A new word learned: “shill.” It seems that shills are used by the Chinese government to divert social media discussions away from sensitive or controversial topics towards unchallenging discussions, like the weather or sports or fashion. The term “shill” seems to have been around for at least a century. The Oxford Dictionary definition of a shill is:
“an accomplice of a confidence trickster or swindler who poses as a genuine customer to entice or encourage others.”
Anyone who attended fairs in former times will have recognised such characters; the man in the crowd who readily parts with £5 for an uniopened box; the lady who is keen to buy a product being demonstrated.
Shills seem to have become much more sophisticated since the days of fairground hucksters. The Wikipedia definition of “shill” suggests the word maydescribe a much more complex pattern of activity.
A shill, also called a plant or a stooge, is a person who publicly helps or gives credibility to a person or organization without disclosing that they have a close relationship with the person or organization. Shills can carry out their operations in the areas of media, journalism, marketing, confidence games, or other business areas. A shill may also act to discredit opponents or critics of the person or organization in which they have a vested interest through character assassination or other means.
“Shill” would have been a useful word to have known during thirty years of clerical life, for if shills are to be found in the media, journalism and marketing, they are certainly to be found within the church.
Reflecting on attempts to encourage the church to engage with issues, it is now possible to discern shill activity. At a general synod in 2009, a speech to encourage members to criticise hubris that had caused the financial collapse the previous year was followed by someone making anodyne and trivial comments about some other area of church life, taking the synod back to safe and familiar territory and avoiding anything that might be construed as negative commment on the political establishment. Two years later, taking part in a BBC Radio Ulster discussion, suggesting that the church had failed to develop any coherent social theology brought a riposte from an evangelical contributor that churches of his tradition had many social projects; he knew that there was a category difference between activities such as drop-in centres and homeless shelters, and a critique of the society that created a need for such projects, but was willing to try to blur the discussion so as to deflect attention from church failings.
Church discourse has increasingly been felt led with the contributions of shills; faith has become about private and personal fulfilment and peace and justice have been forgotten. God can get someone through college exams or provide funds for a church building; shills will be quick to detract attention from more ambitious expectations.