THE BLOG

How to Drive the Internet Highway Fearlessly, to Promote Religious Harmony

02/24/2015 07:40 pm ET | Updated Apr 26, 2015

"Social media is changing the face of religion."

--Heidi Campbell
Associate Professor of Communications, Texas A&M University

Islamophobia and anti-Semitism are on the rise; even Christians are being persecuted globally. Because we live in a pluralistic global society, no longer is it practical for us to just say, 'I'll stay in my lane; you stay in yours.' With the common usage of social media in which influential ideas good and bad spread with blinding speed, we all become global citizens.

Religious intolerance is rising rapidly, and it could hit home sooner or later. That's why it is important for religious leaders to step up and work on reversing the tide. Recently, I attended an interfaith meeting of clergy and other professionals, a good number of whom seemed to be clueless about social media. If they were on Facebook, it was in the most private of forms; Twitter wasn't even mentioned.

The discussion at that meeting explored various ways in which religious leaders could influence social justice and harmony -- particularly relating to Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. One conclusion was that social media is a logical vehicle for that influence; however, attendees felt it overwhelmed them. 'It can get really nasty,' said one minister. Another worry was how to maintain their religious identity while promoting pluralistic harmony.

Do we remember how we felt when we learned to drive? It was thrillingly scary for us. We knew we could crash, yet the freedom it afforded was exhilarating so we learned, and we practiced. Now, we're so adept at driving it almost seems automatic. Learning to navigate social media is much like learning to drive, on the Internet highway.

If religious leaders are to help influence society to live harmoniously, they will have to take courage and learn this 'new' way, or they can sit back and know they are probably not meeting their full potential.

By staying on a straight road to harmony, you will invariably learn that social media is a far more powerful tool for you, than one to be feared. In my years of experience with this broad form of communication, I have challenged powerful religious, political and media leaders without untoward consequence, because I strictly follow the rules below.

Remember that promoting societal harmony and peace involves a number of factions, not just your congregation. Rather than base your arguments on the Bible, Quran or Torah -- or no scripture at all -- you should be aware that virtually all scriptures, and even belief systems of atheists, include the common thread of moral values. That is the framework on which you will base your social media leadership, so as to appeal to the broadest range of individuals.

That doesn't mean you have to abandon your individual beliefs in order to fit into a generic religious mold; not at all. You will have to acknowledge the legitimate plurality of religious thought, though, by finding common ground on which you can all agree. Moral principles across the board are pretty much the same; people generally want similar lives, despite their beliefs on how to get there. The similarities are your foundation for discussion.

Following is an outline of how to use social media for good in our pluralistic society. Once you learn the basics, provided below, you will have to inform yourself regarding complexities. Navigating your way through the process, you will see pop-up messages informing you of choices and results of those choices. You must read those and choose your option.

Rules of the Road
First and foremost, use your real name and photograph; include your credentials in your profiles on Facebook and Twitter. This gives you strength and credibility as you begin to gain influence on social media. You might begin by learning to navigate on Facebook before tackling Twitter. YouTube and other forms of social media can follow as your comfort level increases.

A caveat: Read and understand the Privacy rules of all social media channels you choose.

You will learn to work your way through the unfamiliar terms and acronyms people use on social media; don't worry, Google is an easy reference tool.

Do your homework; 'Friend' (Facebook) and 'Follow' (Twitter) other leaders whom you respect, including media leaders; read their posts, and comment often. You don't always have to agree, but disagree respectfully. In this manner, you build a social media presence, in which you are respected, and you learn how seasoned social media practitioners handle sticky situations.

Discuss Effectively
Always maintain a calm, respectful demeanor, no matter what other people say, what offensive language they use. Once you establish the ground rules with people who interact with you, they will follow your lead; this will take patience, but you must persist.

Stick to objective, factual online 'conversations' (called 'threads'), devoid of labels, name-calling and adjectives and avoid polarizing stands; the issue is center to the conversation.

When you encounter someone who, despite all your efforts to defuse them and keep on the objective path, insists on inflammatory, insulting statements, you can write something like, 'Sir/madam, if you wish to gain respect, you must give it; this thread (conversation) is about the issue, nothing else.'

Keep the discussion on track; people will try to send it in other directions (called pivoting). Keep it on point, and know when to stop. If you see your thread descend to just wrangling, back off and let it go, saying, 'We're all entitled to our opinions, whether we agree or not; I respect yours and hope you respect mine,' and then drop it. Remember, your mission is to spread objective light, not necessarily to win arguments.

Detours to Avoid
One common tactic some people use, is to attribute derogatory intent. 'He only voted for that because...' Your response: 'We have no idea of his intent; we only know he voted for it, and his history has been in favor of...' (Google will be your best friend in strengthening your arguments with statistics.)

Another tactic is for people to say it's important to examine the origins of whatever issue or behavior is under discussion. Examining past history is a straight road to the blame game, resulting in a dead end for finding a path to harmony. You might say, 'The important point is, we've all made mistakes and now we're working to improve on the present situation. That is our focus.'

Whatever your age or lack of experience with social media, as a religious leader who wishes to protect your community by advancing societal harmony, learning this new way is your opportunity; it can be your legacy. Are you ready to start?