I read an article the other day on why you should not trust Facebook to provide you with all the details of the real lives of your friends and family. Among other surprise revelations, the article noted:
Everyone on Facebook looks like they’re having a great time. Fun adventures, deep romances, amazing jobs. It’s enough to make you feel inadequate, but it’s also a lie. Nobody is really as happy as their Facebook wall claims. . . . So the next time you’re driven to jealousy by a Facebook friend’s humblebragging about his or her awesome life, don’t forget: They’re probably embellishing it for social media, even if it’s unconsciously.
In response, on my own Facebook page, I wrote:
I worry about people whose Facebook pages are completely accurate, unfiltered depictions of their real lives for all the world to see. . . . That’s because I consider what I do here a form of blogging, and my job is to be informative and entertaining.
But I got to thinking about the nature of blogging and how bloggers can manipulate their audiences for gain. Keep in mind that the gain is not always financial—although some bloggers do receive a small bit of regular compensation for their work, and a few of them have managed to turn their blog into a career. Sometimes the gain is attention, high rankings in search engines, or applause from their readers. And so there is a temptation to “spin” stories in a way that presses the readers’ buttons.
As an example, earlier today I found a blog post that told the story of the fire in the UpStairs Lounge in New Orleans in 1973. The UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar. Titled “Remembering the UpStairs Lounge: The USA’s Largest LGBT Massacre Happened 40 Years Ago Today,” the blogger related the horrific story of the arson attack on the bar in gripping, well-crafted prose:
Just before 8:00 [PM], the doorbell rang insistently. To answer it, you had to unlock a steel door that opened onto a flight of stairs leading down to the ground floor. Bartender Buddy Rasmussen, expecting a taxi driver, asked his friend Luther Boggs to let the man in. Perhaps Boggs, after he pulled the door open, had just enough time to smell the Ronsonol lighter fluid that the attacker of the UpStairs Lounge had sprayed on the steps. In the next instant, he found himself in unimaginable pain as the fireball exploded, pushing upward and into the bar.
The ensuing 15 minutes were the most horrific that any of the 65 or so customers had ever endured — full of flames, smoke, panic, breaking glass, and screams.
[Metropolitan Community Church] assistant pastor George “Mitch” Mitchell escaped, but soon returned to try to rescue his boyfriend, Louis Broussard. Both died in the fire, their bodies clinging together in death, like a scene from the aftermath of Pompeii.
I had never heard of this event, and immediately shared it with friends on Facebook, saying:
Perhaps we can call for a pause in the culture war and observe a moment of silence to remember, and to pray the dead.
Then I went back to digging into the story.
Deep down in the text, the blogger notes that there was a suspect to the crime (whom the blogger describes as “an itinerant troublemaker with known mental problems”), but that he was never charged. The suspect acknowledged responsibility on multiple occasions, and later committed suicide. Wanting to know more, I looked up the case on Wikipedia. And that is where I found this information:
The official investigation failed to yield any convictions. The only suspect arrested for the attack was Rodger Dale Nunez, a local hustler and troublemaker who had been ejected from the bar earlier in the evening after fighting with another customer. Nunez had been diagnosed with “conversion hysteria” in 1970 and had visited numerous psychiatric clinics. After his arrest, Nunez escaped from psychiatric custody and was never picked up again by police, despite frequent appearances in the French Quarter. A friend later told investigators that Nunez confessed on at least four occasions to starting the fire (emphasis added).
The initial blog post shaded this incident in such a way that readers were left with the impression that the attack was a homophobic pogrom carried out with malice against LGBT people martyred for their sexual orientation. The reality was that the fire may well have been started by a mentally-ill patron of the bar as revenge for being ejected from the premises earlier that day. And, in fact, he may not even have intended anything more than malicious mischief and vandalism since the Wikipedia article notes that “[Nunez] did not realize, he claimed, that the whole place would go up in flames.”
Of course, there is plenty in the story of the UpStairs Lounge to mourn over and to be enraged about. The case has never been solved, and the reaction to the event at the time ranged from apathetic (the Archdiocese of New Orleans did not issue a statement of mourning at the loss of life until 2013) to homophobic (talk-radio hosts made disgusting jokes about the tragedy the day after the fire).
But what cannot be denied is that a terrible story in its own right had been shaded by the blogger in a way that manipulated public opinion. The result? In the year since it was originally published, that blog post has drawn over 900 comments and is currently ranked at number one out of three million results for anyone who types “UpStairs Lounge” into the Google search engine.
