10 Bounded Religious Communities’ Management of the Challenge of New Media: Baha’í Negotiation with the Internet (3/4) – Social Media and Religious Change

around the world, there have been many concerns about the association of Ba-
ís with covenant-breakers. One specific example of this problematic activity is
outlined on truebahai.com (Weinberg 2008). According to the website, the Baháí
Internet Agency sent an e-mail out on 28 February 2008 to alert members to the
current activities of a specific covenant-breaker who ran an unauthorized Ortho-
dox B aháí page on Facebook, which was perceived to be threatening to the spi-
ritual well-being of practising B aháí youth members (Weinburg 2008). What is
interesting is that simply accepting a friend request from this individual is seen
as a community violation, as being in association with a covenant-breaker (see
BIA n.d.). Through the Baháí Internet Agency, the meaning of a (cyber) friend-
ship on Facebook is redefined to be equivalent to a personal, face-to-face friend-
ship. This demonstrates how the Baháí must negotiate with online culture and
bring online communication in line with traditional religious practice and ex-
pectations of behaviour in order for the technology to fit comfortably within ac-
cepted community values.
4.4 Communal discourse
Finally, religious communities often develop policies or guidelines tha t present
their official view or perceptions of the Internet and advocate particular uses.
The aim of this communal discourse regarding the Internet is not merely instruc-
tive for community members; it also serves as an identity narrative to affirm
the values and boundaries of the community. In the case of the Baháí commun-
ity, the Universal House of Justice serves an important role in policing and offer-
ing prescriptive guidelines for media activity and has attempted to encourage
certain forms of Internet engagement so that members use will not undermine
Baháí policies and beliefs. A notable discourse has been produced through the
work of the Baháí Internet Agency, who provide information on how to use the
Internet through issuing a number of white papers on a variety of issues related
to online communication, as noted above.
A key role of the Baháí Internet Agency is to circulate official statements
about Internet communication issued by the Universal House of Justice. These
documents advocate a particular relationship between the Baháí community
and electronic, digital communication technologies, one which supports core
communal values, such as unity in diversity and service to humanity. The Inter-
net is framed as offering the community new opportunities and challenges, such
that the published and thus accepted wisdom of their religious leaders should be
consulted when making decisions regarding the Internet. As stated in the docu-
ment Guidelines for Internet Communication:
10 Bounded Religious Communities Management of the Challenge of New Media
The opportunity which electronic communication technology provides is for more speedy
and thorough consultation among friends, and is highly significant. Without doubt, it rep-
resents another manifestation of a development eagerly anticipated by the Guardian when
he foresaw the creation of a mechanism of world intercommunication [] embracing the
whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with mar-
vellous swiftness and perfect regularity. (BIA n.d.)
Official white papers also provide guidance to individual community members
seeking to use the Internet to represent their beliefs and the community online.
Members are to be mindful of how their online activities bear witness to the
Baháí faith, according to the document Individual initiative on the Internet
(2007). It continues:
Internet initiatives should of course be carried out in light of Baháí principles such as mod-
eration, courtesy, probity, fairness, dignity, accuracy and wisdom [ T]he Internet is yet one
more domain in which Baháís should demonstrate etiquette of expression worthy of the
approaching maturity of the human race a maturity founded on the oneness and whole-
ness of human relationships. (BIA 2007)
Thus, membe rs are exhorted to reflect the community in a positive light through
mirroring core values. These white papers often emphasise core Baháí beliefs
and teachings of religious figures as a basis for online decision making. By re-
leasing statements such as the ones above, the Universal House of Justice at-
tempts to define how the Internet should be used by all practicing Baháís (Uni-
versal House of Justice 1995). Such statements not only provide Baháís with
guidelines for behaviour within specific online contexts but also affirm core val-
ues regarding how individuals should present their community identity in public
contexts. For example, individual Baháís are not forbidden to be involved in un-
official forums, but these performances should reflect the character of the com-
In general, the House of Justice has no objection to Baháís participating in
public, unmoderated discussions about the faith, whether those discussions take
place in person or through some form of electronic communication. The wisdom
of participating in particular discussions must, of necessity, depend upon cir-
cumstances prevailing at the time. When, through such discussions, the faith
is attacked or erroneous information about it is disseminated, it may become
necessary for individual Baháís to actively defend it (BIA n.d.).
