In advance of the upcoming conference, Digital Hope: Reclaiming the Online Public Square, on October 2, 2021 at Biola University, Tim is joined by Dr. Joy Qualls (Associate Dean of Communication Studies at Biola University) to discuss the pains and pressures of online incivility and whether we can be civil in online discourse. Tim and Joy highlights challenges of online discourse and discuss some strategies for online engagement, and they provide a taste of topics and issues that will be covered by speakers at the conference. The Digital Hope conference is free and will be livestreamed. For more details visit winsomeconviction.com and click on the Events tab.
Joy Qualls: We cannot be authentic and honest if we only talk about social media as if we are passive recipients of these things. That's the other element of this that's super important.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a Professor of Communication at Biola University and the Co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project. A five-year project seeking to reintroduce compassion and civility into our disagreements, both among Christians, but also with those outside the Christian community.
Tim Muehlhoff: Is it possible to really speak truth and do so in love? We leave that that is. But one area we're getting push back, is on the area of online civility, that this is the wild west. I'm amazed how many Christians just simply want to discard it. That it's time to leave. That we can't redeem online communication. We feel differently here at the Winsome Conviction Project.
Tim Muehlhoff: So, we've invited a friend. She is not new to you. Dr. Joy Qualls was brought in on a segment called, Coming Up to Speed on Politics, and we decided to have her back. She is the Associate Dean, Division of Communication in the School of Fine Arts and Communication. Not only is she a speaker, she's also an author. Please check out her book, God Forgive Us for Being Women: Rhetoric, Theology and the Pentecostal Tradition. Dr. Qualls, thank you so much for being back.
Joy Qualls: Hey, Tim, happy to be here with you.
Tim Muehlhoff: Let me mention some statistics, and then you and I can jump in and we'll fix the internet. We got about 25 minutes.
Joy Qualls: Fantastic. If anybody can do it, you and I can.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, maybe we'll we get to global warming at the end.
Joy Qualls: Sure. Hey listen...
Tim Muehlhoff: We'll see how much time we have left. So here are some quotes. The first one is not new to our listeners, but I think it's important to understand that we are in a seminal moment in our country where people are on the same page. And we just need to take advantage of that. In a study last year, 98% of Americans, think about that, in the time we can't agree on anything. Ninety-eight percent of us state that instability is a serious problem, 68% agree that it's reached crisis levels, and 87% of Americans would say, "I don't feel safe sharing my perspective either online or in person."
Tim Muehlhoff: According to another national survey, 68% of respondents said online interaction has been mostly negative and has put a strain on relationships, because of their online communication. And in the course of a normal week, you can expect 5.5 negative online interactions. This isn't just interpersonal communication, managers at Fortune 1,000 firms spend the equivalent of seven weeks a year, dealing with the aftermath of online instability. So Dr. Qualls, I turn to you, and whatever you say, all of us are going to do. So pick your words very carefully.
Joy Qualls: Yeah. Well...
Tim Muehlhoff: But talk to us a little bit about your initial reaction to these statistics.
Joy Qualls: Nothing about them surprises me. I think we're all aware, whether or not we are engaged heavily online, or we are observers or online, I think we are all aware of the challenges of the online environment. So, just to give you a little bit of background in my own space, I have been on Facebook for 13 years now, which feels long to me, but if I were 10 years younger, that's actually a relatively short period of time. I was a late adopter to the Facebook.
Joy Qualls: I have been on Twitter almost as long as that, because I jumped onto Twitter actually early when it was still kind of a one way platform, as opposed to a two way platform, and really recent to Instagram, because Instagram didn't make a lot of sense to me. And I have told students that I'm not getting on anything else.
Joy Qualls: It makes me old. It puts me behind. I understand that. But, managing those three spaces takes up way more time, and you mentioned, both of us are authors. We know the pressure that we feel from publishers to have an online presence and to speak into those spaces. So there is a lot of external pressure to be involved in these spaces. But, when we are involved in them, they don't feel good to us. They don't feel like good interactive spaces.
Joy Qualls: So, I don't think those statistics would surprise anyone regardless of their involvement. The question is, what do we do about it? I've even said, over the 13 years that I've been in these online spaces, it's changed. When I first got on social media, it was fun. It was fun to post an article. See what sort of reaction you would get, positive or negative. Feel like you could sort of banter back and forth with people. And now it feels like you're setting your ideology. You're setting your religious tradition. You're setting up who you are as a person.
