Westboro Baptist, social media and the power of compassion

It takes approximately 10 seconds to consult a leading search engine and find out some of the most common articles about any given subject. So when writing an article about social media, I punched in the words, "social media to blame for..." By this time, the auto complete suggestion box had done its work and showed me the most likely ways in which my search might be completed. Apparently, I'm most likely to suspect that social media is to blame for... riots, bullying and 'the rise in narcissism.' Quite a charge sheet already.

That's before we even consult the rest of the first page of search results. Glancing down the list, there are articles assessing whether social media is to blame for such diverse ills as disloyalty, divorce, eating disorders, and the Palestine/Israel conflict. At this point you'd be well within your rights to ask whether divorce and conflict in the Middle East hadn't been around for quite a long time before we all became glued to Khloe Kardashian's Instagram posts.

Westboro BaptistReuters

Obviously, it's churlish to suggest that social media hasn't had some malign impact. It evidently has. The culture of so-called cyber-bullying, as well as cyber-shaming, along with related issues such as pressure to share explicit images shows that there is (as with any neutral tool) a dark underbelly to social media.

But is it all bad? Absolutely not. There are the obvious social uses for social media: the way Facebook allows us to keep in touch with far-flung friends and family or the way Twitter breaks down barriers between well-known figures and their audiences.

But there are other, far more radical ways in which the social media revolution is having a positive impact. This week there was a fascinating piece in the New Yorker, which looked at the story of Megan Phelps-Roper. Born and brought up in the extremist Westboro Baptist church, by the time she was old enough to walk, she was holding hate-filled signs and accompanying baying mobs throwing abuse at the funerals of US soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Westboro's infamy is out of proportion with its size – there are thought to be fewer than 50 members of the obsessive cult – but it has a high media profile for a reason. Namely its extreme hatred towards any group it perceives to have any association with gay people.

The usual strategy that has been employed by opponents of Westboro has been to attempt to drown their pickets out, using motorbikes for example, or to shout them down and ridicule them. So far this has proved completely unsuccessful at deterring them from protesting.

In a similar way, every utterance from any Westboro member on social media is met by waves of ridicule, vitriol and contempt. Their horrific tweets are met by response after response in a pointless war of attrition. Names are called, dreadful things are said, and everyone gets up the day after and does it again.

This is where Phelps-Roper's story is so interesting. Some on Twitter took a different tack with her. Instead of shouting her down and attempting to drown out her hatred with layers of ridicule, they actually listened to her and even tried to empathise with a young woman who was clearly the victim of a deeply abusive cult environment. "I just really liked him," she said of one interlocutor. "He seemed to genuinely like people and care about people, and that resonated with me."

Slowly and surely over the course of a number of years, her links to the outside world grew to the point that she decided to leave the clutches of Westboro. This gut-wrenching decision to leave behind the only institution she's ever fully believed in was obviously traumatic. Again, social media helped her find a way through. After leaving she tweeted, "What we can do is try to find a better way to live from here on." As the article recalls, tweets of encouragement and praise poured in. "I expected a lot more people to be unforgiving," she said.

This heartening story speaks volumes about the power of connection that's facilitated by social media. Of course it's a tool which can be used to oppress and disenfranchise people. But it's also a method of communication that allows unprecedented connection between people of vastly different backgrounds. Instead of knee-jerk criticism and self-righteous shouting, a number of people took the time to get to know the real Megan Phelps-Roper, and played a part in changing her life.

The brilliant singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams recent album opens with a song called 'Compassion,' (which captures perfectly the way in which Jesus interacted with many who seemed angry and hostile). In it, she sings, "Have compassion for everyone you meet, Even if they don't want it. What seems conceit is always a sign... of things no ears have heard... things no eyes have seen. You do not know, what wars are going on, down there where the spirit meets the bone." It's spellbinding.

I'm going to try to remember this next time I'm poised over the send button, about to send something utterly right, but maybe not ultimately helpful.