Calumny in the Blogosphere

Calumnious blogging is a serious offense against God's law. Those who engage in it are jeopardizing their immortal souls and the souls of others.

Calumny is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary (1992) as a “false statement maliciously made to injure another’s reputation.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church (1994) places calumny as a serious sin under the Eighth Commandment, “Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” The Catechism states, “He becomes guilty of calumny who, by remarks contrary to the truth, harms the reputation of others and gives occasion for false judgments concerning them” (2447). The Catechism notes that calumny offends “against the virtues of justice and charity” (2479).

Calumny and its close relative detraction (derogatory comments that reveal the hidden faults or sins of another without reason) have been part of life since the dawn of time. But opportunities for breaking the Eighth Commandment have proliferated with the advent of the Internet, especially since the rise of the phenomenon known as “blogging.”

“Blog” is one of those punchy little contractions we live with today, an example of the technological shorthand so beloved in our culture of email and text messaging. A blog (short for “weblog”) is a personal website or online journal. Blogs perform a variety of communication functions, combining elements of both private conversation and broadcasting, usually incorporating a forum for interactive discussion.

Blogs are vehicles of global self-expression, something unprecedented in the history of human discourse. They are a means by which the average person—with creativity, initiative and the investment of time—can reach limitless numbers of readers anywhere in the world. They elevate the marketing presence of entrepreneurs and small companies to levels that used to be attainable only by major corporations. And they have transformed journalism, breaking the monopolies of resource and licensure that once restricted entry into the world of mass communications.

There are tens of thousands of blogs today: personal, educational, commercial, political, philosophical, religious—you name it. In fact, the presence of Catholics in what has come to be called the “blogosphere” is one of the great untold stories of modern evangelism and religious communication.

An especially compelling element of blogging is the ability to project one’s ideas, observations and opinions with near-complete anonymity. It is common blogger practice to adopt an online persona—usually some cute name or title with relevance to the main focus of the blog. Likewise, readers who comment on blog postings or participate in discussions can set their views before the world without revealing themselves. Service providers that host blogs routinely permit such anonymity, and the law has upheld the practice (in only a handful of court cases have providers been forced to unmask their blogging clients).

But the power to reach a wide audience while remaining in the shadows has proven a source of great temptation. All too many online commentators have been dazzled by this technology that magnifies personal identity and stokes the ego while providing a shield from the consequences of their words. Whole new avenues of calumny have been the result.

In the area of business, disgruntled customers have taken to the World Wide Web to vent their dissatisfaction with products, companies and providers of professional services—sometimes in the well-intentioned hope of helping others avoid real problems they encountered, but other times out of what seems mere peevishness. (Doctors, hospitals and other health services, in particular, find themselves increasingly the targets of online criticism.) Taking their cue from real customer outrage, some businesses have found blogging a perfect means of slamming the competition. They pose as dissatisfied buyers, denigrating or starting false rumors about competing firms or products.

Employees also see the Internet as an ideal outlet for gripes about their managers, their companies, even their customers—often doing their blogging on company time. In cyberspace (as in everyday life) it’s hard to separate justified frustration from mere grumpiness. What for one person can be the healthy airing of legitimate grievance, for another can be little more than high-tech bellyaching. But there have been instances where pokes at the boss or the airing of corporate dirty linen have become so severe as to cost jobs and spur lawsuits.

No area of life has felt the impact of blogging more than politics. Candidates and elected officials have discovered how quickly and effectively the flames of protest can be fanned by online opposition. Just ask John Kerry. One needn’t debate the validity of charges leveled against him by the Swiftboat veterans to see the potential of blogging as a political weapon. Depending on whose ox is being gored at any given time, blogs are either the ultimate expression of grassroots democracy or something close to populist chaos.

The essential problem with anonymous blogging is that masked comments can easily turn malicious, intentionally or otherwise. Growing concern about online threats and character assassination among teenagers using social networking services like MySpace and Facebook has spawned the terms “cyber-bullying” and “cyber-stalking.” There have been cases of violence—even suicide—attributed to blog campaigns launched against targeted individuals. The walking wounded are showing up in hospitals, psychiatrists’ offices and high school drop-out statistics.

Calumny does not exist apart from the other realities of life. Like all sin, it is nurtured by social conditions and the particular circumstances in which individuals find themselves, circumstances that can provide the rationalizations and self-deception that blind us to the seriousness of our words and actions. For instance, we live in a society that puts a high premium on winning. It’s easy to convince ourselves that anything goes, as long as we achieve the results we want and don’t get caught doing what we know in our hearts we shouldn’t do.