Joy Qualls: And the amount of vitriol, not only in the posts themselves, but in the direct messages and in the private messages and my website is connected to my social media posts. So I get emails. We've actually had to turn over responses to authorities in the last year, because of the number of threats, the claims of violence, the encouragement to do harm to myself. It reached a place where we had to work with an organization who I was publishing with, who handled most of it. It just reached a new level.
Joy Qualls: And so then, you do start to wonder, "Do I need to back away from this space?" But I've got to be honest with you, as a communicator, that makes me really angry because that says that I'm giving in then, to the mob, whatever that mob is, that says, "What we want to do is make sure that you stay silent."
Joy Qualls: And so guess what? You're not on here anymore. You've stayed silent. I do take periodic breaks, but I chose to remove all social media from my phone. I don't have anything, no notifications, no apps, no easy to just doom scroll, as it were. Just to give myself a mental health break for 40 days.
Tim Muehlhoff: I'm under the impression, Joy, that we shouldn't abdicate. If I were to say a non-controversial statement such as, Christians need to be in the public square, no one would view that negatively or even disagree. But when secretary Clinton came out a couple years ago and said, "Guess what? The public square is now online." I really agree with that sentiment. So I'm really leery and a little bit surprised how many Christians are saying, "I'm getting off of social media." I would rather have a strategy for getting back on it, but doing it in a way that's a bit different.
Joy Qualls: Yeah. I don't disagree with that. I think it has become what the public square used to be. The challenge is, is it's not a public square. Social media is not publicly owned. It's not publicly funded, and it's not publicly regulated amongst the public. It's the corporate square. So, I think the other thing that we have to keep in mind is that, we are not just citizens engaging when we engage in social media. We are a product being sold.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, that's good.
Joy Qualls: And when you know that, right, that's one of the things I say as a public communicator. I know that this is what is happening, and I am partnering with these companies to market my own public identity, my own writing, my own speaking, my own shaping of my world view and the things that I want to communicate.
Joy Qualls: And so, I'm willing to join my corporate, if you will, my entity, I hate the word personal brand, but the reality is, is that's what it is, to those corporations in order to be able to have the mechanism by which to get my message out.
Joy Qualls: The challenge is, is that my 96-year-old grandma is not out there doing those things. She wants to be able to see pictures of her grandkids. And she wants to be able to see updates about what's happening in her kids' lives, because she doesn't have access to the tools of communication that she had as a young wife and mother at, 98-years-old.
Joy Qualls: She can't hear very well. She doesn't see very well. So television doesn't work for her. It's hard for her to read the newspaper, but she can expand images on her iPad and she can have a headset in and listen to the audio that comes from things. So she can hear me give a sermon or whatever it happens to be.
Joy Qualls: So, the thing is, is that, those two things are intention. There are some people who want to be into social media because it's a social space. It's a space to have access to community you wouldn't have because we are so much more spread apart. But for others of us, it is both a public square, as well as a business entity. And learning how to navigate those things, is where a lot of the tension is.
Tim Muehlhoff: And that's what we do in our Communication Department here at Biola. I would love it if it was just this carefree, fun, show photographs of my vacation. I went on to Facebook because my publisher wanted me to do it. And I found the public side of it was really fun. I'm in contact with people for my college days. That was really enjoyable to me, but you're saying you have to be aware that it's not merely that. We have to teach our students to know, you are being spoken to and guided and shaped, and to at least be aware of that.
Joy Qualls: Yeah. The more things that you share, whether it's about your shopping trip to Nordstrom, or your opinion on the latest public opinion polls with regard to the whoever's in the White House, that's feeding an algorithm that is then feeding you more things like that. Right.
Joy Qualls: Now, let me also just say this, we cannot be authentic and honest if we only talk about social media as if we are passive recipients of these things. That's the other element of this that's super important. Yes, I'm being fed an algorithm of the things that I'm putting out there, right? So, if am sharing a conspiracy theory, guess what's going to show up in my feed? More articles that are about said theory. So, I still have a responsibility as a communicator, to be critical about the things that I'm reading, to ask myself questions about, where did this come from? What might belong in that space? In the same way as if I walked down to...
