The internet – and, in particular, social media – is often touted as “the way to go” for churches and congregations eager to increase their social outreach and interactivity. And, indeed, there can be profound benefits from doing so – even if the internet is not the “magic bullet” solution to a church’s problems that many people think it is. However, there are also down sides which any faith community exploring this option need to be aware of; and of these, perhaps the most confronting is the phenomenon of the “internet troll”.
What is an “internet troll”? Essentially, a troll is anyone who uses the internet – and especially social media platforms – to abuse, humiliate, vilify, belittle, intimidate, or otherwise make life miserable for other people or organisations with an online presence. The troll will often present themselves as someone offering an “alternative” opinion to that presented by the source of their attack; but beneath this apparently benign mask of engagement there lurks a single, insidious purpose: to upset, to hurt, to demonise and discredit. For some of the more extreme trolls, their purpose is nothing less than driving the target of their attack out of the online space altogether.
As the Minister of a congregation with an online presence, I have some experience with trolls and their ways. What follows is based on that experience. It does not claim to be a definitive guide to internet trolls; but I hope what I have learned can help others navigate the rocky waters of internet trolling should they have the misfortune to encounter them.
The contact we’ve had with online trolls has occurred almost exclusively in relation to the church message board, which stands next to a busy road and in such a way as to be easily viewable by the public.
When I became Minister of the congregation, I was determined that the message board would not post the vapid, irrelevant messages I have seen out the front of too many churches. I was equally determined that it would not present the self-righteous, smugly superior messages that also adorn too many “roadside pulpits”. Rather, I wanted our messages to be relevant: and by “relevant”, I mean messages that spoke directly into social reality from the point of view of the Gospel proclamation of the Kingdom of God. In other words, messages that critiqued human reality from the perspective of the transformed reality to which God calls us through lives of faith and discipleship.
This, of course, necessitated the message board conveying truths that were either “politically inconvenient” or socially unpopular. And, naturally, I expected there would be “blowback” from such messages, from both within and without the church. And, indeed, that has occurred. And the reality is that most of this “push-back”, while at times forthright, has also been largely respectful and considered.
And then the trolls started targeting the signs. They were able to do so because of our online presence. One avenue was through our webpage, which, having been re-designed in order to enable email feedback, let trolls send messages directly to my inbox. The second was through our Facebook page. We use this page to advertise activities and give others an insight into the life of our congregations. This, among other things, includes posting photos of our roadside message board. And Facebook, being a highly interactive space, gave the trolls almost unlimited freedom to target our page and level their abuse at us.
Our first experience with trolls came when a “shock jock” based in Queensland took exception to one message linking the death of the asylum seeker Reza Barati with the death of Jesus – both being examples of refugees killed as a consequence of government policy. How our message came to the attention of this particular “shock jock” is unknown: suffice to say, he posted a rant about it on his webpage, in all the inflammatory and abusive language that has, sadly, come to be associated with this particular category of media “personality”. And, suddenly, one day, my inbox started filling up with emails of varying degrees of abusiveness and incoherence, all courtesy of this particular individual’s audience.
A more recent experience has come in the wake of a highly-publicised campaign to force food companies to drop halal certification for certain foods, a campaign based on the groundless assertion that the halal industry is providing financial support to overseas Islamist terror organisations. In the wake of a categorical statement by the Australian government to the effect that such accusations had no basis in fact, we put up a message arguing that it wasn’t halal certification that was funding terrorism, but our own intolerance as a society. Strangely, this sign had been up for almost a month without a peep, and I was on the point of changing it, when suddenly the attacks began: our Facebook page filled up with abuse, vilification, and denunciation. I suspect that this was because the trolls responsible, having exhausted their anti-halal campaign in other directions, suddenly noticed our message (or had it brought to their attention) and decided it made a fruitful new avenue of attack.
In the case of the first attack, it lasted barely 48 hours before petering out. In the case of the latter, as at the time of writing, it has persisted for a week at varying levels of intensity: usually long periods of inactivity followed by intense periods of abuse, usually on weekends and early evenings/mornings.
Types of Attack
Our experience has been that attacks tend to come in “waves”, with each “wave” representing a different type of attacker. To be sure, each type of attacker is a troll, and each type of attack is intended to disrupt your operations and inflict emotional and social damage upon you. But each “wave” represents the different tactics trolls apply, as well as the different types of personality evident among trolls.
