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---------------------------------------------------The Internet and Social Media’s Effect on Western Monotheisms and Their Followers-------------------------------------------------
It is hard enough trying to save someone’s soul. For some modern religious Internet users, they are attempting to accomplish this goal in 140 characters or less. Twitter, with its short microblogging interface, is allowing the evangelical Christian to reach out with short bursts of inspiration. Facebook updates about Qur’anic verses also have taken on new meaning for those who hold Islam central to their lives. Even online dating services are a click away for Orthodox Jews who want to keep everything digital yet kosher. Western monotheistic traditions and their people have evolved within this new online environment. For the faithful, there is an emphasis and understanding of Internet social media and how it is changing the concept of what religion is today.
The oldest of the three largest Western monotheisms is Judaism, but that has not stopped the modern descendants of Abraham from taking on new coats of many colors when introduced to a medium that not only allows but insists on new ways of thinking about scripture and rabbinic teachings.
According to The Jewish Publication Society, one of the changes that Jews are seeing is how the old rules of neighborhood marketing adapt through social media (Alx, 2009). The official page of the 120 year old organization encourages its readers to make use of Twitter, Facebook, or even blogs. “These media have become three of the top ten referrers of web traffic to our regular website, and our hits have nearly doubled. We’re branding ourselves in the digital world….” The return on the effort put forward on these networks can reach nearly limitless amounts of viewers and produce financial revenues unseen in the days of mid-20 century Brooklyn, nonetheless ancient Israel.
Online protests of any nature—especially those religious and political in nature—grant users a megaphone and a platform unlike before. The Jerusalem Post cites the protests on Nakba Day, the day of remembrance for those displaced from their homes after the nation of Israel was established in 1948 (Losing, 2012). Messages posted on Twitter were “fast, furious and widespread” regarding the notion many who were forced to relocate hold that the establishment of the Jewish state was illegal. In contrast the potential other side of the aisle remained relatively quiet on the matter even though the statistics show that nearly 3.5 million Israelis have Facebook accounts. What seems to be critical to this number and the 1.3 million Twitter users is that the study by Google Israel concluded that a large percentage have the accounts primarily for casual socialization and not much else. The political bug does not seem to have bitten many of them yet. Perhaps this is due in part to the large number of these users who are still quite young, teens and pre-teens. Another factor that may have had some impact on why so few chose to respond to the online protests is that these protests were mostly in English, but Israelis tend to socialize online in Hebrew.
Despite what may seem like a one-sided fight, the Israel Defense Force, or IDF, wants the nation’s people to stand in the face of challenge. The IDF is not talking necessarily about those it wants to enlist on the ground: the military establishment wants to enlist soldiers who will fight from behind the battle shield that is their computer monitor (Want, 2012). A bulwark of bits and bandwidth is the bunker behind which these online duties will be carried out, and what is the bait the IDF will use to attract these ranks? It plans to pay its loyalists in points through a videogame-like social media application. Simply surfing the web and spreading positive information about the IDF allows the users to gain in status and title eventually leveling up to the top tier. The military encourages those involved to post links, pictures, or anything else that sheds a good light on Israel through their Facebook pages, Twitter feeds, and anywhere else they choose. These acts of digital diplomacy will not be without their challengers, because the number of online critics of Israel is growing to staggering amounts. Many online campaigns are taking to task the IDF’s negative actions, so the game’s object and ultimate goal is to remedy or reverse Israel’s tarnished image to the dissenters.
Some Jews are choosing to face a more personal war though. Even though a civil divorce can be granted, some of the more traditional Jewish beliefs state that religious marriages can end only if the husband signs the papers. It is called a get, and a man in South Florida is refusing to wave the white flag to his estranged wife (Solomon, 2012). That is where Facebook and Twitter come in to the mix. There is a concerted online effort on the part of those supporting the wife’s wishes for the get. Pressure through the form of updates or tweets are encouraging fellow Jews to shun the husband, to maybe even harass him until he decides that the social media attacks are no longer worth it and grants his wife’s wishes. It is an interesting development on a long-held tradition now facing modern circumstances, and even professors of Jewish law do not know quite how to respond.
Rabbi Joel Roth believes that these coercive tactics online might eventually render the divorce invalid even if it is initially granted. The belief in this case is that the husband must come to the decision on his own. There is not yet a well-established understanding of how this type of situation and potential outcome should be viewed, and changing Jewish law is not an easy feat to accomplish. What some hope may come from all of this is that a new interpretation of the rules of a get are instituted, so future couples living the same unfortunate story can experience a much more expedient resolution. As of yet, the husband still wants his wife back.
