Twitter mob attacks religious studies professor

Posted Sep 28, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Adam J. Copeland, guest blogger


On September 12, Anthea Butler, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, was the victim of a Twitter mob. Amidst the furor over the Sam Bacile film clip “Innocence of Muslims” mocking the prophet Muhammed, Butler Tweeted that Bacile should be arrested.

Butler’s original Tweet has been taken down, but web screen shots reveal that @AntheaButler wrote, “Good Morning. How soon is Sam Bacile going to be in jail folks? I need him to go now.When Americans die because you are stupid...”

Initially, the Tweet did not garner much reaction from Butler’s more than 4,000 followers. A few hours later, however, the conservative website Twitchy.com published an article mocking Butler, the Tweet, and academia in general. Within minutes, Butler’s Twitter feed was inundated with hundreds of critical Tweets and re-Tweets. Soon after, Butler made her account private. (Charles McGuinness of “The Social Seer” has chronicled the Twitter storm, complete with analytics, in his stellar post, “Anthea Butler gets attacked by Malkin’s Twitch-Mob.”)

Later on the same day of the Tweet, Butler published an opinion piece with USA Today, “Why 'Sam Bacile' deserves arrest.” That essay also was mocked in online comment feeds and on Twitter by many, including none other than New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who shared the essay on his own Twitter feed with the message, “This is a rare case where the ’explanation‘ for an idiotic tweet is even more idiotic than the tweet itself.”

Anthea Butler appeared on MSNBC’s show “The Cycle” on September 18 to discuss the Tweet, religious freedom, and the First Amendment. During the interview, Butler characterized the tweet as “hyperbole” sent when she was frustrated, saying, “I didn’t want [Bacile] to be really arrested.” MSNBC reported the University of Pennsylvania, for a time, took Butler’s contact information down from their website because they had received violent threats.

What should we make of this Twitter storm? Was Butler a victim of right-wing cyberbullying or should an Ivy League religion professor expect significant consequences when questioning the First Amendment rights of filmmakers?

On the one hand, Twitchy specializes in launching such campaigns, spewing snark when public figures as much as Tweet a link to a newspaper article on climate change. On the other hand, Butler uses Twitter as a platform for public theology. The service that Twitter provides—a virtual megaphone on the public square—can be used both for controversial claims and blistering coordinated responses.

Though Butler claims (and I will take her word for it) the Tweet was hyperbole sent in frustration, once attacked by the “Twitch-Mob,” as Charles McGuinness puts it, it is nearly impossible to undo its damage. When a Tweet has been picked-up by a news outlet, or even captured in a screen shot by an individual, it lives on forever.

Butler had the power and protection of UPenn’s PR department, tenure, and a USA Today Op-Ed to respond, but others of us would not be so lucky. In today’s media climate, one hasty hyperbolic tweet—especially concerning politics and religion—can spiral out of control in a matter of minutes.

Butler Tweeted later, “What happened last week was designed to try to smear/shut me up.We need cooler heads when talking about Islam & Christianity. #MiddleEast.” I agree. But might we also need cooler heads when sending out morning Tweets calling first amendment rights into question?

Adam J. Copeland
Rev. Adam J. Copeland teaches in the Religion Department at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota, where he serves as Faculty Director for Faith and Leadership. To read more of Adam’s writing, visit A Wee Blether and follow his Tweets at @ajc123.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

4 Comments

  1. 1 Russell Smith 06 Mar
    One aspect of electronic communications that continually trips people up is the ability to be "overheard" and, as you noted, to have that captured and re-posted. Most of us tend to look at social media the way we have conversations. We have the false impression that we're just talking among a group of friends because that's usually who responds. However, because social media is so much more public, it doesn't work that way.
    In addition, as some have found out to their regret, a personal message is often mistreated as though it were a professional one.
    All that leads to the conclusion that you really have to be careful about what you post, considering how others, including those who don't know you well, might interpret it.
    Sometime what's old becomes new again. Now is surely a time for Hebrews 10:24 "And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works," If we're going to stir anything up, love and good works comes at the top of my list.
  2. 2 Adam Copeland 06 Mar
    Very true, Russell, though I'm not sure Butler should be seen as one with a naive view of social media. She was a heavy and fairly popular Twitter user long before this dust-up. I like the Hebrews piece. Thanks.
  3. 3 Anonymous 06 Mar
    If that's all there is to the story, then you are correct. But if you take Anna Gurji and Cindy Lee Garcia as remotely truthful, then it's considerably more complicated than first amendment rights, and Bacile should be looking at legal action (though perhaps not jail time.) At least one of the actresses is suing Bacile. The film that was made was billed to them as "Desert Warrior" as was about a comet that fell in the desert and ancient tribes fighting for it. There was no Muhammad, only an abusive character named George. There were not even Muslims in the film, or mention of religion. But Bacile dubbed the film without the actors' consent, changed the lines drastically, and changed the characters' names. The actors and actresses have thus received death threats and all manner of harassment as a result. It seems like some of that is not just underhanded but also worthy of legal action, if perhaps only in civil court. There is more going on here than just first amendment rights.
  4. 4 Adam Copeland 06 Mar
    Indeed...though I will note the tweet mob happened well before any of the info about Bacile came to light. There is a lot still to learn.

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