The recent sports scandals—steroid use in baseball, stealing signs in football games, doping in track events and bicycle racing—are all examples of the human tendency to cut corners. Sports (and its derivative word, sportsmanship) present a microcosm of life. How athletes prepare for play, through discipline and practice, and the fairness with which a game is carried out should demonstrate virtues that can be applied to living a good life. Positive sports role models motivate others to be better citizens (imagine how many young people were inspired by the work ethic of Baltimore Orioles shortstop Cal Ripkin, Jr., who played 2,632 consecutive games). “The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung before sports events not just for reasons of nostalgia, but because the game that follows should be symbolic of the values we hold as a nation.

Unfortunately, years of highly publicized moral lapses by athletes—both on and off the field—have accustomed us to boorish behavior, lack of sportsmanship and even criminality in the sports world. A culture of cheating—where winning is all and how we win makes no difference—has become a kind of perverse norm.

This is the social climate in which calumny is blossoming. Calumny is cheating. It does not play by the rules. It is unsportsmanlike in the extreme, even viciously so. It uses half truths, innuendo, misrepresentation, disregard for context and downright lies, all in the hope that some negative bit of mud, no matter how distorted or absurd, will stick to the person or organization under attack. It is abetted by the unethical use of technology, including visual technology. Verbal abuse is readily supplemented by unflattering or embarrassing images easily crafted and instantly disseminated through the use of digital cameras, Photoshop, cell phones and YouTube.

Such devices and tactics have been used to discredit public figures and private persons alike, to disparage companies, institutions, government agencies, political movements, and of course, churches and religious groups. And the impact is multiplied by other bloggers who link to the original posting or pick up a story and disseminate it further, even around the world.

There are bloggers who present their calumny under the guise of “allegations,” applying evasive constructs like “some people are saying” or “it has been alleged.” Such writers are often well educated (sometimes with a law background), skilled at parsing words in order to avoid culpability for legal defamation. In this they rely for protection on the high standard of proof required to bring a libel action.

Others recognize the evil in calumny, but see it as a compromise that must be made for the sake of a noble cause. They hope that by destroying an opponent’s reputation they will de-legitimize the position that opponent represents. This is the “greater good” rationalization, the thinking of terrorists willing to kill innocent people (even sometimes themselves) in pursuit of lofty goals. In such manner, “cyber-terrorists” are often willing to tolerate a certain amount of “collateral damage” for the sake of what they perceive as good. They will employ pernicious lies concerning sexual matters that can wreck marriages, allegations of legal impropriety that can destroy careers, or statements demeaning the moral probity of civic leaders that can weaken society as a whole.

Sad to say, Christian circles are not free of such machinations. A recent occurrence in my own diocese serves as an example. Allegations of moral lapses on the part of a brother priest were circulated by interlinked blogs, magnifying the actual facts of the case being investigated, and layering on multiple rumors that featured a colorful variety of imagined illicit behaviors—all before anything was proven. While a ministry was seriously (perhaps fatally) compromised, no allowance was given for the political conflicts existing within the parish or the motives of those who spread the stories. What were little more than assumptions took on a life of their own when a chain of bloggers spread them within minutes throughout the diocese and well beyond.

Bloggers of such a mindset ignore a basic precept of morality: evil means may never be employed to achieve a good end (perhaps their skewed thinking can be compared to that of people who believe it’s moral to kill abortion doctors in order to end the horror of abortion). They forget that the standards of the world—or of law courts—don’t apply when we’re judged in the highest court: at the throne of God. Jesus warned the Pharisees against legal dodges and contrived justifications. God sees the heart.

But here we return to the concept of anonymity. Hiding out in cyberspace provides a certain emotional distance and avoids direct confrontation. This gives calumnious bloggers some distinct advantages over their victims. They can declare someone guilty without evidence, forcing them to defend themselves by having to disprove a negative. And they can be as outlandish and judgmental as they like while remaining shielded from the reactions and reproaches they would encounter in signed commentary or face-to-face debate. This contradicts the two foundational principles of American justice: (1) assumption of innocence until proof of guilt and (2) the right of the accused to face the accuser. But it tends to liberate bloggers from moral constraint by anesthetizing conscience.

There is a certain self-defeating aspect of calumnious blogging. The titillation of malicious gossip and the thrill of tearing down other human beings do have their limits. Insinuations and outrageous charges often provoke counterclaims that are just as wild. Mutual misquoting, distortion, hearsay and condemnation can spiral to heights of ridiculousness that strain credulity and eventually make readers lose interest. Even the element of anonymity can have counterproductive effects, highlighting the Kafkaesque unreality of the “kangaroo court” assembled in cyberspace. Readers can begin to suspect cowardice at work, or even to speculate about the psychological health of a blogger who will only comment from behind the mask of a fictitious name.

