These days, anyone who maintains a strong online presence knows about Internet Trolls—those who post comments solely intended to disrupt the conversation and/or upset those involved. Their tactics include shaming, name-calling, profanity, exaggerated claims and mindless rebuttals. They like the conflict and the attention when people challenge them.
Whitney Phillips, a media studies and communications scholar has an entire book from her research about Trolls, This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things. She notes that Trolls tend to be male, and most often target women, people of color and LGBT people.
Rumor has it there are secret, online sites made up exclusively for Trolls, designed to help and encourage them in their trouble-making quests. The Troll phenomenon is so prevalent, they’ve become a focus of psychological studies, defining and describing them in terms of a personality disorder, such as narcissism, sadism, racism, misogyny, homophobia and a Machiavellian need to manipulate. The experts agree the only way to respond to Trolls is NOT to respond. “Don’t feed the Trolls!”
A Troll is different than a Spammer—those folks who repeatedly posts unrelated links in the comment section. Also, someone who disagrees with a subject doesn’t make them a Troll. So, the Tea Party Republican friend from high school, who only watches Fox News and listens exclusively to Rush Limbaugh is probably not a Troll. Nor is that Pentecostal aunt who thinks Ted Cruz is a godly Christian. When I get Trolls. I usually try to engage them...once, to determine if they’re trolling or just an aggressive, opinionated person. (I get those as well.)
Because of the religious topics I cover—the Bible, church, "ex-gay" ministries, Fundamentalism—I’ve noticed a particular kind of Troll shows up. I generally refer to them as the Holy Trollers, because they seem overly concerned with bringing a divine message to the conversation. Over the years, I’ve actually been able to categorize them into a few distinct “personalities,” based on how they invade a discussion:
Biblical Literalist. This is the Reverend Troll who tells us “The Bible clearly says.” They see the Bible as absolute, and absolutely true; it's a “rule book” for everything in life, from sexuality to election of Presidents. There is no possibility in their minds they could be wrong. They are not there for dialogue; they've come to provide THE Truth.
Prophet of Doom. Like their Hebrew predecessors, there are those who will troll with a message of condemnation and judgment. Moses Troll has shown up to not only tell you how wrong we are, but to inform us of the dire consequences. And often, they will also include the archaic language of “Thus saith the Lord” or “Woe to you...” Again, they cannot be swayed or reasoned with; they've heard God and are on a divine mission.
Concerned Evangelist. They are convinced we’re going to hell, and want to set us on the “straight” path (spiritually and sexually), invite us into the fold and change our eternal destiny. Saint Troll's message is simple:"Repent," but sometimes includes select verses that outline the "Plan of Salvation," and ends with the Sinner's Prayer, possibly copied directly from a Gospel Tract. They might only offer the condescending "I'll pray for you," which coincidentally, is the same response we often get if we attempt to challenge either their theology or their methodology.
One consistent version of Saint Troll are those who identify as "formerly homosexual," or someone who knows someone who "changed." They love to post YouTube testimonies as proof, convinced that watching will miraculously turn us from our "sinful gay lifestyle."
Defender of the Faith. These are the ones who are outraged by variant beliefs. Heresy! They demand purity of doctrine, and strict adherence to the tenets of Traditional Christianity, which could include anything from patriarchy, marriage, homosexuality, the imminent return of Jesus, and a six-day creation. While the Concerned Evangelist worries we might go to hell, this one will demand it! (Even rejoice in it.) Zealot Troll is a hothead, and while they will unapologetically identify themselves as Christians, they are not above using ear-searing profanity to make their righteous points. Trust me, I've been called names—using the crudest words, the vilest slurs, filthy imagery and graphic descriptions—by those who felt they were protecting the Christian faith. I wasn't sure if they were advocating for God, or auditioning for a Quentin Tarantino film!
EXAMPLE: I invite you to watch this video of famed evolutionary biologist and vocal atheist, Dr. Richard Dawkins, reading letters and comments from those with religious beliefs, who are challenging him. These "Defenders of the Faith" are brutal, as is their colorful language. (Caution: Explicit Language. All in the name of Jesus, I assume!)
Bible Ninja This is a term I coined to describe those who fly in, silently drop a few cut-and-pasted Bible verses, then vanish. They prefer to travel under the disguise of a fake profile. The goal is not conversation, discussion or communication...just “spreading the Word of God.” I remember waking up one morning to find Stealth Troll had pasted the same Bible verse in more than 20 of the items on my Facebook page.
Author’s Note: Once I was able to briefly engage one of these Ninjas who persistently posted verses on my page, and I asked why he/she wouldn’t have a conversation with me. The response (which ironically was also just a series of copied Bible verses) was the idea that The Word of God has power, and just the fact of speaking it, or posting it, could change the minds of those listening/reading. (cf: Isaiah 55:11’ Romans 10:17; 1 Thessalonians 2:13; Hebrews 4:12) It’s not a new concept, but I find this application more akin to a magical incantation than anything resembling apologetics.
There can be overlapping in these personalities and approaches. Like other Trolls, they are not above using lies, exaggerations and inflammatory statements to prove their point. (Which puts them in the company of many prominent politicians and preachers, but that’s a different subject, for another entry.) The one thing all these Holy Trollers have in common is Fundamentalism. What they believe is rigid, unbending and not open to discussion. They are right. Always right.
I admit it can be difficult not to engage them, since they are using the language of my faith, and I want to show inclusive grace. But in the end, I believe they must be handled in the same way as any Troll—don’t engage!
Nothing infuriates Holy Trollers more, or shuts them down faster, than being ignored.
I'll follow the exhortation of Jesus...and Taylor Swift. "Shake it off" and move on. (cf: Mark 6:11)