There are few things as universally understood and expected to be horrible, as the internet comments section. When I say universal, I mean it – this applies to comment sections on news sites, mommy-blogs, gossip round-ups, and yes – even online Christian magazines. Pretty much anywhere there’s a group of people with keyboards and anonymity, the result will be awful, cruel behavior.
Why is this? And more importantly, why is this just as true for Christian websites?
For those who might not know, the people engaging in the worst of this behavior are called “trolls.” They are a (most often) anonymous commenter who exists only to antagonize, attack, and goad others into fighting with them. If you’ve ever spent time on a webpage that allow comments, you’ve probably heard the expression, “don’t feed the trolls.” The idea is to ignore them (not feed them) in the hopes they’ll go away. I’m not going to do that. At the risk of setting forth a bountiful buffet for these trolls to gorge on, I’m going to address this behavior. Or at least address it for the commenters on sites like this.
If you’re a Christian, you can’t be a troll.
The “why?” should be fairly obvious. A troll only exists to attack, insult and dehumanize others, and this goes against everything a Christian should stand for. Christians should use their words and actions to build others up, encourage, and love. Trolls don’t show love. They spread hate.
It wasn’t until I started writing for Christian websites that I encountered trolling commenters who were awful enough to actually affect me. As a female writer, I’m familiar with trolls. The ones that are easy to brush off leave comments like, “B*tch, this sucks and UR fat.” But that’s not the kind of comment that comes from a Christian troll. The comments Christians leave are worse. That’s because what drives Christian trolls isn’t boredom or immaturity – it’s a belief that they have to correct everyone who is wrong, because only they know the truth. They believe it’s their responsibility to prevent others from being deceived.
Their words are put forth not with misguided humor, but religious conviction.
In the minds of these commenters, what they’re doing isn’t trolling. It’s witnessing. Preaching. Doing God’s work. When they attack a gay man who just shared how hard it was for him to come back to Christ after accepting his orientation, they’re just trying to make sure he doesn’t “submit to sin.” When they call a progressive Christian woman who supports birth control a “feminazi baby-killer” they’re just trying to restore society to it’s proper gendered order. And when they download software that allows them to mask their IP address, so that they can keep commenting after they’ve been banned weekly for three years, they’re just showing how hard they’re determined to support the kingdom.
Only they’re not doing any of those things. Not because dialogue among people who disagree can’t be helpful. But because dialogue is not what these commenters are after. What they’re after is the ability to unleash their frustration, anger, and dissonance on people who they think are wrong. It’s never been about wanting to “help” those people see the light, because if it was, the comments would not be so biting and nasty. It’s always been about tearing others down, so they can feel superior.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that, 9 times out of 10 (especially if the topic has anything to do with sex, birth control, abortion, or women’s rights) this angry Christian commenter is a middle aged white male. This does not mean that all middle aged white males are trolls. Absolutely not. But it does point to what I think is a huge motivating factor behind trollish behavior.
A fear of being ignored.
I’m not a white male, so I have no idea what it’s like, admittedly. But I can imagine that if you are a white male of a certain age, it can be hard when the privilege you grew up with as a default is now thrown in your face as a tool of oppression. Suddenly, the church doesn’t just revolve around what is best for men like you. It becomes a place where different voices are respected, voices proclaiming things that you think are wrong. Voices that make yours less heard. That will either make you happy for others who are now being treated with respect, or angry that the respect no longer rests solely with you. You can’t take this anger out on your liberal daughter-in-law or your gay boss though, so you take it out on the liberal women in the comments section of that website you hate seeing posted in your Facebook feed. The whole time thinking that what you’re doing is your responsibility, because your voice is the only one worth listening to.
What makes Christian trolls more dangerous than your average 13 year old boy with an iPad is the belief that what they are doing is done for the good of God. But things done for the good of God don’t hurt people.
No one thinks that leaving a nasty comment on an article they don’t agree with is a sin. Or at least, when they’re leaving it they don’t feel the same sense of trepidation and guilt they would if they were about to say something cruel to someone’s face. It’s just the Internet, we reason. Everyone knows you shouldn’t take the comments too seriously. But we forget that behind the internet are real people reading the words on the screen. Real emotions are felt, and real consequences result.
It’s time that we stop treating the comments section of our favorite Christian websites as a neutral zone to be ignored, instead of a real place with real people potentially doing real damage. The tragically frequent suicides of cyber-bullied teens show that internet comments DO matter, and we as Christians should be taking them much more seriously. If we profess to be Christians, we should be thinking about how our virtual words affect the people they’re directed towards. We should be spending less time thinking about the best way to show we’re right, and more time trying to treat the “wrong” people with love.
As someone who has far, far too often been guilty of treating those I disagree with with anything but love, I am guilty of the same behavior I hate in others. This is because, on the internet, I often only see the words on the screen, and not the faces behind them (if there’s a face at all). It’s easy to disassociate these words from the people speaking – people who I have been commanded to love as Christ loved me. When I do this, I’m no better than the trolls mistreating the people I love.
“Love” of course, being the key word. The one so often forgotten and misused.
Words are not loving just because we say they are. Insisting that the most loving thing to do is make sure someone is aware of their sin is not loving, if the person your “love” is directed towards feels hated. It’s only love when the person feels loved, or goes on to act the way a person who is loved would. Every sinner Jesus ever encountered felt first and foremost seen and valued, and then, only then, remorseful of their sin. When they left him, they were filled with hope, joy, and a sense of worth. Three emotions very few people on the receiving end of an angry Christian comment rant feel.
What so many people professing to “love” others in the comments section forget, is that it was only the righteous and religious that Jesus was harsh with – it was for the ones trying to demean others He reserved His anger. Which I guess is a good reminder that religious trolls have been around since before Jesus time.
Ignoring religious trolls doesn’t make them go away. Maybe though our focus should not be on making anyone go away, but on getting everyone to see others they disagree with as people worthy of the same love and respect that Jesus showed sinners.
That’s the only kind of “troll feeding” we should do.