The Curators of Sweden, the organization that officially controls Sweden’s Twitter account, each week hands over the reins to a different Swedish citizen. This program consists of the Swedish Institute and VisitSweden, two members of the NSU, a national board for the promotion of Sweden. This June, the country’s Twitter account’s helm was taken by the chosen nominee, Sonja Abrahamsson, who posted somewhat controversial comments about the Jewish people (Tweeter, 2012). Abrahamsson, a single mother of two from eastern Sweden, thinks of herself as “low educated,” and tweeted that she just wanted people familiar with the subject matter of Jewish race relations and traditions to explain some things to her. Some of her questions and comments consisted of “What’s the fuzz with Jews” and “even the Nazis couldn’t tell the difference [between the Jews’ looks and other people’s].” At first, some responders saw these comments as negative or overstepping good taste, and they responded with sarcastic comments that suggested the feed was a “PR embarrassment” for example. However, many did not necessarily see anything inherently bad-intentioned with the remarks and queries of the curator. Some people viewed this event as a way to start answering the questions posed and provide links for her to follow that might sate her curiosity. “Once I asked a co-worker what a jew is. He was ‘part jew’, whatever that means. He’s like ‘uuuuh… jews are.. uh.. well educated..?’”Abrahammson apologized if anyone found her remarks offensive, but she claimed once again that she was just looking for some answers. Eventually, VisitSweeden addressed the scenario by stating that it had found nothing inherently racist about Abrahamsson’s posts, and the posts would stay, even the post where she joked about potentially knowing a Jew from somebody else because of the orthopraxy of circumcision.
But what does orthopraxy say of online dating services? Unfortunately, nothing is available in the traditional teachings specifically concerning courting correctly electronically. FaceGlat.com, a digital dating site for the more conservative Jews, is choosing to tackle the ordeal head on: FaceGlat concerns itself with meeting the requirements of its base by creating a program over the Web that attempts to best observe the old laws of relationships with the new interactions that now occur in this current medium (Dias, 2011). One of the particulars of the service is that it separates the sexes into different networks. Unlike Facebook which permits both men and women into the same types of categories, FaceGlat makes sure to filter that union. In addition, questionable ads, comments, pictures, and the like are weeded out making the application proper as possible and still relevant for wooers. It is a place for the faithful-seeking-faithful to facilitate their beliefs with less fear of succumbing to transgression. After all, glatt means “highly kosher.”
The observant Jew does not need to stop there when it comes to online interactions from the angle of doing the right thing. The Sabbath is the day of rest, and it is important to many Jewish practitioners that it remains so. Is posting a tweet between Friday evening and Saturday evening considered work and therefore prohibited? Some observers would think so, and Jews are finding ways to still update their “friends” and “followers” on a daily basis without having to break these long-held rules. Tools such as HootSuite and TweetDeck allow users to schedule posts for a future time (Vahab, 2012, ¶ 2). That means that messages an account wants posted on the Sabbath can follow the designed itinerary that HootSuite and TweetDeck allow users to create; therefore, no lighting lanterns and no tweets or updates except those that are planned in advance. The machine does the work, and everyone seems OK with that. What some question as ultimately more important is the posting of Twitter updates or Facebook statuses on any day when it comes to the matter of teaching Judaism.
Rabbi Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute believes Judaism, as a religion, is not “Twitter-able” (Vahab, 2012, ¶7). According to him, the time and commitment the pious Jew needs to elaborate the belief system does not fit into a small update. The content is too varied and too multi-layered to be justifiably explained within such a limited space. The rabbi wants to see the sights set “higher and deeper,” and he believes that to truly understand Judaism, one has to commit time and thought. Hartman believes that Twitter feeds accomplish only an oversimplification of the ancient texts and interpretations. What the rabbi may not know—but would probably be happy to hear—is that hyperlinks are easily posted in Twitter messages as well: these links can simply direct the reader to more thorough lessons. It seems even the rabbi, or teacher, needs a little schooling when it comes to providing a mode for correct practices of Judaism in the milieu of this technology.
Not only do the Jews and Christians share many beliefs and traditions, they share a number of the same questions when it comes to social media and the Internet. Some major differences present themselves as well though. One of the motivating factors for the faithful in Christ is to follow what Jesus taught. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus commanded his followers to go out into the world and bring others His message of salvation. If the original 12 disciples could have preached to the masses through blog posts or status updates like “Remember to always seek God’s answers through prayer, and, hey, check out this video of Jesus walking on water! lol,” the liturgy could have been seen by many more multitudes. Perhaps even Peter could let far more than “seventy times seven” know that he had forgiven them, and those forgiven could approve with a “like.” Just the same as with Judaism, Christianity is adjusting its doctrinal parameters in order to fulfill the precepts set forth within the newest contexts of technology.
