Christian Clickbait and the Lost Art of Using Our Brains Online

christian clickbait online discernment

This must be a joke.

Confusion, shock, and other unpleasant emotions smoldered under my skin when I first read a recent viral post featuring a graphic and title that you’d expect to see on the Christian parody site The Babylon Bee.

“Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins Without Tattoos” blew up on social media last week, generating a flood of commentary that you’d expect to result from a post headlined that provocatively.

As soon as I heard about it, I began gratuitously liking the many social media posts denouncing the piece and its author. I joined the ranks of those who publicly criticized her for espousing legalistic ideas that could lead her followers astray and heap shame upon those believers whose pasts included impure choices – none of which are beyond redemption – and lifestyle choices irrelevant to a life of faith. (Condemning tattoos? Really?!?)

After further reflection on the original post and ensuing backlash, I developed a few more thoughts that went beyond pure gut reaction. Rather than dismantle the flawed theological suppositions point by point as others already have done, I wanted to zoom out from the specific arguments and expand to a broader discussion about discernment.

This situation illustrates how easy it is for anyone of us to mislead and malign on social media. Though it’s inevitable that we’ll make mistakes, we can still make an effort to walk out our faith in a manner worthy of Christ by activating our minds and filtering our words. With love and humility, we can exercise good judgment with how engage with others online, according to the grace he gives to all his undeserving children.

Baiting clicks by provoking reaction
As connected technologies have shaped our culture and changed the ways we communicate, we tend to value emotional stimulation more so than mental exertion. We’re drawn to whatever makes us feel happy, sad, or mad and react accordingly with little to no deeper thought. Bloggers and other media producers capitalize on this impulse and churn out content they expect to gain visits to their sites, hence the term clickbait.

Whether the author intended it or not, the title “Men Prefer Debt-Free Virgins Without Tattoos” is a prime example of this. It bears little relevance to the post’s content, which presents the author’s argument that Christian women should focus on homemaking instead of pursuing an expensive college education, which she loosely ties to the passage in 1 Peter 3:4 calling for women to have meek and quiet spirits.

[For a thorough analysis of these theological claims weighed against Scripture, I recommend reading Phylicia Masonheimer’s recent post.]

Besides misapplying biblical concepts, the post fails to substantiate its claim with data or sound logical reasoning. The author offers no statistics, no interviews, no references to credible outside sources, only conjecture and opinion. It reads like an uninformed dating advice column billed as biblical wisdom – a dangerous type of post to go viral. Yet it makes sense why it would.

In a reactive culture, we rely on our feelings to guide the information we seek and engage with. So a post written by someone who isn’t a verified authority on the subject matter can gain widespread attention by publishing material that elicits extreme emotional responses – positive or negative.

People not only share what they love, but also what they hate in order to shore up support within their comfortable echo chambers.

Understanding with discernment
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with posts that evoke feelings (at least I hope not, as I often write about emotional topics), it’s important to exercise discernment with content we read online, especially when biblical claims are made.

For Christians trying to determine what’s biblically accurate, we should approach online content with a filter. What someone states as “my truth” is likely his or her experience or opinion, and might not be rooted in Scripture or reality. As we consume media, we should question the veracity of messages touted as truth and process them according to the litmus test of Phil 4:8: think on what is true, good, just, pure, lovely, and worthy of praise.

In an age of fake news and blatant political affiliations, this is becoming harder to accomplish. How do we know what’s really going when we hear conflicting reports with differing statistics presented through biased viewpoints?

However difficult it might be to distinguish between fact and fiction, we can still use our God-given brains to think critically about the information presented to us online. Whether the messages are coming from a famous author with a huge platform or a hobbyist blogger with a small audience, we have a responsibility to go to the Word and check for accuracy and merit. We’re called to take every thought captive in obedience (2 Cor 10:5) and to test the spirits to determine sound doctrine (1 Jo 4:1).

As we consider how to digest media, we can ask the Lord for discernment in testing the ideas laid before us. Using our minds renewed by the Spirit, we can conduct research, apply logic, and discuss ideas with trusted peers and mentors so that we don’t merely feel and react, but pause to think and assess.