This is affirmed in a 2009 statement issued by the B aháí Internet Agency,
Responding to Criticism and Opposition on the Internet, which states that
Baháí use of the Internet should reflect the teachings of Baháulláh:
Heidi A. Campbell and Drake Fulton
Internet initiatives by Baháís should therefore aim to broaden vision concerning challeng-
ing spiritual and social questions, shape discourse in a unifying way, and emphasize the
potentialities and promise of the present moment in human affairs. When harnessed in
this way, the Internet can become a vehicle for promoting mutual understanding and learn-
ing, serving others, instilling hope about the human condition, and demonstrating recti-
tude of conduct. (BIA 2009)
The U.S. Baháí Office of Communications also plays a role in framing the Inter-
net as an important sphere in which Baháís are welcome to engage and offers
suggestions regarding how this shou ld be done:
The increasingly participatory nature of Internet activity is providing novel and creative
ways of exploring the compelling message of spiritual and social transformation as taught
by Baháulláh, the Founder of the Baháí Faith. Baháís around the globe are using the In-
ternet to give expression to the many facets of their belief in an open and imaginative man-
ner, including on blogs and social networking sites. (US Baháí Office of Communications
However, this is a contextualised engagement, as evidenced by the documents
provided by the Universal House of Justice that give prescriptive instructions
on such topics as how Internet discussion related to issues of Baháí faith should
be maintained and moderated online as well as how Baháí members should be-
have online as representatives of the community in the online world. Thus, offi-
cial discourse regarding use of and engagement with the Internet serves as a
space to reiterate and strengthen the religious identity of the Baháí community.
Therefore community documents and policy statements such as those highlight-
ed here help reaffirm community distinctiveness and contribute to the construc-
tion or maintenance of a desired public image within the age of the Internet.
5 Reflections on a bounded communitys
management of new media
Undertaking these four levels of inquiry demonstrates that American Baháís
have a distinctive negotiation with the Internet, which is guided by their core be-
liefs and the particular value of unity and which official sources seek to exem-
plify through their use of the Internet and how they encourage their members
to represent themselves online. Their strict adherence to a certain structure
and hierarchy within the offline structure of the community is in many respects
simply replicated and encouraged online. As has been shown in this brief explo-
ration, the Baháí communitys Universal House of Justice has attempted to re-
10 Bounded Religious Communities Management of the Challenge of New Media
configure the usage and negotiation of the Internet in an effort to achieve ideo-
logical unification of motivations and practices in a context which blends the on-
line and offline contexts. Examples of this reconfiguration are evident in the cre-
ation of the Baháí Internet Agency, which seeks to direct practicing Baháís on
how to properly use the Internet in relation to Baháí beliefs. Their white papers
not only provide guidelines for Internet use but also lead community members
back to the teachings of the B áb and therefore reaffirm core community beliefs
and frameworks. As the Baháí Internet Agency states, The principles of our
Faith offer valuable guideposts in making use of the Internet. [] Baháís need
to learn as much as possible about these new modes of interaction and deter-
mine how the principles of the Faith apply to their use (BIA 2006b).
This chapter also shows how a bounded religious community often seeks to
replicate traditional or accepted boundaries and practises of the larger commun-
ity online in order to solidify their established social patterns and behavioural
expectations. It is the tradition and established understandings of the identity
of a community and their authority structures, which guide such groups engage-
ment with technology. The Internet can introduce new challenges for bounded
communities, in that it allows community members to interact outside official
forums or systems that enhance individual choice over community accountabil-
ity or control. Therefore negotiation processes and discourse frameworks sur-
rounding new media become important spaces for religious groups to conscious-
ly re-establish the boundaries of the community and culture, or resist and thence
negotiate encounter problematic affordances of the technology. Religious groups
desiring to maintain a bounded social and moral system must carefully consider
the extent to which certain aspects of network culture may run counter to their
desired pattern of religious life. Bounded religious communities thus constrain
members use so that it is both in line with community values and enhances de-
sired structures or community identity markers. The religious-social shaping of
technology provides a valuable format to study and interrogate these processes
of technological negotiation and reveals the dis tinctiveness of a given religious
community that seeks to represent or promote itself in a modern, networked so-
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10 Bounded Religious Communities Management of the Challenge of New Media