By: Paige Waldrop Mills
The entire country has been talking about the Trayvon Martin Case. I am starting to see numerous instances of churches joining the conversation. This case has been heart-breaking on so many levels, no matter your position on the social issues that are implicated. Whether you believe Zimmerman acted in self-defense or created a situation where someone’s beloved son was killed while minding his own business, carrying a Snapple and some Skittles, there is no question that many lives have been destroyed, careers ruined, and, most tragic by far, a child with a promising future is dead. It is not for me to decide what happened in this case because I wasn’t there and I don’t know. I have friends with different views on Zimmerman’s actions and motives, but all I can think about is Trayvon’s parents, and the parents of other young African-American boys or men, who live in fear that the same thing could happen to their child. I have no answers and nothing but my heart-felt sympathies to offer to these families.
I have been following this case and the steadily rising outcry coming from all corners of the map, from men and women of all ages, colors, faiths, and political stripes. Like all the big stories of the last few years, social media is playing a prominent role. Social media remains the most effective medium by which passionate people can spread the word about the things they care about–reaching like-minded folks and gaining enough critical mass to get noticed and make a difference. It reminds me of one of my favorite children’s book, “Horton Hears a Who,” in which the heartless Kangaroo and the Wickersham Brothers are going to annihilate Who-ville unless sweet Horton can convince them that he is not crazy and there really are little people living on that grain of dust. Horton tries to whip everyone on the dust speck into a frenzy, begging them to make more and more noise until their voices reach a critical mass that the Wickershams can actually hear. And so it is with social media and the things that matter to people—more and more voices join until they are finally HEARD. Churches are naturally harnessing this power for their causes, missions, and to state their position on important social issues like the Trayvon Martin case.
This brings me to some important caveats that users of social media should keep in mind, no matter how passionate their feelings on a particular subject. Marcus Davonne Higgins, a 33-year-old Los Angeles man who uses the online handle “maccapon,” tweeted what he thought was the address of George Zimmerman, with some pejorative commentary, ominously telling people to “reach out and touch him.” Higgins identified Zimmerman as “George W. Zimmerman”, when he is actually “George Michael Zimmerman.” He also encouraged his large Facebook and Twitter following to spread the address far and wide. He tweeted it to many celebrities, such as Spike Lee and Will Smith, asking them to repost. Spike Lee retweeted it to his 240,000 twitter followers. Problem was, however, the address was not correct. It actually belonged to an elderly couple that had no relationship whatsoever to George Michael Zimmerman. This couple is now understandably terrified for their safety. There are a lot of furious people out there who could be capable of violence. If something should happen to this couple, Spike Lee and whoever else tweeted it, could potentially be facing very serious liability. A court could easily determine that mindlessly passing on information that is false, without bothering to check it out, is negligence, if not recklessness. Even if no physical harm comes to these folks, a decent plaintiff’s lawyer would throw in intentional infliction of emotional distress, false light and other invasion of privacy claims, and many other causes of action I can’t even think of right now.
Here’s the point: keep your wits about you, no matter how passionate you are about a situation or an injustice. Churches and other non-profits should have policies in place that outline best practices for the use of social media by the church or by congregants on behalf of the church. Don’t just mindlessly retweet information unless you have independently verified that it is true. Spike Lee and Will Smith would be easy targets with deep pockets but we would all be well-advised to “Snopes” anything that could potentially create a dangerous or embarrassing situation for another before cavalierly pressing the RT button. Better yet, don’t re-tweet or re-post anything, true or not, that could potentially bring harm of any kind to another person. There are other ways to get your point across that are less fraught with liability.
While Social Media provides a wonderful way for churches to reach their constituents and link to other like-minded people, churches should advise staff and members to keep in mind discretion and common sense. Passionate advocacy is one thing, unintentionally bringing harm to others or liability to your church is quite another.