Joy Qualls: So, I'm a Midwestern girl. Our towns have literal squares in many of them. And if I was to walk down to the end of Main Street in my hometown to the courthouse, and listen to a speaker on the steps of the courthouse, I have that same responsibility. Just because they're standing on the courthouse steps, doesn't mean I automatically have to believe everything that they're saying.
Joy Qualls: But for some reason, we've decided that when our news feed fills up with said stories, that it must be true because I'm seeing it all over my newsfeed. Whereas, if I was listening to the speaker on the steps of the town square, first of all, I'd be like, "Why are you standing on the steps of the town square?"
Joy Qualls: But what are you doing here? What gives you credibility? Why should I believe what you have to say? Thank you for your information. I'm going to check this out. But, we can't simply be passive recipients. This is part of the communication scholarship element of this. Communication is a two-way street with both the sender and the receiver of the communication, holding equal responsibility.
Joy Qualls: Equal responsibility in what we put out there, but so equal responsibility in the way in which we receive that information. It is no longer safe for us to assume that we can just receive information and not be actively involved in how we receive it, but then how we respond to it.
Tim Muehlhoff: Joy, one of the things we're going to cover in this conference, we're going to tackle being a consumer and being aware that you're a consumer. So I love what you said about the algorithms, right? Some people think that this is just weird stuff that's being put upon you, but you're creating the algorithm.
Joy Qualls: You're contributing to it. For sure.
Tim Muehlhoff: You're contributing to the algorithm. That's really good. And I loved another point you said. I want to go back to it, because one of the talks we're going to do at this conference is, Dr. Ariana Molloy is going to talk about the role Sabbath plays in our spirit, literally, as we go online.
Tim Muehlhoff: So unpack just a little bit, your Lent decision, and then how that might help you be a better online communicator choosing to do that during in Lent.
Joy Qualls: There's an old adage attributed to the newspaper business that said, "If it bleeds, it leads," right? So we have long since, been subject to media information that starts with the most controversial, the most out there, the most exotic of anything that it could be, because that attracts our... the day-to-day mundane, even here's what the stock market is doing today, is not nearly as exciting as the 10 car pile up on Five Freeway, right?
Joy Qualls: But if we constantly fed ourselves with only that information, studies have shown that people who watch the local news religiously are more fearful than people who make national news a priority. Why? Because, every story in the first 10 minutes is, robberies homicides, break-ins, problems with the local government. And it feeds that. So one, it's what catches our attention, so that's why they use it. But two, it creates something in us that makes us more fearful.
Joy Qualls: And I find in my own life, that when I turn to social media to feed the space in my life... So whether it's I've had a long day and I just want to do what my grandpa used to do and go hide behind the newspaper for an hour, I hide behind my phone. And all I'm doing is scrolling through things, that I become more anxious. I have a more negative view of the people in my sphere, whatever that sphere is. Now, I will say some of that is, I have 3,000 friends on Facebook, plus, at this point. Partly because I had a policy for a while, where I accepted anybody's friend request, because I was trying to do what publishers and others were asking me to do to build this brand. Right.
Joy Qualls: So I accepted everybody for a long time, but I've had to curate what I in my feed. So, if I don't know you personally, I unfollow you. You could still be my friend. You can still interact with me, but I don't know your friends and family, so I don't need those things in my feed.
Joy Qualls: But also, I've tried to limit how many different news organizations I follow. I try to follow a variety, so I get different perspectives. But if all I'm seeing is the number of COVID deaths and the latest challenges with the Supreme Court and those bleeding, leading stories, then I start to feel that the world around me is nothing but hurting and harmful. And I'm fairly empathetic. I feel things really big, and I start to feel those things bigger.
Joy Qualls: So it's a tension, because I need to be on there to promote the work that I do. But I can't be on there because it's not good for my mental health. So how do I find that space? It's intentional things like this. Like I said, this is not what I've given up for Lent, but it is a time where I've thought, "Okay, here's a space where the world is setting aside things and they don't need to hear from me." So that's actually the announced I made on all of my social media channels was, "I am going to step back from public communication for the next six weeks." Not, "I'm getting off social media," because I also don't need this pious, "Look at me. I'm getting off social media for Lent," that's not what it meant.