These same principles that guide how we read and process online media should also govern how we respond to others in an online forum – even or especially if we disagree with them. 

Communicating with humility
In the uproar over this controversial blog post, certain Christian bloggers and writers blasted it all over social media, some in ways that came across as harsh and disparaging toward the author, who professes to be a believer. As the post made the rounds across different platforms, commenters swamped her Facebook page with vicious insults and hateful messages.

Amidst my own righteous indignation over this post, God reminded me through conversations with my wise and discerning husband to consider this blogger’s worth and dignity as a person, and possibly, a fellow sister in Christ.

She demonstrated flawed thinking – but so have I at various times. She communicated a message that hurt others – as I have done and likely will do so again, much as I hope won’t happen.

None of us is above reproach with what we’ve posted online. We’ve all made poor decisions, had to remove or delete a post, and if and when necessary, apologized for it.

As important as it is to reject false teaching, God’s Word calls for us to correct others in a gracious manner using words that build up, rather than tear down. Scripture prescribes a process for handling these types of disputes in 2 Timothy 2:23-25:

Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth,

Whether online or face-to-face, Christians are to clothe ourselves in humility, speak the truth in love, and correct others with gentleness, striving to maintain unity with our brothers and sisters in the Lord.

Yes, we should address wrong teaching and shine the light of the gospel to portray a clearer picture of who Jesus is and how we can reflect him. The burden on his followers is to do so in a way that imitates his character – his patience, his long-suffering, his self-sacrificing humility.

This might not be possible to accomplish in the context of a tweet. It might require reaching out personally, going beyond the highly visible realm of social media where we can form a bandwagon or jump on someone else’s, to invest the time and effort in developing a relationship and engaging in deeper conversations for the betterment of the whole body.

Engaging with grace
We can’t believe everything we read on the Internet, nor should we act like we’re better than everyone else using it. For it’s by grace we are saved, and by grace we are called to live in harmony with one another.

God has given us minds to discern what’s good and true, both in what we perceive and how we communicate. Recognizing that every good thing we have is an undeserved gift given freely in and through Jesus, we can engage graciously with others online, thinking critically and speaking kindly to glorify him and edify others.

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear (Eph 2:29).

Resources for further study:
God’s Not Looking for Debt-Free Virgins by Phylicia Masonheimer
The Five Tests of False Doctrine by Tim Challies
9 Ways to Make Social Media More Christian by Karen Swallow Prior
My Wife Has Tattoos: Marriage and New Birth by Spencer Harmon

[Image courtesy Jesus Kiteque on Unsplash]

How I’m coming to peace with Insta-sham

Scanning the socials several months ago, I stumbled onto some posts that nearly caused me to gag up my morning oatmeal.

A group of intrepid mommy bloggers had published a book on all things motherhood, and the authors were fulfilling their due diligence promoting their work by re-posting readers’ photos.

Every single image they shared portrayed the same essential look: warm lighting touched with pleasant sepia hues, superbly manicured stationary objects tidily arranged around the book – a steaming coffee mug here, an artisan afghan strewn there – all positioned on a seamless backdrop of a vacuumed rug, sparkling marble countertop, or the blank canvas of a clean and empty table.

You see why this sight triggered my spew impulse, right?

In my honest/cynical opinion, this is as Fake Not-News as it gets. For one thing, for those with young children, unless your kids are having screen time or napping, there’s no chance in Hogwarts you’re reading a book in peace. Furthermore, I know few moms with children still living at home who can maintain Pottery Barn-perfection and have enough time to stage a stunning portrait without getting interrupted by a sibling feud or having someone smear applesauce across the photo shoot background.

Such is life in the captivatingly fraudulent world of Instagram. Filtered snippets of other people’s daily activities lure us in like moths to the flame of glimmering gratification.