Billy Graham is one of the most famous protestant ministers alive today. His ministry has reached thousands of people across many countries. One of the ways the organization accomplished this early on was through the use of television and radio evangelism. TV was still a fairly new medium that was not completely understood in terms of how it fit into the Christian call to spread the Gospel. Billy Graham Ministries, or BGM, grasped the concept of the sheer number of people who could be reached through these airwaves and adopted the new concept with open arms especially after the results started pouring in. BGM knows the potential that the Internet has for reaching the “lost,” and it is now employing a new search engine algorithm that directs those with life’s questions to the site called PeaceWithGod.net (Billy, 2012). Those who find themselves viewing the page can choose to watch the videos or read the texts that deal in large with the message that eternal life is obtainable through Jesus.
BGM is not the only big name to step up to the plate of utilizing technology to attract potential believers. CircleBuilder.com from CEO Howard Brown, a veteran of Silicon Valley and AT&T’s corporate world, plans to lure users in by promising much of positive aspects of open social media sources like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkdIN, but the new religious and family-friendly centered CircleBuilder adds the extra features that private applications can provide such as increased moderation and exclusive, branded communities (CircleBuilder.com, 2012). Many of these communities are important to those who are too sick or old to leave their homes. They can stay indoors and still feel part of a like-minded group of people.
Truli.net is another major player setting its sights on social media within the paradigms of fresh perspectives on religion today (Truli, 2012). Christians have this hub they can access that culminates various communities and content. Truli was founded by former CEO and co-founder of Telepictures Corp, Michael Jay Solomon, and Mr. Solomon has big plans for his new online connected endeavor. Not only will users be able to interact with others through the network, they will possess the ability ask question of major ministries. Even live chat during services is a feature open to those who are interested. This new type of socialization offers a chance to engage the church and its communities in ways not feasible in previous years.
Christ Fellowship church in McKinney, Texas is addressing issues as well including the ones that affect those who cannot make it to services on Sunday. What the church as chosen to do is embrace Internet social media as a means for the ecclesiast to keep the messages current and free flowing to those who see the messages solely online (Grossman, 2012). Worship services can be downloaded straight from the church’s Facebook page, and when even Pope Benedict XVI’s acknowledges the importance of a Christian presence online, you know it has become a major consideration to the clergy: the Vatican runs a Web TV channel and a Twitter account. The church is readily accepting of the new technology, but many inside still realize that the spectrum of social media is an enhancement and, when possible, not a replacement.
Keep in mind that online efforts to reach seekers of spirituality do not have to originate from large church organizations or multi-million dollar companies. Sister Elizabeth Pio, a dedicated nun who emphasizes the importance of prayer, hospitality, and helping others, has taken her vows to the online realm through a Twitter account she began that represents her and her sisterhood (Nun, 2012). Sister Pio has over 1,290 followers who gain insight and illumination through her daily posts, and she believes that she is not so “behind the times.” The nun holds to her feelings on communication about God: she does not want any means to spread her message to be “ignored.” Sister Pio tweeted, “We hope Twitter makes conversations [between people] of differing views accessible…,” and she claims that “Non-Christians” are helping an understanding be reached along the way as well.
Recently, the Christian-run company, Chick-fil-A, has been in the news. President and COO, Dan T. Cathy remarked in an interview that he was “guilty as charged” for supporting traditional views on the family (Starkey, 2012). Not much came from these comments initially, but later on, Cathy expanded on some of those views. He appeared on the Ken Coleman Radio show where Cathy stated, “I think we are inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him [sic] and say, ‘We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.’ I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about.”
When the news of his statements started making the rounds, Facebook and Twitter as well as other social media outlets started responding. The company was taking such a beating online that Dan Cathy felt it necessary to tweet that Chick-fil-A was “about great food, great service, and genuine hospitality for all.” Some perceived this message as a PR stunt, and one Twitter user felt compelled to respond, adding, “…and discriminating against an entire group of people too.”
