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4 Spiritual Laws for Christian Online Engagement

April 17th, 2024 | 4 min. read

By Ian Harber


In a recent episode of his podcast, Plain English, Derek Thompson detailed what he calls “The 4 Dark Laws of Online Engagement.” They are:

  1. Negativity bias drives headline clicks – The biggest bias in news is the bad news bias. People are significantly more likely to click negative headlines than positive ones, which incentivizes outlets to produce more negative stories than positive ones.

  2. Extreme opinions drive in-group sharing – The most extreme content gets the most shares, and it serves to build an in-group identity. People want to feel a connection with a group of people and are willing to become more and more extreme to achieve that identity.

  3. Out-group animosity drives engagement – The extreme opinions that go viral usually aren’t just about someone’s Star Wars ranking; it’s usually an attack that is targeted at someone in the out-group. Taking shots at people who disagree with you is a surefire way to drive engagement and build a platform.

  4. "Moral-emotional" language goes viral – Highly emotionally arousing language always gets more shares than low-arousal rational language. The way to get people’s attention is to trigger their basest emotions to stir moral outrage.

You could look at these four Dark Laws as a sort of playbook for nearly every political pundit, religious watchdog, and disruptive troll on the internet. If you want to build the biggest platform possible, these are the steps you take. You can see these laws in effect from people on both ends of the spectrum and everything in between. These are the people who take something that is generally not great and stir up moral outrage about it, the people who can’t simply disagree and make their case but must cancel you over the disagreement.

The problem for us as Christians is that every single one of these Dark Laws of Online Engagement goes against the character we are called to embody. Nowhere in scripture are Christians called to solidify in-group status by projecting moral-emotional animosity toward out-group people through slanderous negativity. This is the playbook of graceless shock jock fundamentalists, not gracious followers of Jesus.

As Christians, whether we’re content creators or casual posters, it’s incumbent on us to reject these Dark Laws of Online Engagement. We operate online under a different law: the Law of the Spirit. That law is a law of love, joy, and peace. Not hate, cynicism, and outrage.

So, in response to the 4 Dark Laws of Online Engagement, I want to propose another way of engaging online: The 4 Spiritual Laws of Christian Online Engagement.

  1. Drive clicks to peace – As Paul wrote in Romans 12:18, “If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

    A lot of content online is people causing dissension in settings they aren’t a part of. Rather than allow local communities to handle situations, keyboard warriors decide they will be the ones to hold someone accountable. Instead, we should do everything in our power to live peaceably with everyone, even through the content that we create.

  2. Drive opinions to reasonableness and gentleness – Paul also wrote in Philippians 4:5-6, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

    That translation is the English Standard Version. Other translations say, “Let your gentleness….” I like both translations. Our opinions online should be both reasonable and gentle. We don’t need to be extreme to drive engagement. We should be reasonable instead of rash and gentle instead of outrageous.

  3. Drive engagement to enemy-love – Turning to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, he taught us, “You have heard that it was said, Love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven. For he causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward will you have?” (Matthew 5:43-46).

    It’s easy for us to generate content that creates animosity toward those in the out-group. There might be no easier way to gain a large following than this. But Jesus calls us to love our enemies, to love those who are in the out-group and to pray for those who show animosity toward us. Our content—even our critiques—should show that we genuinely love the people we would consider our enemy or who consider us their enemy.

  4. Evaluate everything spiritually – Finally, Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 2:13-16, “We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, explaining spiritual things to spiritual people. But the person without the Spirit does not receive what comes from God’s Spirit, because it is foolishness to him; he is not able to understand it since it is evaluated spiritually. The spiritual person, however, can evaluate everything, and yet he himself cannot be evaluated by anyone. For who has known the Lord’s mind, that he may instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ.”

    Our primary evaluation of a story isn’t through the moral-emotional language of the headline or the person sharing the story. We evaluate the content we see spiritually, with the mind of Christ. We hold it up to scripture and ask where it aligns and where it doesn’t. We submit it to the community and ask for other people’s input. We practice the Christian virtues of patience, gentleness, and being slow to anger when we evaluate content. Christians don’t approach information the same way the world does. We do so by the Spirit.

Is this a slight oversimplification? Yes. But it makes no sense when Christians play right into the playbook of the Dark Laws of Online Engagement. We are called to be the light, not play in the dark. Pushing back against online darkness means refusing to play by the rules of engagement that the algorithms set for us. We need new laws of online engagement. Laws that reveal the True Law of the universe—the Law of Love.

Ian Harber

Ian is a marketing manager at Endeavor and is a digital marketing practitioner with 10 years of experience. He has written about faith and technology, deconstruction and reconstruction for The Gospel Coalition and Mere Orthodoxy as well as appearing on podcasts such as Reconstructing Faith, The Alisa Childers Podcast, Love Thy Neighborhood, The Living Room Disciple, Everything Just Changed, and more. Additionally, Ian has contributed to the book, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (TGC, 2021) and is the author of an upcoming a forthcoming book about deconstruction with InterVarsity Press (2024). Ian lives in Denton, Texas with his wife, Katie, and son, Ezra and is a member at The Village Church Denton.

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