Joy Qualls: I just said, "I'm going to cease from engaging in public communication for the next six weeks." That has to be on me. Nobody can force me. I don't want the government to force me to do those things. I don't want my church to force me to do those things. I don't want my workplace to force me to do those things.
Joy Qualls: I have to engage in that self-discipline. Not only for my own soul, but so then, I am also responding in those very public spaces better. I'm responding to things in relationship to my government better. I'm responding to things in relationship to my church better. I'm responding in things with relationship to my workplace better. All of those things are better because I'm healthier. But it's my discipline, that has to be engaged in, not something that's forced upon me.
Tim Muehlhoff: I love that. That's really good. I just couldn't deny the world my perspective for that long, Joy. I think that there are people that I just feel like the damage control would be... No, obviously, I'm totally not kidding.
Joy Qualls: But Tim, it's good that you say that though, because I think sometimes that's the idea that we have in our minds, is that our influence in these spaces is so big that if... And by the way, again, social media feeds that. There were several weeks during the time between the election and the inauguration, where I just didn't comment on things.
Joy Qualls: I was distressed about stuff. I was trying to make up my own opinion about things. I was trying to figure out how, as a Christian leader, do we respond. And I was getting messages every day. "Are you going to speak about this?" "When are you going to speak into this thing?" "We're waiting to hear from you." And I thought, "You people need to get better information. If I'm the person you're waiting on, that's a really big problem."
Joy Qualls: We do need to manage our own perceptions of our role in this space, but we also need to manage other people's expectations in this space. I am not your pastor, or your guru, or your spouse, or your accountability partner, or any of those things when I exist in a public space. And if you need to hear from somebody on some of those things, I would suggest you get a therapist.
Joy Qualls: And I don't say that to mean that there's anything wrong with you, but you need to find somebody else to talk to, if your Facebook friend or your Instagram influencer or whoever... Just today, let me give you another example. I had a friend just text me when I was getting ready to come in for the podcast and said, "Hey, did you see so and so's Instagram post?"
Joy Qualls: I said, "No, I'm not on Instagram right now". "Well, they're connected to a major religious scandal in the last couple of years in the evangelical community. And they have finally spoken out. You need to go check it out." And, so we bantered back and forth a little bit. And I said, "Oh, I'm not going to go look at it today." "Well, let me send it to you." "Okay. Send it to me."
Joy Qualls: And, my thought was, while I appreciate this person's statement, the truth of the matter is, that person owes me nothing. They don't owe me a response. They don't owe me what their perspective is. They owe me nothing. Now, if they want to choose to speak about that, it might even be interesting to me.
Joy Qualls: Do I want to know? Sure. I want to know. But the reality is, they had no obligation. And what made me so sad, is that this statement that was made was an apology as if, because they are a public entity, who had some proximity to this particular scandal, that they owed the world a response to that.
Joy Qualls: And it really struck me as, that would never have happened 25 years ago, when you would've had to put that statement in a newspaper or a magazine, or get on television to make that statement. We would never have expected the children of leaders or the associates of leaders to make their own statements. But because it's so easy, we have expectations of them that we've never had before. And it broke my heart a little bit, to be honest.
Tim Muehlhoff: Remember the proverb that, "Where many words are, there is sin."
Joy Qualls: Right.
Tim Muehlhoff: That's very interesting for us to kind of think about. Well, I hope this is peaking your curiosity, as you're listening to this. Dr. Qualls is going to be one of our moderators. We're bringing in people to talk about the idea of conspiracy theories. How does that affect how we approach social media?
Tim Muehlhoff: We're bringing in experts that are going to be interviewed. What are the top five aches that people tend to make when it comes to social media? So please again, check this out, just go to the Winsome Conviction website, winsomeconviction.com, and check on resources. You'll see the comm department check on events. You'll see this event.
Tim Muehlhoff: Please check out our website and check out everything from resources to our podcast that you're listening to right now. We've got to figure out online communication. I think as Christians that are called to be engaged, I think what's happening on online communication is what Secretary Clinton said. This is an important space that we're just going to have to figure out and acknowledge that instability is rampant. So thank you. But Dr. Qualls, thank you again.
Joy Qualls: Anytime.