First Wave: The Angry Troll. Typically, these are the first trolls to make themselves known, and they are characterised by the overtly abusive and offensive nature of their messages. Foul and violent language, abusive epithets, accusations of everything ranging from political treason to social exploitation, and a species of derision characterised by gloating and an assumption of your moral bankruptcy are typical of the angry troll. Their purpose is to inflict maximum emotional damage upon you, to so shock and horrify you that you are left emotionally and psychologically wounded – and, indeed, perhaps inclined to abandon your online presence altogether.
Never, ever, respond to an angry troll. Delete the message, block the troll from being able to access your page, and report the message to the platform’s administrators. Responding to an angry troll will only expose you to more hate-filled vitriol, which is precisely what this type of troll wants.
Second Wave: The Reasonable Troll. The reasonable troll will open by denying any hostile intent: they will say that all they want to do is “clarify” the situation or “ask a few questions” in order to “better understand” your position. The reasonable troll will then try and draw you by degrees into a debate in which you are forced to defend your position, while at the same time coming across as unreasonable or uninformed. At the same time, they will gradually assert their own position ever more insistently, while at the same time avoiding being so overtly offensive that you would be warranted in deleting and blocking them. The point being, however, that the reasonable troll isn’t interested in engagement or in taking your position seriously; their intent is solely to “prove” the reasonableness of their own position contra yours – indeed, to prove that you are both wrong and unreasonable, while they are the fount of rightness and righteousness.
The reasonable troll requires very careful handling. Under no circumstances get drawn into a debate on their terms: such trolls are usually highly adept at manipulation and connivance, and entering into debate with this type of troll really is a case of entering into the dragon’s den. By the same token, you will perhaps have to respond to their initial approaches: but do so in a way that doesn’t invite (or minimises the scope for) further engagement. State your position, make it clear that you have no objection to genuine dialogue, but also make it clear that you tender no apologies for your position or for the fact that you will remove any post which, for whatever reasons, you deem does not contribute to helpful conversation. If you feel yourself getting drawn into a debate in which you are increasingly put on the back foot, simply ignore the troll and don’t respond: starved of attention, this type of troll will usually give up and go away.
Third Wave: The Accusatory/Misrepresenting Troll. This type of troll is more confronting, but will also (usually) stop short of posting a message that gives you overt grounds to delete/block them. Their typical approach is to misrepresent what you have said, and then reflect it back to you in a way that accuses you of bigotry or intolerance, or of violating their right to “free speech”. Thus, for example, with our sign stating that it was intolerance and not halal that funded terrorism, several of the trolls accused us of intolerance on the grounds that we were stifling their “right” to object to the halal industry and/or choose not to buy halal certified food. Of course, the sign did no such thing, nor did it endorse the halal process (or any other method of animal slaughter, if it comes to that); but the purpose of the trolls was to both misrepresent our sign and confuse the issue in such a way that we could be accused of hypocrisy, bigotry, and intolerance. Trolls of this type also tend to be pedantic and legalistic, picking and choosing words and phrases from your original message in order to “prove” their point.
Your only option with trolls of this type is to again clearly and unambiguously state your position, pointing out where and how the trolls are wrong and how they have either misrepresented your position and/or confused the issue. However, do not do this repeatedly and do not get drawn into a debate: the more you say, the more this type of troll will try and pick apart what you say in order to confuse you, lead you into contradiction, and otherwise make you look foolish. At the end of the day, ignoring this type of troll may be your best recourse; although, being more confrontational, they also may give you greater opportunity to delete their posts and/or block them altogether.
The nature of your online presence and the points of attack targeted by trolls will also be indicative of their methods of operation. Broadly speaking, our experience indicates trolls operate in one of two ways: pack-hunting and as a lone wolf.
The lone wolf will generally be someone who is known to you or who is known to someone who knows you. The lone wolf will not so much “surf” the net looking for targets to attack as opportunistically use their existing networks to attack targets as the chance arises. Typically, the purpose of the lone wolf is not so much to hurt and abuse as it is to demonstrate their intellectual or moral “superiority”: their approach will be characterised by a snide, sneering sarcasm; by a propensity to argumentative and derisive commentary; and by an approach that combines the denunciation of others with a self-pitying sense of “being the victim”. The lone wolf will try to minimise the significance of, or draw attention away from, their own behaviour; they will try and avoid the issue or make the issue about you and not them; or they will accuse you of exactly the same behaviours which they are themselves demonstrating.
