On the internet and within social media sites, there are some highly opinionated folks who engage in discussions purely to provoke or annoy others. They often rally around a cause of some sort and use that cause as a lightning rod to draw people in who will debate the issues. Their goal isn’t to change attitudes or opinions through disciplined reasoning, but to derive narcissistic pleasure from the taunting and belittling of their victims.
Typically labeled as “Trolls”, these folks typically exhibit the following characteristics (reference = http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Don%27t_feed_the_Troll):
- Deliberately angering people.
- Breaking the normal flow of debate/discussion.
- Disrupting the smooth operation of the site.
- Deliberately being annoying for the sake of being obnoxious. For instance, using abusive names to refer to all the members on the site.
- Pretending to be profoundly ignorant or stupid, gleaning some weird sense of having “won” when other users subsequently come to believe this.
- Making itself the main topic of interest or discussion.
From that same reference site, a quick summary of a troll’s motivation:
It is probable that, for the troll, the last point is the most important. To this end it will post deliberately inflammatory messages which generate inflammatory responses; complain about being the victim of the inflammatory responses; endeavor to obtain allies against the discrimination it feels; turn on those same allies, etc. The whole objective of the exercise is to disrupt or make someone do something you wanted them to do for laughs. If a poster begins to post comments along the lines of, “Can’t you see how stupid you all are?” or “I keep laughing at all of you,” there is high probability that the poster is a troll.
Many people who want to engage in disciplined reasoning or even simple discussion around serious or emotionally charged topics (i.e. religion, politics, social causes, etc.) do not always recognize trolls until they’ve been drawn into a taunting session designed to frustrate and humiliate. Worse, the well intentioned folks, once manipulated into the trap, often continue to fight and struggle to make their point when the troll doesn’t even care about the argument – only the game of teasing and torturing the victim.
Most advice on internet trolls is to ignore them and refuse to continue to play the game. This has created a phrase “Don’t Feed the Troll” and sums up the best approach – simply walk away. As long as you recognize that the troll isn’t actually interested in your point of view, but only your emotional distress, you can let go of the argument and move on.
A Christian’s Response to Trolls
As a Christian, I often see other people of faith struggle to express their concerns on social media. Sometimes they seem to be very trusting people who care about sharing encouragement or requests for prayer support in genuinely difficult circumstances. I’ve also witnessed folks of sincere conviction trying to spread the word that God has a plan to reconcile with the people He created who live in sin and rebellion apart from Him. It’s a very serious conviction at the very heart of what Christians believe; however, good people often disagree on details, interpretations of scripture, and the meaning of scriptural doctrine.
Because of these disagreements, it is helpful to foster calm debate where the participants genuinely seek to understand each other’s view points and influence a shift in attitude an acceptance of faith tenets. Unfortunately, when navigating these delicate discussions, it becomes very tempting for trolls to step in and appear (momentarily) to be genuinely concerned about the issue being discussed. Then the troll can start their work of manipulating and toying with the original participants – even to the point of luring them to other discussion boards or pages which are essentially “troll caves” (places where most of the other participants are trolls also).
So what does the Bible say about a Christian’s conduct?
- James 1:19-20 “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” Could this include being “slow to post emotional responses to personal attacks or troll-ish comments on social media”? If we intend to be taken seriously so that the weight of our comments may be fairly evaluated by others who genuinely care about the topic being discussed, we ought to develop some discipline to avoid feeding the trolls (avoid taking the bait and falling into the trap, or at least recognizing when we’ve already done so).
- Proverbs 15:1-3 “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly. The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good.” Trolls rarely use soft answers to turn away wrath – instead they bait people and may insult them to goad them into further, but pointless, dialog. As a Christian, we can provide a soft answer, deliver a knowledgeable answer and recognize a fool’s folly. Lastly, we have the Holy Spirit to help us discern when we’re being baited.
- Proverbs 15:12 and 14 say “A scoffer does not like to be reproved; he will not go to the wise.” And “The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly” These verses remind us that trolls feed on folly and do not really want to be educated on a given topic – we can’t win an argument here so we ought to pass on by and preserve our calm and humility (Proverbs 15:21 and 33)
- And how about the remainder of Proverbs 15? Psalm 43?
Are well intentioned people (supporters of what is right and true and noble) being quick to post in anger on social media? Jesus did throw the money changers out of the temple with pure anger, but this wasn’t the norm for how He interacted with those who wanted to bring him down. Many of the religious teachers of Jesus’ time remind me of modern internet trolls – baiting with clever tactics and intrigues. Jesus typically shut them down by ignoring their ploy and delivering the truth in a disarming way (Mt 16:1-3; Mt 19:3-8; Mt 22:23-33; Mt22:34-40; et.al.)
When people feed the trolls, the trolls are encouraged to continue their schemes. It’s a lose-lose proposition (frustration for us and empowerment to someone who isn’t sincere in their willingness to cordially engage in reasonable debate) and we don’t have to play the game – we can walk away from those baiting arguments without giving up what is right and true in our hearts by delivering a quiet, disarming response rooted in scriptural truth. We can pray with sincere care towards the individual that God would find the right way to reach these folks. If that is going to be through a social media contact, then may God receive the glory for the accomplishment of turning their heart towards Him.
Remember, trolls are not people who actually care about the root of the argument, they only care about the theatrics. If you’re engaged in a debate with someone who is interested in being persuaded, then offer your points with graciousness and clarity.