A Stolen Frog and the Future of Free Speech Online

When Matt Furie created Pepe the Frog in a 2005 comic, he didn’t realize his art would be weaponized by internet trolls in an effort to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

He also didn’t know it would be the first internet meme to be added to the Anti-Defamation League’s database of hate symbols.

But it was.

Stolen by internet trolls with detestable ideologies, Pepe the Frog became a symbol of hate before his creator had to kill him.

The 2016 election was won by a person who, over the course of his campaign, attracted the support of internet trolls, many of whom promoted alt-right ideas.

The trolls, who typically hang out around the dark web, 4chan, Reddit, and other such spaces, use memes as a primary tool of their trolling. They have for years. This is nothing new.

Before Pepe, there was trollface, and after Pepe there will be something else.

The internet hate and bigotry that gained mainstream attention in the 2016 presidential has existed for years in the deep, dark corners of the internet. But its newfound fame has drawn attention toward the matter of free speech and the internet. What is permissible, what is not, and how do we proceed into the future?

The Future of Free Speech Online

The creator of Pepe the Frog never imagined his creation would become a hate symbol, nor did he intend for this to be a case.

Yet, in the end, he was the loser. His art, his “free speech,” was hindered because of how others chose to use their free speech.

What is the future of free speech on the internet?

A few months ago, the Pew Research Center released some data and helpful insight into the future of free speech online.

Based on the data the collected and the insight of digital communications professionals with whom they spoke, they were able to pinpoint the following four themes regarding the future of speech online.

Let me simplify each of them for you:

1. Online communication will stay bad because people are bad.

The human condition is broken, even non-Christians recognize this. People can be disgusting, vile creatures. Christians recognize this as the infestation and pervasiveness of sin in the world, and non-Christians recognize it as simply one of the two choices humans have: to be good or evil.

One possibility for the future of online communication is that it will stay as bad as it is with no improvement.

While I believe in the sinful depravity of humans, I don’t think trolling will stay as bad in the near future as it is today. More on that later.

2. Online communication will stay bad because there is economic and social benefit to trolling.

We saw in the 2016 election cycle that being a troll can lead to great fame and power—online trolls rightly see themselves as having influenced the election and having helped win the White House for their candidate.

This shows us that, no matter the political ideologies of internet trolls, trolling can be a means to grasp the power people so desperately want, however unethical and sickening it may be.

Some people believe this power motivation will make trolling worse in the future. I definitely think this is a possibility, but I’m not sure.

3. Online communication will improve because we will further segment ourselves online.

I think this is the most likely scenario out of the four options presented here. I think trolling will always exist because of sin, but I think it will become less pervasive because I think we will further segment ourselves online and keep people who don’t like us as far away as possible.

I definitely envision social media platforms and other online experiences that protect the sensibilities of their users by restricting others from joining.

Online communication will improve because we will do everything we can to distance ourselves from mean people.

4. Online communication will improve because we will embrace a surveillance state that prevents it.

The final option is perhaps the most ominous. It is possible, in the future, that online communication will improve because we will create an environment that institutes strict penalties for trolling or other online misbehavior.

For those who have been trolled online before, this may sound like a good option. When you are the focus of an online attack, you quickly begin to think such attacks should be illegal and punishable by the court system.

But is that a world in which we want to live? Should people do jail time for calling other people names on social media?

While strict, government-provided restrictions on free speech would improve online communication, this construct could have serious negative side effects.

I could write 12 blog posts on this report done by Pew regarding the future of free speech online, and I will likely do some more beyond this one.

What do you think about the future of free speech online? Should Pepe the Frog be allowed to be used to promote hateful ideologies? Should such actions be punishable by law or simply ignored?

Top 10 Motivations for Using Social Media

Last week, I wrote about the strange burden I feel to engage with social media and steward it well, despite the fact that I wish it would all disappear sometimes.

I love studying social media and social media trends because the way we use social media reveals a lot about us.

A few weeks ago, Smart Insights, a digital marketing company, published an infographic from the GlobalWebIndex detailing the top 10 most common reasons people use social media.

The results are fascinating. Here are the top 10 motivations for using social media:

Really, when you look at these 10 categories, they can be put into three basic buckets:

To Engage With Others

About half of the motivations we have for using social media could be labeled as “others-focused” in one way or another.

People use social media for social purposes—who would have thought?

The root of this may be the insatiable desire for others’ approval, or it may just be a genuine interest in the lives of others and world events. Some may want to use social media to “get ahead” socially, or simply just to keep in touch with friends far away.

Social media is great for networking and meeting people who have similar interests or areas of work. Whether you’re using LinkedIn or other, more mainstream social platforms, social media does have serious professional benefits.

To Share About Ourselves

Another major category of motivation for our use of social media is to share about ourselves. We like using social media to share our opinions or photos/videos of our lives.

This is logical and doesn’t necessarily point to self-centered, narcissistic motives.

We like share our opinions and pictures or video of our lives because we like to hear the opinions and see the life experiences of others.

Social media isn’t a truly “social” experience if you aren’t consuming others’ content and creating content of your own.

What is important to remember in our sharing is humility.

We ought to log off social media if sharing our theological opinions or vacation pictures turns into a prideful exhibition of how important we think we are.

Engaging with others online by sharing our own content is great, and it can be a great service to others in some settings, but we have to protect against thinking we are the center of the world.