What should be apparent is that going out and spreading the messages they believe in is important to Christians whether that method is the old-fashioned door to door exercise elders of the Church of Latter Day Saints have employed for years or the new, brief updates on Facebook that give a small message of hope. Rev. Michael White, author of Digital Evangelism: You Can Do It, Too!, reminded those posting online with the hopes of converting the masses that Internet communication can be “effective as a face-to-face connection;” however, he remained reticent about how much of an impact it truly has as far as proper communication is concerned (Rosen-Malina, 2009). Rev. White stresses that email and instant messaging usually express one’s feelings correctly, but often times readers will misinterpret the writer’s tone or intention. This is one of the downsides of online social interaction and evangelism: you may just push away those you are trying to invite in. Some parishioners feel reluctant to elucidate on their beliefs for fear of being attacked or offending someone, so many turn to websites like Tangle.com, a Christian alternative to Youtube.com. Others choose Gospelr.com, the likewise equivalent of Twitter, but how many new converts can they make in those places?
For hundreds of years, many Muslims have found peace through surrender. Islam means “surrender” or “submission” and is based on the Arabic letter combination of l-s-m which denotes “peace.” Islam is one of the fastest growing major religions on Earth, and with that growth come a myriad of cultures and traditions to assimilate. As you might see today, disagreements not only with Islam but within Islam make the headlines from the New York Times to Al Jazeera, and many of the faithful are fighting to remind others that their belief is one founded on charity and acceptance.
Indonesia is a country of 200 million Muslims. Attacks on Islam, either in person or online, are against the doctrinal teachings, and, therefore, against some countries’ laws (Collier, 2012). Alexander Aan, a thirty year old citizen of Indonesia, was recently sentenced to 30 months in prison for posting anti-Islamic and atheist messages to Facebook. From his account, Aan had been posting sentiments to a group which readily identified themselves as nonbelievers: one of the remarks Aan left was “God doesn’t exist.” He was also known to share “heretical” pictures of Muhammad. For example, Aan posted one cartoon of the prophet engaged in sex with a servant. Aan’s supporters have started an online petition calling for his release, and the group is hoping to remind President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of his public speech where he said that he wanted Indonesia to “project the virtue of moderate Islam throughout the Muslim world.” In America today, this is the message that scores of Muhammad’s followers also want to project.
Not just Indonesia is taking a stand on “offensive” tweets and updates. The Shiite majority’s online presence in Bahrain has been shut down for posting messages of protest. Rights activist, Nabeel Rajab, has been jailed for three months for speaking out against the leadership which is seen in this case as oppositional to Islamic teachings (Nabeel, 2012); his appeal is still pending. Brian Dooley, a Human Rights First representative, said, “Despite promise after promise from the Bahrain authorities that people would no longer be prosecuted for peacefully expressing their views, Rajab is in prison for exactly that.”
In Burma, political and religious unrest is nothing new, but what is unusual about the circumstances occurring in the country presently is the means by which this uprising is facilitated in social media (Hindstrom, 2012). The Rohingya Muslims of the country are considered “illegal Bengali immigrants” by much of the public and group is officially unrecognized by the government. The faction is denied citizenship and has been called “liars” on Twitter by certain pro-democracy groups hoping to see the Muslims they feel are threats expelled from their country. Another Twitter user joined in the maltreatment of the Rohingya calling for the account’s followers to “kill” all the Kalar (a racial slur referring to the group). Much of the sectarian violence is being instigated by the Buddhists populace who fear the damage the Rohingya might cause to the shaky democracy of the region, and so far dozens have been killed and hundreds of homes have been destroyed. The United Nations considers the Rohingya one of the world’s most persecuted groups, but so few know of their situation, because, in part, online campaigns now threaten to attack any news organizations that cover the situation of the Rohingya (Internet, 2012). Both the English and Burmese websites of The Democratic Voice of Burma have been hacked by the political group, Blink. Phil Robertson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch sees the plight the Muslim group is suffering through these attacks, online and on the ground, as “a recipe for disaster,” because the Burmese people are being fed the propaganda at an unprecedented rate.
On the contrary next door in India, anti-Islamic sentiments posted to Facebook are largely coming under fire by certain government representatives such as the Samjwadi Party which is headed up by Mulayam Singh Yadav (Mulayam, 2012). A party spokesman issued a statement that these updates may lead to “communal strife, and action should be taken immediately.” Mulayam Singh has stated his alarm with the situation by insinuating that the country’s “fabric” could become unwound. Perhaps he sees the future of India by learning from the mistakes of the present goings-on of his neighbor to the east, Burma.