The lone wolf will often try and take advantage of the fact that they are known, however obliquely, to their targets, in order to avoid reprisals or “win the argument”. In other words, the lone wolf will try and use the awkwardness or embarrassment derived from familiarity to successfully operate as a troll. They hope others will “feel sorry” for them or want to avoid a confrontation and thus allow them to “get away” with their trolling. The only remedy for the lone wolf troll who is known to you is to stand up to them and “call them out”, naming their behaviour for what it is and telling them you won’t be intimidated by them. Don’t become abusive or aggressive, and don’t get drawn into the kind of debate this type of troll loves and can manipulate: simply hold your ground and name their bullying for what it is. The lone wolf will try and make the accusation rebound on you; but if you stay calm and firm, and even allow them the satisfaction of the last word, however innocuous, it is unlikely they will target you again in a hurry.
The pack-hunting troll is a troll who is known to other trolls, or belongs to a group (usually a hate group) comprised of internet trolls, or belongs to a group known to other groups and with whom they share information and/or resources. The pack-hunting troll typically “surfs” the internet actively looking for targets, or utilises information shared between trolls and hate groups to identify and select targets. The pack-hunting troll can also use third-party information – such as the websites of “shock-jock” commentators – to target specific categories of target. Pack-hunting trolls will either try and “swamp” you with multiple comments, posts, images, and links, or they will start “conversations” on your website/social media page which purport to be from unrelated individuals, but which are in reality trolls acting in concert to abuse, threaten, humiliate, or otherwise achieve whatever pernicious purpose is behind the attack.
In the face of an attack by pack-hunting trolls it is imperative to remain calm. Do not try and respond to each and every post. Concentrate on identifying the most egregiously offensive posts: delete them, and block the trolls responsible. Of the rest, decide which can be deleted/blocked, ignored, or responded to. Attacks typically come in waves, so you will have time to sort through multiple posts: start with the worst and work your way down. And to the ones that do merit a reply, don’t get drawn into a subsequent conversation with multiple “trolls”: this will simply be the online equivalent of the besieged wagon-train – with you as the wagon-train! Don’t lose your cool, don’t become abusive; and if it becomes too much, don’t be afraid to delete and block. You’ll be accused of hypocrisy, of intolerance, of crushing “free speech” – ignore this and delete and block those responsible. Remember: trolls are very good on insisting on their “rights” while ignoring yours, especially your right to an online presence free from abuse by others, as well as your right to moderate your page according to your own standards of decency and fair-play.
Broadly speaking, our experience with trolls indicates that they come in two general categories. This may be a reflection of the content of our website and Facebook page: given the messages which get targeted are those which contain a significant socio-political content, this probably means that it is a specific kind of troll who targets us. Websites and social media pages that have different content possibly attract different categories of troll.
In general terms, the two types of troll who have attacked us are: jingoistic nationalists and religious sectarians.
The jingoistic nationalist is easily identified: on Facebook, for example, their profile picture will consist of the Australian flag or an outline of the Australian mainland filled in with a picture of the Australian flag. These images will be frequently accompanied by slogans such as “Love The Flag or Leave”, and a scroll down the troll’s Facebook page will reveal they are a member of racist social and political organisations, or of hate groups directed at specific religious or cultural communities. The images and language on their social media/internet pages will be typically aggressive or even violent. They may claim a nominal Christian identification, but their posts and comments will reveal a profound ignorance of Christianity and its teachings. In other words, their identification with Christianity is actually an identification with being “white” or “Western” and bears no actual resemblance to a Christian worldview. A smaller subset will claim to be atheist and will begin by claiming to “hate” all religions; their subsequent comments, however, will reveal that their “atheism” is more about xenophobia and an antipathy toward a particular religious community than any considered position on the existence or otherwise of God.
The jingoistic nationalist troll typically uses violent language and imagery in their attacks, accuses you of treason (against the country, against “the West”, and against “Christianity”), and also accuses you of supporting “terrorism”, “extremism”, or a “foreign takeover” of the country. They will also accuse you of “harbouring” paedophiles as well as sundry other offences. This category of troll makes up the vast bulk of the “angry troll” population, although older/more experienced members of this group can be found in both the “reasonable troll” and “accusatory/misrepresentation troll” populations.
