Journalist Adrian Chen began his career as a staff writer at Gawker before moving on to the New Yorker. His work often centers on internet cultures darker side, including trolls and websites such as 4chan, Reddit, and Silk Road. His writing has also appeared in Wired, the Nation, New York magazine, and MIT Technology Review, and he is the recipient of a Mirror Award from the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.
The New Yorker, where this essay first appeared, offers notable commentary on politics, global affairs, art and popular culture, and science and technology. It also publishes short fiction and poetry and is famous for its cartoons. Along with Chens essay, the issue of November 23, 2015, included an essay on the role of weather in fiction; a profile of Robert Corrigan, who holds a doctorate in urban rodentology and is known as the Rat Czar; an examination of the website Erowid, which functions as an online encyclopedia of psychoactive drugs and drug experiences; and coverage of the developing presidential race. The cover focused on virtual reality and virtual music.
Chens essay centers on the story of Megan Phelps-Roper, a prominent member of the Westboro Baptist Church, known for its militant stance against gays and its frequent picketing of funerals. Phelps-Roper was placed in charge of the churchs Twitter account and used social media to spread the Westboro doctrine. Along the way, however, she started talking to others on Twitter, conversations that eventually caused her to rethink everything she was taught to believe.
How can social media promote personal or cultural change? Have your experiences using services like Twitter helped you to understand others different from you? How does Chens essay suggest the power of conversation?
TAGS: adolescence and adulthood, censorship, community, conversation, empathy, identity, judgment and decision making, media, relationships, religion, social change, social media, tradition, war and conflict
CONNECTIONS: Appiah, DeGhett, Gilbert, Gladwell, Klosterman, Konnikova, Turkle, Yoshino
On December 1, 2009, to commemorate World AIDS Day, Twitter announced a promotion: If users employed the hashtag #red, their tweets would appear highlighted in red. Megan Phelps-Roper, a , seized the opportunity. Thank God for AIDS! she tweeted that morning. You wont repent of your rebellion that brought His wrath on you in this incurable scourge, so expect more & worse! #red.
As a member of the Westboro Baptist Church, in Topeka, Kansas, Phelps-Roper believed that AIDS was a curse sent by God. She believed that all manner of other tragedies war, natural disaster, mass shootings were warnings from God to a doomed nation, and that it was her duty to spread the news of His righteous judgments. To protest the increasing acceptance of homosexuality in America, the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the funerals of gay men who died of AIDS and of soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Members held signs with slogans like God Hates Fags and Thank God for Dead Soldiers, and the outrage that their efforts attracted had turned the small church, which had fewer than a hundred members, into a global symbol of hatred.
Westboro had long used the Internet to spread its message. In 1994, the church launched a website, www.godhatesfags.com, and early on it had a chat room where visitors could interact with members of Westboro. As a child, Phelps-Roper spent hours there, sparring with strangers. She learned about Twitter in 2008, after reading an article about an American graduate student in Egypt who had used it to notify his friends that he had been arrested while photographing riots. She opened an account but quickly lost interest at the time, Twitter was still used mostly by early-adopting techies until someone e-mailed Westboros website, in the summer of 2009, and asked if the church used the service. Phelps-Roper, who is tall, with voluminous curly hair and pointed features, volunteered to tweet for the congregation. Her posts could be easily monitored, since she worked at Phelps Chartered, the family law firm, beside her mother, Shirley, an attorney. Moreover, Megan was known for her mastery of the Bible and for her ability to spread Westboros doctrine. She had a well-sharpened tongue, so to speak, Josh Phelps, one of Megans cousins and a former member of Westboro, told me.
In August 2009, Phelps-Roper, under the handle @meganphelps, posted a celebratory tweet when Ted Kennedy died (He defied God at every turn, teaching rebellion against His laws. Teds in hell!) and a description of a picket that the church held at an American Idol concert in Kansas City (Totally awesome! Tons going in & taking pics even tho others tried to block our signs). On September 1st, her sister Bekah e-mailed church members to explain the utility of Twitter: Now Megan has 87 followers and more are trickling in all the time. So every time we find something else to picket, or have some new video or picture we want to post (or just something that we see on the news and want to comment about) 87 people get first-hand, gospel commentary from Megan Marie.
A couple of hours after Phelps-Roper posted her tweet on World AIDS Day, she checked her e-mail and discovered numerous automated messages notifying her of new Twitter followers. Her tweet had been discovered by the comedian Michael Ian Black, who had more than a million followers. He was surprised that a member of the Westboro Baptist Church was on Twitter at all. I sort of thought they would be this of Pentecostal anti-technology clan that would be removed from the world, he told me. He tweeted, Sort of obsessed w/ @meganphelps. Sample tweet: AIDS is Gods curse on you. Let her feel your love. The director Kevin Smith and The Office star Rainn Wilson mocked her, as did many of their followers.
Phelps-Roper was exhilarated by the response. Since elementary school, she had given hundreds of interviews about Westboro, but the reaction on Twitter seemed more real than a quote in a newspaper. Its not just like Yes, all these people are seeing it, she told me. Its proof that people are seeing it and reacting to it. Phelps-Roper spent much of the morning responding to angry tweets, citing Bible passages. I think your plan is back-firing, she taunted Black. Your followers are just nasty haters of God! You should do something about that like tell them some truth every once in a while.
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