Social media does a good job of making it feel like we are more important than we really are.

To Be Fulfilled

A couple of the top 10 motivations signal that we seek to find fulfillment of some sort in our use of social media.

About 34% of social media users use it to find funny or entertaining content, and about 27% of users are using it to research and find products to buy.

Finding fun, entertaining content on the internet is common. Hundreds of millions of people have Netflix accounts and watch goofy YouTube videos every day.

Most of us use the internet to buy things, too. Almost a month ago now, Amazon held Prime Day 2017 which saw 60% more sales this year than last.

Using social media to research/purchase products or watch funny videos is all well and good, but the temptation is to find some sort of fulfillment in these things.

We have to be careful about the degree to which we use social media for shopping or entertainment because even before social media, shopping and entertainment proved to be perfect idolatry material.

So, why do you use social media? If you had to choose just one or two of the top 10, which would you choose?

I think the top two reasons I use social media are: 1) general networking with other people and 2) to stay up to date with news and current events.

The Strange Burden of Participating in Social Media

Over the last year or so, I have become more discouraged about social media and what it is doing to us than I have ever been.

Often I think to myself, “The only reason I use social media any more is because it’s such an important part of my job.” Really, it’s central to my job.

Then, some weeks, what I see on social media encourages me and gives me hope for the medium as a useful tool for the Church.

One of my friends recently left social media entirely. He deleted all of his accounts and isn’t going to engage on Twitter, Facebook, etc. any more. I kinda wish I could bring myself to do that, but every time I consider it, I can’t.

It’s not that I can’t bring myself to leave social media because I have some sort of unhealthy addiction to it or because I need to be informed about what all of my friends are doing with their lives. (At least I don’t think that’s why.)

I think I can’t bring myself to leave social media because I have a sort of strange burden for it as a medium.

Shining a Light in the Darkness

Social media can feel like a pretty godless place sometimes. Watching Christians gnaw on the necks of other Christians over everything from biblical sexual ethics to minute matters of Church history is nauseating.

“Hot take” culture, in which we all feel the need to respond with our profound two cents on an issue before knowing all the facts, is, I believe, demonic.

There are times, like the times we’re in right now, during which I question if Christians have any place on Twitter or other such platforms.

Does the good of connecting with people across the world in order to share and discuss ideas outweigh the bad of harassment and rampant sinful communication?

It can be hard to tell.

I’m going to do more writing on this study soon, but according to the Pew Research Center, two-thirds of adults have witnessed online harassment.

That’s not OK.

It’s not like it’s getting any better, either, younger people are more likely to witness harassment than older people. Part of this is due to younger people being more engaged online, but it is also likely due to younger people harassing more.

When I see statistic like this, I get discouraged and think Christians, myself included, would be wise to just disengage from social media entirely.

Why willingly participate in an environment in which such evil persists with no viable way to stop it?

We don’t have to be on social media, so why involve ourselves in such negativity if there is no need?

I ask myself these questions and then I remember:

I am compelled to participate in the nasty mess of social media because I have been commissioned as a steward of the only light bright enough to pierce its darkness.

Only the gospel can redeem the hateful poison that fills Twitter timelines and YouTube comment sections.

I believe, as a Christian and steward of the gospel, that I have I responsibility to maintain a presence on social media and do my best to reflect Christ on the various platforms in which I participate. I don’t always do this well, but this burden is what prevents me from deleting my accounts every time I consider doing so.

My life would be so much simpler if I forgot Twitter existed and packed up my Facebook profile once and for all. But I can’t bring myself to do it because I feel as though it would be motivated by cowardice, not by any sort of sanctified step of faith.

Social media isn’t for everyone though. If you lust after the favorites and retweets of others or you can’t avoid berating “friends” on Facebook, you ought to repent and sprint away from social media altogether.

But if you can manage to engage on social media platforms without falling into habitual sin around the approval of others or otherwise, I beg you to steward the gospel in the digital space.

It’s a strange burden, but I think it’s an important one.

3 Ways to Redeem the Medium

It feels as though abandoning social media would be abandoning an opportunity for stewardship.

So, how can Christians redeem social media as a medium? How might we use what so many use for evil for the good purposes of God? A few brief thoughts:

1) Create encouraging dialogue.

If you enjoy a blog post, find the person on Twitter and tell them so.

If you see a friend on Facebook having a rough day, shoot a message to them telling them you’re praying for them (and actually do it).

So much negative dialogue permeates social media, it could use some gospel encouragement from those who steward the Good News.

2) Share trustworthy resources.

Share the content of Christian blogs or other websites whose content you trust.

So many great Christian organizations and Christian leaders are blogging or create other kinds of content with great frequency. There is no shortage of faithful, trustworthy content online. Share it or create some of it yourself.

3) Build sanctifying relationships.

This statement would have sounded weird 10 or 15 years ago, but: I have a number of sanctifying, God-glorifying friendships today that started on social media someplace.

Social media platforms are great places to find like-minded brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we may partner in our Great Commission work. If you’re on social media, make friends with people and point each other to Jesus.

Social media is a volatile beast. It is not to be taken lightly or to be underestimated as a force of evil.

But, if you’re like me and cannot neglect the strange burden of social media, take some intentional steps to shining the light in the darkness.