Around Christmas (I forget if it was just before or just after) I received a text message from a friend asking how to deal with trolls. This friend was fairly new to blogging and had just received a host of comments on their blog which they had either not anticipated at all, or at least not the passive aggression contained within them. I gave a rather pithy reply (due to constraints of time and message space), but here I hope to elaborate on that a bit more. In fact, this has been expanded so much, I’ve had to break it up into several parts.
I’m guessing most of you are more internet-savvy than I, so I don’t need to do too much explaining to you as to what trolling is. I only want to highlight some features of them, but I really want to focus on how a christian might respond to them.
Some background on trolls
Trolls are not always rude or impolite. In fact, most that I have come across are not and some even pride themselves on the fact. Their purpose is to antagonise or otherwise get a rise out of someone. To engage in abusive behaviour is sometimes known as flaming. A good troll will get their kicks without being identified as such.
Identifying a troll isn’t always clear cut. The most boring of them are very obvious. Commenters on the Guardian’s website may recall a particularly nasty troll called MoveAnyMountain (MAM) which posted hateful things about disabled people on a number of threads before eventually being banned. It may sometimes be easy to cast the term “troll” at someone you disagree with, but that doesn’t mean they actually are and to misidentify someone as a troll is generally considered poor form.
This was recently put quite succinctly by a message that was retweeted to my attention from @renireni who stated “Amount of big name twitterers who use the word ‘trolling’ to deflect accountability is astounding.”
In my experience of them, they are often concerned about either a single issue or at least a very narrow spectrum of issues. To use the MAM example above, they never expressed much interest in threads which didn’t include any aspect of disability rights. I have come across several atheist trolls in my time who seem only to have negative things to say about “religion.” I wonder if they have anything positive to say or have any other interests!
Another feature is that they often ask others to justify themselves, without giving much justification of their own views. In other words, they ask others to do a lot of the “work” for them. Goading others into wasting their time is seen by the troll as a victory for them. This is linked to another characteristic: a lack of real engagement. I have seen some who delude themselves into thinking that because they post and reply to others, that they are engaging. This is rarely more than simple hectoring, however, and I’ve seen good commenters being battered online by a barrage of naysayers who show no open-mindedness or willingness to discuss matters on anything other than their own terms.
What Peter taught
Moving away from general observations to more specific ones, I wish to talk about responding to trolls from a christian perspective. Foremost in my mind is Peter’s instruction to the dispersed churches when he writes “Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.” He carries on but I would encourage you to read the whole section in context.
I read this as both an encouragement and as a warning. For me, the ability to communicate an idea effectively shows that you have understood it. Even if someone disagrees with you, if they understand what you are saying, then at least any debate can be conducted with parties talking about the same thing. There are few more depressing debates than when two people use the same words to describe different concepts.
For this reason, I think it’s a fairly good idea to have close to hand an explanation, in your own words, the reasons for your faith. On this blog, one of the first posts I made was about a scientific approach to faith (not a methodology, but an approach that was as evidence-based as possible) and later I wrote a summary of Easter, which I see as being at the heart of my faith.
The warning comes with how we do this. If asked, I will direct people to read these, but I don’t arbitrarily send them to anyone I disagree with. Though I doubt I always succeed in explaining my faith “with gentleness and respect” I do try. Where I fail to do so, it is more often than not a reaction against those who show no gentleness or respect; i.e. “an eye for an eye”. I don’t claim that I, or any other christian, is perfect.
In the next part, I’ll look at what Jesus taught and what Paul did, before concluding in a third part later on.