Some Muslim groups do go on the offensive though and garner a sizable influence through the Internet and social media, and the Salafi Islamist, a puritanical sect of devout members of Islam, have taken to Twitter and other online applications to enforce their interpretation of the religion (Westall, 2012). Unlike some of their counterparts, the Salafi movement utilizes more sophisticated methods than simply preaching on the square. Waleed al-Tabtabie has more than 198,000 followers on Twitter that he can potentially rally to whatever call he makes. The latest of these objections was to a youth forum on politics and religion held in Kuwait. In the recent past, the group has been behind initiatives that proposed the death penalty for those who insult the Prophet Muhammad through social media. This organization’s leadership comprises only men, and according to their strict doctrine, women’s place is not in these online affairs of politics.
Then what are so many Muslim women doing on the Web? According to Media Badger, the Internet media analysis group, 63 percent of Islamic participants online are female, and they engage each other and non-Muslims constantly in social media settings often discussing their understanding of scripture and what Islam teaches about gender roles (Muslim, 2011). The main age group is those consisting of ages 20 to 35. This number probably should not be surprising when compared to other groups.
Almost every woman I talk to online who follows Islam and mentions her age falls between these numbers, and she is almost always respectful. After all, Media Badger claims that Muslim women are 27 percent more likely to answer questions than their male counterparts while online and 62 percent more likely to keep dialogue open and positive. In the past, much of the discourse these women are engaging in might not have been tolerated, but the newfound freedom that many Muslim women are experiencing is allowing them to express themselves without fear of retribution. However, some fundamentalist traditions are opposed to this new active, online existence for women and have strong antagonism for the trend; they believe it must be stopped. These women are also facing harsh criticism from anti-Islamic groups, especially in the West. Criticisms of Muslim teachings often come to the fore when these women choose to engage their peers in online forums or topics of discussion. The burka is often the target of this criticism, and quite a lot of the women who wear them claim that it is their choice and what they want to do.
Osama Bin Laden and his followers successfully attacked the U.S. in 2001. For years afterward, Bin Laden remained in hiding, and for many of us, it seemed we might never capture or kill him. All of that changed last year when the raid on the terrorist conducted by U.S. military ended in Bin Laden’s death. One of the most interesting facets of the events there in Abbottabad, Pakistan is that they were being live-tweeted from the “copter crash” to the “window shaking” booms of explosions (Olivarez-Giles, 2011). The two Twitter users who were independently documenting the events were Sohaib Athar and Mohsin Shah. Just after 1 a.m. the strike began. Both men knew what they were hearing was some form of an attack, but on whom and for what reason, they remained unaware until the next morning when they awoke to find themselves Internet celebrities. Shah did not find out what event had actually just occurred before heading to bed. The next day, hours later, he heard what he had been witness to and posted, “Oh. My. God. Just woke up after a long lazy sleep to the news that Bin Laden was killed in the attack I was tweeting last night.” Likewise, the following day Athar wrote, “Uh oh, now I’m the guy who live blogged the Osama raid without knowing it.”
Twitter had inside access that no news organization could land. In fact, the U.S. did not share this intelligence and planning with anyone including Pakistan. Seal Team Six was able to bring some justice for the nearly 3000 who died almost eleven years ago due to dangerous, radical, religious extremism, but how much of this information of the raid would we have been privy to? Surely many of the details of the raid divulged in the Tweets of Shah and Athar would have been kept secret. It is these types of changes that social media is offering the general public. We are redefining how we interact. We are knowing the news, whether it is the Gospel type or the journalistic type, quicker and more easily than ever before.
The world is constantly changing and at a breakneck speed. In countries around the planet, turmoil is ever present, and the methods organizations and individuals are applying are more varied and in some ways more powerful than anything previously. Hatred and condemnation still govern certain “religious” groups such as the KKK here in the U.S. and abroad with sects of Islam like Al-Qaeda. These ideas can lead to strife and prejudice, but what makes now so unique is that the dissemination is circulating faster and to greater numbers. Controlling these promulgated, expeditious messages is becoming a thing of the past, but certain powers are still attempting to find ways of exerting their clout in stopping the spread.
However, with all the bad, there is still so much good, and followers of all the major Western religions are setting up shop online. From Jewish teaching and dating sites to Christian missionary and charity work and to Muslim communities who are discussing everything from fashion to coming out in defense of democracy and the rights of their people, the social media that now engulfs our lives gives them a voice. Those who were silenced in the past and those who just had more to say now have a platform from which they can espouse every attitude regardless of what those in power might want. Online communities like Facebook and Twitter are bringing people of all creeds together to share stories, memories, and dreams for the future. As people of one religion are exposed to those of other beliefs, or lack thereof, mutual understanding and a sense of empathy unparalleled to anything in the past are progressing forward. These religious traditions and their people do not have to agree, but for the first time in history for so many of those people, they can truly learn what others have to say.
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