. Their refusal to confront or rebuke any of the hate-filled comments their original post creates is proof that they are performing as a maestro to the chorus of hate that follows after their original post.
- Gaslighting. Gaslighting is the act of creating a false reality & seeking to convince someone that your false construct of reality is what’s “really real” and that the reality that they are genuinely experiencing is false. It’s essentially seeking to create a “Matrix” world for someone and placing them in it and, in so doing, causing them to question reality itself. Gaslighting is evil, and it is not only the epitome of manipulation, but it is also psychological abuse. Cyber-bullies use this tactic to abuse others while also seeking to remain clean of any evil. For example, you will often see someone espouse racism on social media. They will harass (1) black People and POC people online. They will commit slander or libel (2) against these people as well. However, when they are called out for their racism and their targeted bullying of black and brown people, they will step back and accuse those who have called them out as being the true racists. Abusers and their enablers always seek to flip the script on reality. In the world of an abuser, they are are the victim, and the victim of their abuse is the abuser. They rationalize this way to both justify their evil and to perpetuate their abuse on their victim via psychological confusion. Gaslighting is not only abuse and manipulation, but it is also a psychological attack whereby a person seeks to destroy another person’s mind. It is demonic.
As someone who is both a trauma-informed soul care provider as well as someone who has experienced cyber-bullying for several years now, I am keenly away of this phenomenon. Over the past few years, I have experienced cyber-bullying primarily by Christians, pastors, and various thought leaders within the American evangelical world. I have experienced both racially motivated cyber-bullying as well as cyber-bullying that has been the result of those who simply disapprove of my advocacy work against white supremacy, misogyny, and spiritual abuse. The troubling thing is that many cyber-bullies/abusers remain pastors in their church, authors with publishing contracts, and remain in places of prominence. We have yet to see churches, organizations, or ministries hold those they employ or platform accountable for their online practices. What this means is that we still have a culture within the church that is enabling not just bullying but abuse. If the American church is going to stand apart from the world as both a light and as a haven for love as John 13:34-35 states, we must be a community that takes bullying seriously. We must also be a place that is not afraid to call out abusers who practice their abuse online via cyber-bullying.
For more information on bullying, our government has produced resources for such inquiry. Here is a government site defining and explaining both bullying cyber-bullying.