Still, the practice persists, and with the ubiquitous presence of the Internet, it touches the lives of believers in every parish today. Indeed, it presents us with a situation of serious moral conflict that pastors should address, because it violates the dignity of persons and undermines truth. And in the end, truth is the only basis on which a good society can be built. Thus, I offer the following recommendations about points that should be made regarding blogging:

  • Pastors should speak on the Eighth Commandment and its corollary injunctions against calumny and detraction.
  • People should be warned that what they read on blogs is not necessarily true.
  • Any anonymous blog or unsigned response has the weight of an unsigned letter and so should be quickly dismissed.
  • A blog that is particularly vicious toward persons can be indicative of psychological illness, or simply an evil person, and is therefore suspect.
  • Any blog that is unedifying and demeaning to another person should not be read. It is the equivalent of pornography.
  • Responding to these calumnious blogs, even for defense of the individual or for clarification, only encourages the offender and prolongs the life of the calumny.
  • Those who suffer calumny on anonymous blogs are, for the most part, better off enduring it. Seeking to correct misrepresentations usually has the effect of keeping controversy alive and adding to its interest value.
  • While reading such blogs is damaging to its target (since it causes unwarranted negative speculation about another’s character), it also hurts the reader since it causes scandal, sowing pessimism and despondency.
  • Calumnious blogging is a serious offense against God’s law. Those who engage in it are jeopardizing their immortal souls and the souls of others.
  • For anyone to make a judgment concerning a person’s character based on what is read on a negative blog is to be a formal cooperator in the evil perpetrated by the blogger.

Those involved in blogging would do well to keep in mind the words of Isaiah 33:15, which says of the good person: “He who acts with integrity, who speaks sincerely …, shuts suggestion of murder out of his ears, and closes his eyes against crime, this man will dwell in the heights.”

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avatar About Rev. Michael P. Orsi

Reverend Michael P. Orsi, a priest of the Diocese of Camden, N.J., is the author of four books and many articles. He has served as assistant chancellor and director of the Family Life Bureau. Father Orsi has a Ph.D. in education from Fordham University. He is presently serving as chaplain and research fellow in law and religion at Ave Maria School of Law, Naples, Florida.

Comments

  1. avatar HPR Site Admin says:

    This was a popular thread on the previous HPRweb site, and we wanted to maintain the conversation regarding it. Some were comments were nested (in reply to other comments, not the article); unfortunately, that formatting has been lost. The comment section follows.

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    Marcia Brown castro |72.241.231.Xxx |2011-07-05 18:Jul:th
    Thank you for this article. It is something we all need to be reminded of, frequently. Recently I contacted a very popular Catholic blog and ask them to please close it for comments as I felt it had become an occasion of sin. The comments were certainly vile and full of malice for anyone to have posted, but for a practicing Catholic they were sinful and a reason for a trip to the confessional.

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    Dan Hoffman – Thank you, Father |24.127.248.Xxx |2011-07-06 09:Jul:th
    Father Orsi:

    Quite simply, this is a terrific article! Thank you for your guidance.

    God bless,
    Dan Hoffman

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    Warene Fletcher |98.168.216.Xxx |2011-07-10 16:Jul:th
    Thank you Fr. Orsi for this much needed reminder! The clergy is needed to calm the anger and division on two blogs concerning Fr. Corapi!! Again, Thank you, Father!!

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    Terrye Anita Newkirk |64.149.36.Xxx |2011-07-11 00:Jul:th
    Bless you, Father, for this timely and comprehensive look at malicious blogging and the harm it can do.

    My opinion is that every Catholic blogger and commentor should use his own name as a matter of justice. Anonymity proves too great a temptation for some to engage in character assassination.

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    Deacon Sal Lancieri |76.116.48.Xxx |2011-07-12 05:Jul:th
    Your post was terrific Father!!! It is such a shame that we are unable as Preachers to go into such detail from the Ambo because of false time restraints put on clergy when presenting a homily. As you have presented here is how guided by the Holy Spirit I prepare for my homilies so they are at times considered to be long by some because of false time restraints of our Mass being an hour long. What I have found out in these past years is that those who really want or need The Word broken open and presented are thankful and ask why more clergy do not present in that fashion of clarity. They are not aware of time and the so called hour Mass. In formation we were told seven to eight minutes is enough. That is sad for us Catholics because we do not spend enough time with The Word of God, to go into the detail and clarity that you have presented here, sure enough there will be phone calls to the Pastor as to the time and length of the homily which has happened. So sad, so sad.

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    Frank Donahue – Article on Calumny in the Blogosphere, by Michael |96.57.93.Xxx |2011-07-20 12:Jul:th
    Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on the subject of “Calumny in the Blogosphere.” It was well reasoned and very much needed.

    I know that an article such as this took time and great care to compose. I believe this article will produce good fruit, and look forward to reading future articles.

    May God bless you and keep you.

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