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Reflection: Don’t Feed the Trolls!

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People who do not get along with others are interested only in themselves; they will disagree with what everyone else knows is right. – Proverbs 18:1 GNT


One who separates himself seeks his own desire; He quarrels against all sound wisdom. Proverbs 18:1 NASB


An unfriendly person pursues selfish ends and against all sound judgment starts quarrels. Proverbs 18:1 NIV

Sometimes the biggest threat to community comes from outside; sometimes it comes from within.

If people experience the rejection of a community, they will often work to destroy it, like the proverbial child not embraced by the village who will burn it down to feel it’s warmth.

When we choose the path of violating community standards and denying consensus truth, we often do it, not because we have a burning revelation, but because it enables us to hold our desired relationship to that community. We may be the smartest person in the room, but that’s not why we are disagreeing with everyone else. We are doing so to hurt them, possibly because we feel hurt by them, and possibly because we have been hurt by someone else.

We are doing so because it forces the people who did not show the love we wanted to pay attention to us.

Let us note here, that this describes many of the postures we take in community, and many of the postures we take as artists, and speakers, and teachers, and social beings in general.

  1. Some of us are most comfortable telling people off. We may be called to be exhorters, but our own unresolved anger is probably partially driving our messaging.
  2. Some of us are most comfortable talking over people’s heads. We may be called to be teachers, but our own insecurities are likely mixed into the way we teach.
  3. Some of us are most comfortable telling jokes. We may be called to be comics. And we may also have unresolved needs for approval.
  4. Some of us feel best when we are on-stage. We may have a divine purpose for being on stage. And we may also be desperate for attention.

We _all_ have issues. That’s why therapy is powerful. It’s why healing is a process. The good news, also, is that we will become better exhorters, better teachers, better communicators, and better performers the more we work these things out. Our gifts propel us, but our blind spots limit us.

This scripture guest stars some modern archetypes that are really as old as time: The contrarian. The instigator. The troublemaker. The troll.

Trolling involves the deliberate posting of inflammatory comments and arguments to get a rise out of people.

Here it is helpful to identify the origin of the term. Because a troll describes a mythical monster who harasses travelling billy goats and tries to devour hobbits, and is characterized by being thoroughly ugly, this is often our first thought.

But “trolling” is a fishing term. It’s a method of fishing that involves towing lines from a boat to target fish swimming in the upper layers of the water. It is low effort fishing to snag the easily caught.

And on the internet, the catch is you.

And the bait is whatever agitates you enough to bite.

It may be a shiny lure wiggling in your face. It may be an apparent snack when you’re emotionally hungry. And once you bite, you’re hooked on a ride that will either jerk you around or pull you to your own demise.

Trolling is an easy way to express our hostility towards someone under the guise of sincerity. We jerk them around for an audience.

We can take positions, join movements, even form identities, less because of our convictions, than because we know it will be maximally aggravating to our enemies.

We are not flocking to leaders because we love them. We are flocking to them because we hate each other.

And the digital world has trolls living their best life now, because they no longer have to leave the house to start trouble.

Between the NASB and the NIV we find an additional nuance.

The troll may take a ridiculous position for the purpose of arguing, “quarreling against sound wisdom.”

And he may also argue when no-one should be arguing, “against all sound wisdom starting quarrels.”

You don’t play devil’s advocate with people in agony.

And if you do, your obvious intent, as amusing as you may find it, is hurting people who are already hurting.

If you walk into a group of strangers and start calling them all the most hurtful names you can think of, or knowingly uttering their fighting words, you are looking for trouble. And you may, indeed, find it.

So why do we do it? The motivations are varied and complex. A 2010 study featuring interviews of Wikipedia trolls found themes of “boredom, attention seeking, revenge, pleasure, and a desire to cause damage to the community.”[1]

Another study of Usenet posts identified four primary characteristics of trolling: aggression, deception, disruption, and success.[2]

The troll is a trickster, a chaos agent, causing trouble for fun.

As reasonable as their questions may seem, as knowledgeable as they may appear, they are not operating in good faith.[3] They are entering into discussions with people who care about something that they do not. And they are coming to start a fight. There is, therefore, neither resolution to the conversation, nor relief from the aggravation, because the aggravation is the point.

This is distinctly different from the person locked into a passionate stance who refuses to be persuaded of anything. That person, while perhaps disruptive, believes in something. The troll believes in chaos.

A recent study showed that gender, psychopathy, and sadism all play a part in trolling.[4] In other words, trolls were commonly men who were uncaring, dishonest, and either weren’t bothered by or actively enjoyed other people’s suffering.

One surprising finding was that trolling did not correlate, as countless afterschool specials would assure us, with low self-esteem. If, on the contrary, a person had both high self-esteem and a high level of sadism, trolling became more likely.[5]

Interestingly enough, another study showed that women’s trolling behavior increased on dating apps such as Tinder, becoming similar to men’s[6]. And while I don’t have room to unpack this here, I have certainly experienced enough jerkish guys and mean girls to recognize that the spirit of a bully transcends gender.

The places where we congregate, and feel most comfortable, are where we tend to reveal the most of ourselves. They are, therefore, where the best and worst of us come out.

At our best, we educate, encourage, enlighten, inspire, comfort, and motivate. Out of our own humanity, we help someone else become more human. We both grow in the process.

At our worst, we torment, terrorize, and demoralize. We weaponize our gifts to do people harm. Disguising our inhumanity, we exploit the human weaknesses of others, rendering us both less human in the process.

In my next post, I’ll consider constructive responses to trolling.

For now, I’ll just say we all get to choose how we use our gifts.

Choose wisely.

(Photo Credit: Ellie Burgin)


[1] https://www.sciencedirect.com/...

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jeff Atwood, “What Is Trolling?,” web log, Coding Horror: Programming and Human Factors (blog), April 30, 2015, https://blog.codinghorror.com/....

[4] 1. Evita March, “New Research Shows Trolls Don’t Just Enjoy Hurting Others, They Also Feel Good about Themselves,” The Conversation, January 22, 2024, https://theconversation.com/ne....

[5] Ibid.

[6] 1. Erin E Buckels et al., “Trolls Just Want to Have Fun,” Personality and Individual Differences, February 8, 2014, https://www.sciencedirect.com/....

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