The religious sectarian troll is harder to spot and won’t be apparent to you until they make their attack. A look at their online presence won’t reveal anything out of the ordinary; they may be members of religious or social-political organisations, but that in and of itself won’t say much unless that organisation has a public record for certain types of conduct.
The more extreme element of the religious sectarian will use abusive language right from the outset. They will accuse you of “betraying” Christianity or of “doing Satan’s work” or similar epithets. The more experienced trolls from this category will begin by either asking a seemingly innocuous question or by expressing “concern” at the messages and/or images you have posted online. This will be to draw you in to a conversation in which they will ultimately reveal their hand: you are in league with the “anti-Christ” and you ought to be ashamed of yourself for calling yourself a Christian. Both types of religious sectarian troll will immediately assert the superiority of their “Christian credentials”, which in turn forms the justification for their attack.
What Motivates Trolls?
I am no expert in the psychology of trolls, however, our encounters with them to date do suggest some underlying motivations factors.
Exaggerated sense of entitlement. As noted above, trolls aggressively assert their “rights” while completely ignoring or trampling on yours. This assertiveness is emblematic of trolls’ exaggerated sense of their own entitlement: their entitlement to invade your online space to abuse and torment you; their entitlement to say what they like without sanction or correction (usually characterised as their right to “free speech); their entitlement to “correct” your “mistakes” without having to respect or accept any of your arguments. In this context, trolling is an aggressive assertion of the troll’s “right” to do whatever they please and of your “obligation” to allow them to do it.
Powerlessness/Grievance. Many trolls articulate a sense of “victimhood”, of having been abused, exploited, or taken advantage of by others. Quite often this “other” is identified as “political correctness” or “foreigners” or people who “rort the system” or those who are “soft” on whoever it is the troll blames for their situation in life. This sense of being a victim often reflects a reality in which the troll has suffered from economic disadvantage, bureaucratic indifference, the loss of employment, or the breakdown of a fundamental relationship. The powerlessness engendered by these circumstances tends to exacerbate a pre-existing inclination toward self-pity, in which the troll not only feels sorry for themselves but comes to a belief that their circumstances are the result of a “plot” against them or because the “system” is “rigged”. This in turn develops an aggrieved outlook that is closely aligned to a sense of entitlement: the troll has been abused so they are entitled to abuse others. In this context, trolling is the troll’s way of “getting back” at whoever’s online presence/content they deem to be emblematic of their own self-perceived disadvantage.
Anonymity. Internet trolls are essentially a species of bully; and, like most bullies, they prey on those whom they deem to be either weaker than themselves or not in a position to respond/retaliate. The relative anonymity and “arm’s length” dissociation which the internet affords online trolls satisfies their need for a means through which to torment their victims, as well as minimising the risk that they will be made accountable for their actions. It also reduces the chance that they will be forced to confront at a personal level the damage they do to their victims’ humanity, thus enabling the avoidance of feelings like guilt or shame. In short, trolls attack others online because they can, because they can do so with relative impunity, and because the very nature of the internet allows them to depersonalise their victims and thus avoid any psychological or emotional dissonance.
Are Trolls Dangerous?
Our experience with trolls suggest that they are not usually a direct physical threat. Being bullies, they are more interested in tormenting and abusing from afar rather than in physical confrontation. However, this cannot be assumed or taken for granted, and a certain level of caution is necessary: never, for example, reveal personal information online as a rule, but especially in your encounters with a troll. And certainly, any specific or direct threats should be referred to the appropriate authorities.
The real danger of trolls from our experience is their capacity to inflict psychological and emotional harm. Whether through the sheer viciousness of their attacks, or the weight of numbers, or their relentless persistence, contact with trolls can be a depressing, debilitating, and downright traumatic experience. The advent of “cyber bullying” and its often tragic consequences is evidence of this destructive capacity. Self-awareness is the key: if you feel you are being adversely affected by encounters with trolls, get support and assistance.
Online Platforms: Do They Protect You?
Our experience has been limited to a website and a Facebook page. The only way trolls can attack us through the website is via the comments page: any comments they leave go straight to my inbox, which I can then simply delete.