Lest you think only those bloggers seeking to draw attention to LGBT rights will misuse rhetoric to manipulate readers, let’s look at another example I came across recently. This one is from the Facebook page of a Catholic priest who is prominent in the pro-life movement. He, or possibly a staff member given responsibility for maintaining his Facebook page, posted this quote without explanation or context:
“In her book Pagan Meditations, Ginette Paris describes #abortion as an essentially religious act, a sacred sacrifice to Artemis. ‘One aborts an impossible #love,’ she writes, ‘not a hatred.’ In her new book, The Sacrament of Abortion, Paris explains further that if we saw abortion as a sacred ritual, it would restore to the act a sense of the sanctity of #life” —Brenda Peterson, October 1993 issue of New Age Journal, “Sister Against Sister,” p.66.
(Nota bene: The hashtags are code that uploads the status update into social media feeds dedicated to those topics. It is a means of drawing in readers to the status update.)
I commented on Facebook that this is “the only time you’ll see a Catholic priest take seriously the writings of a neo-pagan. This is the kind of rhetoric that tempts me to despair for the future of the pro-life movement as an agent for social change.”
When a friend asked me to elaborate I said, “[The priest is] making the point—one often made by [a once-prominent fellow culture-warrior priest]—that abortion is ‘the sacrament of the devil.’ It’s the kind of tactic that appeals to the converted and convinces everyone else that pro-lifers are nuts.”
That friend asked if we should proclaim uncomfortable truths, even when the world thinks we’re nuts. I responded:
Sure we should. But we have not yet established that abortion is a “sacrament of the devil.” What it is at this point is inflammatory rhetoric aimed at demonizing the opposition. Look, I’ve been pro-life since the day I understood what abortion is. That doesn’t mean that all is fair, even from a rhetorical standpoint, in the war to end legalized abortion.
In my opinion, if we have a social media platform, and especially if we have one that has built up an audience, we have a responsibility to avoid sensationalism. We have a responsibility to present the story we want to comment on with fairness and accuracy, and to avoid overstating our case.
Sensationalism brings in readers, no doubt. But accuracy, even when the truth does not make us look good, keeps readers and earns the respect of those readers who disagree with our position.
It must be said that many bloggers do seek to serve the truth and do not consciously seek out sensationalism for the sake of building an audience or manipulating truth to serve agendas. But regardless of intentions, sensationalism and manipulation happen. Here are some tips for avoiding temptation to enlarge upon the truth in a way that is favorable to our cause:
Read source material carefully. There are bloggers who seem to notice an alarming headline on the Internet and repost it to their own page three seconds later. You must take the time to painstakingly read and fully understand before you create your own post on the subject.
Do not use fellow bloggers as news sources. Merely linking to or repackaging a fellow blogger’s summary of a situation is fraught with danger (as I learned in the case of the UpStairs Lounge tragedy). Your fellow blogger may be a conscientious person, but he may not have the same scruples you should develop for presenting a reliable account of an event. Instead, go to the blogger’s sources and read through the material he used to create his account. If he cites sources that are difficult to find on the Internet, do your own digging on the story. In the UpStairs Lounge case, I simply turned to Wikipedia.
Be willing to call your own to account. For example, if a fellow pro-lifer is doing damage to the cause for life by engaging in unfair or wrongheaded tactics, say so. Admitting when your “side” is wrong disarms your opposition. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told by pro-choice friends, “Thank you for saying so!” when I have questioned certain tactics of fellow pro-lifers. If pro-choicers see pro-lifers questioning their own, perhaps pro-choicers too will be inspired to question the tactics engaged in by their own.
Admit when you are wrong. It is all too easy to delete a post in which you have erred. And sometimes deleting is helpful if the post is needlessly inflammatory. But if the error only makes you look foolish, rather than delete the post you could add an update admitting your mistake. Very few people these days ever seem to admit when they have done wrong. But those who do say, “You are right, I was wrong,” earn nearly universal respect and good will. If nothing else, it tends to end arguments, because who is going to argue with being told he is right?
Seek truth, not right. Anyone can be right sometimes. It takes no special skill to be right, and those who care only about being right usually turn off everyone else. But seeking truth is a cooperative effort, something Benedict XVI pointed to in his personal motto, Coopertores veritatis (“Fellow workers in the truth,” cf. 3 John 1:8). When we seek truth, we naturally draw others with us on the journey. And isn’t that what apologists should be called to do?
Blogging can be a lot of fun, and there is certainly nothing wrong with wanting notice for the hard work put into maintaining a blog and creating content for readers. But notice always has to be kept in perspective and cannot be pursued for its own sake. The primary end should be to contribute to understanding. In a blog post I wrote for the Catholic Answers Blog on effective rebuttals in argumentation, I closed the post this way:
Stephen R. Covey, the late educator and motivational guru who wrote The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, once observed that “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” The same holds true in all other forms of human communication. . . . Many people do not read . . . with the intent to understand; they read . . . with the intent to reply. But you cannot effectively reply until you first understand.