When does Twitter ever get the credit for making an online conversation less toxic? Megan Phelps-Roper’s experience on Twitter confounds the stereotype. The former Westboro Baptist Church member spoke to Ryan Tubridy this morning about the role Twitter played in her conversion from anti-LGBTQ rights protester to champion of tolerance and inclusivity. She tells her story in a new book, Unfollow: A Journey from Hatred to Hope.
The Topeka, Kansas native grew up in the Christian church founded by her grandfather Fred Phelps. From the age of 5, she joined her family in regular public protests against pretty much anyone who was outside of the Westboro Baptist Church:
“I believed that they were good people and the rest of the world was either evil or delusional.”
There were frequent and raucous protests targeted at a range of identities and faiths, but Westboro Church also protested against sectors of American society usually immune from public criticism:
“We were singing praises for instance to the homemade bombs that were killing American soldiers. We were standing on the American flag. Occasionally we burned the American Flag.”
Megan was 14 when the 9/11 terror attacks happened. Her reaction was not typical of her generation:
“My instinctive response was to say ‘awesome’. I thought was a punishment from God.”
Megan bought into the Westboro Baptist message partly because the church was made up of members of her extended family, but also because her grandfather justified the group’s actions by cherry-picking from scripture:
“There were always Bible verses to be quoted to explain why we took each bizarre step that we took.”
As time passed, Megan’s faith unravelled leadng to some painful realisations:
“We had learned to completely disdain, to be filled with disdain for them and for their feelings and to not take those things into account. It was absolutely devastating to realise the full effect and the magnitude of the cruelty of what we had done.”
Megan set out to represent the Westboro Baptist Church on Twitter. She began in 2009 with a series of anti-semitic tweets. The response from one group of people was unexpected, and it changed her:
“They started challenging me very gently and kindly and compassionately. I wouldn’t say that they pulled any punches or anything; they would ask me hard questions. I could tell from the way they spoke to me that they cared about me.”
Over the course of a year, Megan connected with total strangers on Twitter who provided her with what she calls “an alternative source of community”, and they showed her a path out of the Westboro Baptist Church:
“Having this alternative community was a huge part of that fork in the road and there did come a day where eventually the questions and the doubts I was having, this disconnect between how I was feeling and how the church was and where I realised that we might be wrong.”
Find out more about Megan’s unique childhood, what she is up to now and how she met her husband through the game Words with Friends in the full interview here.
Megan Phelps-Roper’s book Unfollow: A Journey form Hatred to Hope is published by Riverrun Books.
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