Facebook is a different story altogether. Unless you make your page a “closed” page – that is, visible only to those whom you allow onto your page (and if you’re a church seeking outreach opportunities, why would you do this?) – trolls will have pretty much unlimited capacity to attack you.
Facebook does enable you to deal with trolls by giving you the capacity to both delete their comments and permanently ban/block them. This has the disadvantage of making all corrective action retrospective; you can’t prevent attacks from happening, you can only deal with them. But it does have the advantage of ensuring that most attacks will be one-offs: that is to say, that particular troll will not be able to attack you again unless they have access to more than one online identity.
Facebook also gives you the capacity to report troll attacks that violate their “community standards”. Unfortunately, the options you are given for describing the nature of the attack are both very limited and very vague, making it difficult to report exactly what has happened; and our experience with Facebook suggests that they are most unwilling to act on the basis of a complaint. On the other hand, if the troll messages you (instead of posting on your page) you can report the message as spam, and this is a report Facebook do seem more willing to act upon.
So: do online platforms protect you? Based on our limited experience we would say “no”. Other social media platforms may be more vigilant than Facebook; we don’t know. But we would strongly suggest you don’t assume those platforms will, or rely on them to, protect you.
Dealing With Trolls: The Realities And The Necessities
The first reality you are going to have to come to terms with is that the simple fact of being online means you have increased the risk of being attacked by trolls. This is not saying that a troll attack will be an inevitability; it is simply pointing out that having space online means sharing that space with trolls. And just as you would not go online without having adequate security software in place, so you should not go online without having thought through the issue of trolls and determined what you are going to do about them.
The second reality is that dealing with trolls takes fortitude. If your mental and emotional resources are not sufficient to deal with the abusiveness and aggression trolls display toward others, you should not be undertaking your church or congregation’s online moderating duties. Or, at the least, you should be sharing the moderating duties with someone who can deal with the angst and leave the trolls to that person.
The third reality is that the type of content you post online will also significantly determine whether you are attacked by trolls, what types of attack you will be subject to, and the category of trolls who will do the attacking. If you are going to post content that is in any way “controversial” you are simply going to have to accept that you will significantly increase your risk of attack by trolls. This is especially true of matters that touch on social or political issues. So – if you make the decision to be controversial in a public space, accept the reality that you are more than likely going to be trolled.
This being said, there are moments of unexpected humour in amidst all the abuse and vitriol. Trolls sometimes say the funniest things, usually by virtue of their ignorance and incoherence. So you might unexpectedly find yourself having a good laugh where a moment ago you felt only despair and frustration.
Likewise, trolls can help unwittingly spread your message, both through “sharing” your online posts as well as increasing your viewing audience. In the case of the latest troll attack against our Facebook page, the particular image that has been the focus of their attack has risen from a few hundred views to over 51,000! It has likewise been shared over 600 times. In other words, the trolls are helping spread your message in a way you could never have hoped to have achieved on your own.
Finally, you will be surprised how many people gather around to support you. This can sometimes be problematic, as some of your supporters can be as abusive as the trolls, and will need to be dealt with. But otherwise, the messages of support and (in the case of Facebook) the likes you receive from people you did not even know existed can be a gratifying counterweight to the tedium and hurt involved in a troll attack. In our own case, the latest troll attack has sent our page likes (comparatively) through the roof as people become aware of the attack and seek to offer support.
Does any of this make up for a troll attack or make it a positive experience? No, it doesn’t. There is nothing positive about being attacked and abused. But it does at least mean that it isn’t all one-way traffic.
The above observations derive from my experience of being a Minister in a church congregation with an – admittedly limited – online presence. They do not purport to be a definitive account of trolls, their motivations, and activities. The insights derived from this experience is always growing, so that in a very real way the foregoing is incomplete and in need of updating. But it does hope to at least give you some idea of what you might have to deal with.
These reflections are not intended to dissuade any faith community from moving into an online space – there are far too many positives associated with being online for me to suggest to any church or congregation that they should eschew an online presence. Indeed, given the amount of content and activity on the Net, it seems to me that your overall likelihood of being attacked by trolls is relatively low. However, depending on the decisions you make about the type of online platform you use and the content you display on it, your chances of being targeted by trolls may significantly increase. You need to be aware of that reality and prepared for it.
(c) Copyright Brendan E Byrne 2018. All rights reserved.