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? 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 email@example.com.