Images like the immaculate motherhood book pics bother me because they don’t depict reality. Sure, those who post their best and brightest photos aren’t necessarily trying to mislead others; we all realize these are just the highlight reels. Still, I have a hard time wholeheartedly liking photos that project everyday scenarios as tranquil and glamorous when I know from personal experience that these situations can be chaotic and even hideous.

Despite my reaction, I’m coming to understand a deeper motivation for why people tend to post their most picturesque clips and gaining a new perspective on aesthetic appreciation.

We crave beauty because God made us that way. He crafted us in His image, to be like Him and to long for Him as the true source of goodness and life. Our desire for and delight in spectacles of wonder throughout God’s creation reveal the blessing and purpose of our redemption.

As John Piper says of the ultimate reason we exist: “Our final inheritance is this: that we will see the glory of God and praise him for it. We will see his glory, savor his glory, and show his glory.”

Piper inheritance quote

Worshipping God by appreciating the marvels of His creation – a concept highlighted in a previous IF:Equip study on the theology of beauty – can remind us of who He is and who we were created to be:

“By learning to recognize the beauty around us, we can better see God’s reflection in everyday life. We remember that this world, while broken, will be made new and perfect once again. This gives us great hope. Beauty lodges like eternity in our hearts, bringing memories of a good God and a future world.” (Lesson 1 Day 1)

You don’t have to be a raging pessimist to recognize the ravages of sin upon God’s perfect creation. The world is fallen and we groan along with it, waiting for the Creator to finally and fully restore its original luster. Until that glorious day, we continue to live in the reality of sinful destruction and acknowledge that it bites.

Feeling both a compulsion to expose the ugly truth of real life as well as an urge to experience genuine beauty demonstrates our dual earth/heaven citizenship. This could explain my disdain for the façade aspect of social media, knowing that the images displayed don’t align with the difficulties experienced in our broken lives.

But in focusing on the earthly perspective – that my life is a wreck and the world is a mess and everyone who lives here is a dirtbag – I tend to overlook the glimpses of majesty the Lord graciously reveals around me and forget to appreciate His goodness in wanting me to experience joy.

So, although it’s enjoyable to rag on faux-flawless social statuses, I think I could stand to cultivate more admiration for images that people intentionally craft to please the eye. After all, any illustrations of beauty we encounter are just that: imitations of splendor deriving from a greater Source of wholeness, peace, and brilliance.

“For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face.” (1 Corinthians 13:12a)
1 Corinthians 13 12

Praise God that we will one day behold the glory of His radiance and not have to settle for viewing life through the dull looking glass of Instagram. Our longing for true beauty will finally be sated as we look full on our Savior’s wonderful face – no filter needed besides His precious blood.

[Cover photo: Dmitri Tyan on Unsplash]

Cyberslang rant #1

family-guy-meme-for-cyber-slang-rant

While the Internet has been great for enabling communication, aggregating information, and allowing us to self-diagnose a variety of ailments via Dr. Google, it has severely corrupted the English language. Influenced by texting chatspeak and the one-liner-rama known as Twitter, our everyday speech now contains jargon that violates all kinds of grammatical rules, flaunting syntactic delinquency and promoting verbal idiocy.

I admit to using a number of modern idioms in my posts, but some I simply cannot stand. The Spirit of Perfectionism compels me to advocate for more articulate, comprehensible dialogue by beating down ridiculous lingo.

For this first round, I’m going full John Wick puppy rampage on three trends that are successfully making the world a dumber place.

Let the editorial bloodbath begin.

Make. It. Stop.
I used to think excess exclamation mark usage was one of the most egregious stylistic offenses a person could commit. Sure, it’s tolerable in enthusiastic text messages to your friend about the One Direction boyfriend Tee you just snapped up at a thrift store, but in a work email? “Jennifer! Our numbers are down! I uploaded the proofs to Dropbox! When are you sending your TPS reports!” Total !nsanity.

Somehow, at some point recently, for no good reason whatsoever, the exclamatory frenzy gave way to another equally atrocious, linguistically laborious trend that is So. Freakin’. Annoying.

Yeah, I typed out all three of those dang periods, hating myself with every keystroke.

Who the heck got so infatuated with a typographical symbol designed to mark the end of a declarative sentence that they up and made it trendy to use when separating short and – let’s face it – usually simple-minded words?

Back in journalism school, we were taught to use punctuation marks sparingly to conserve precious print space, hence the AP style’s rejection of the Oxford comma. This period fetish is yet another way the Internet has screwed over the journalism profession and made us all highly informed yet stupid as muck.

As a blogger with a journalist background, it behooves me to warn you that period binging is a slippery slope. Right now, it’s cool to use three periods, but who’s to stop that from increasing to four, then eight, then 15? And how soon before it creeps into single words and makes our language even more dis.joint.ed.?

During this election season, I think we should launch a different, more productive campaign to Make Sentences Coherent Again and put the kibosh on this choppy, stunted speech pattern. Let’s find other ways to convey emphasis, such as using italics or underlining – something besides periods. Or, here’s an idea: Quit talking like a hipster. Bam! Problem solved.

Why is ‘thing’ a thing?
Now this is just embarrassing. Have we all grown so empty-headed as a society that we can think of no greater word for – well, anything – besides “thing”?

“It’s kinda my thing.”
“I want all the things.”
“I wish I had a thing.”

It might’ve been funny the first, maybe even the second time someone used this trivial word in a catchall type of way. But today, it has become an epidemic, infecting normal adult conversations from soccer mom chitchat to coffee shop discourse to Bible study discussion – even pseudo-intellectual TED talks.

What if – God forbid – someone starts combining this ambiguity-perpetuating buzzword with other inane expressions? Our language would become completely meaningless.

“Just sayin’ a thing.”
“Today be like things.”
“WHAAAAAT thing.”

This is middle school sexual innuendo-level humor, people. There’s a better way to say stuff. Lemme introduce you to a neat resource that’s handy for all sorts of items – like I just swapped out the potential usage of “things” with the ordinary yet less brain-insulting “items.”

It’s called a thesaurus, located under Tools in Microsoft Word, and also available for your convenience online at sites such as Merriam Webster. Let these resources help you find synonyms to build a stronger vocabulary beyond a single syllable word you learned as a toddler.

Get over this absurd addiction to “things” and start talking smarter than a stoner.

#Ihatehashtags
Yea, I know I’m a hypocrite when it comes to this fad. Yet at the end of the day, aren’t we all hypocrites who hate Wal-Mart but shop there anyways?

Hypocrites shop at WalMartnew

The way I see it, hashtags are a necessary evil if you want to gain new followers on social media. But do the pros of using them always outweigh the cons of exasperating readers to the same level of annoyance induced by people who scrape their forks against their teeth?

On a pleasant note, hashtags can be clever and help people connect. On a practical note, they are difficult to read and come straight from the fourth level of linguistic hell reserved for group text messages and Kanye West quotes.

For your origin story of the day, the now-mighty # symbol has been known as the number sign, the pound sign (not to be confused with the British £ sign), a sharp in a musical context, and the sci-fi-sounding “octothorpe” – supposedly created by an employee of Bell Laboratories in the 1960s in honor of U.S. athlete Jim Thorpe.

Not sure whose bright idea it was to take the perfectly decent octothorpe and warp it into a mark looping a word or phrase to a broader online conversation on a designated topic. I’d say the inventor should be shackled to a stockade shaped like that wretched symbol of their own making, but it’s probably not their fault that social media users exploit it so profusely.

If you must use hashtags to promote your upcycled pop can Christmas wreath etsy shop or whatever, at least take a minimalist approach. A thought to ponder: When you have to scroll more than three times through the hashtag list on your Instagram post, you’ve probably ODed on tagging. Ain’t nobody got time to read through all that gibberish.

As a reluctant participant in this trend, I’m committed to reporting and rebuking hashtag abuse. We must stand up to reckless tagging of insignificant words and bizarre combinations of wordsjumbledtogether before we begin audibly speaking other symbols before phrases just to sound relevant and cool, as in: “Asterisk, this post is lit.”