Don’t Feed the Trolls

I can’t tell you how grateful I am that readers take time to visit and to read this site. My gratification only increases when people take time to comment. It is an honor and a privilege to have readers, and I am thankful for all of you.

Since beginning this site in 2005, I have had a pretty laissez faire approach to moderating comments. Except for a filter that I set up to eliminate obscenities, my comments policy has been pretty open. I like for the comments section to be a rough and tumble place where opposing viewpoints can meet head-on and be debated. Anyone who has spent any time reading this site knows how rough and tumble the comments here can be.

I generally do not screen all the comments. I’m not saying it’s the best policy. It’s just the one that I use because I simply do not have time to read all of them (especially in the longer threads), and I do not want to turn off the comments altogether.

For this reason, I sometimes get complaints about the tone of the debate that goes on in the comments section of this blog. I agree that some of the rhetoric is way over the top. In fact, the tone in some comments is positively sub-Christian. Some write as if it doesn’t matter how they speak so long as what they speak is right (or at least “right” in their own eyes). Of course, we are all tempted to speak carelessly from time to time, especially when we feel like our cause is just or when we feel like we’ve been wronged. Nevertheless, the book of James warns us of the enormous power our words have—of their potential for great good and for great harm.

James 3:6-10 “The tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity; the tongue is set among our members as that which defiles the entire body, and sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell. 7 For every species of beasts and birds, of reptiles and creatures of the sea, is tamed, and has been tamed by the human race. 8 But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless our Lord and Father; and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; 10 from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way.”

People tend to understand that in polite conversation some things just ought not be said. In face to face encounters when there’s disagreement, we know that a certain sense of propriety ought to govern what we say and how we say it. Yet this is often forgotten in online interactions. For some reason, people feel free to let loose online with things they would never say in person. This is a hopeless hypocrisy, yet there it is. That is why I am convinced that we need to let the wisdom of Solomon moderate the words that we share online.

The book of Proverbs teaches us that “The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable” (Pr. 15:2). It also says that “Sweetness of speech increases persuasiveness” (Pr. 16:21). The Lord Jesus Himself was no stranger to controversy (Mt 12:34; 23:31). Nevertheless, it was said of Him that “All were speaking well of Him and wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips” (Luke 4:22). Does the tone of your online speech make your arguments more or less persuasive? When people are offended by you, are they put off by what you are saying or by how you are saying it? Do people marvel at the gracious words that proceed from your lips in the midst of controversy?

The goal of this post is a very practical one. I want us all to consider how we might disagree without being disagreeable. In short, how can we be Christlike in controversy? For my part on this site, I commit to take a more active role in moderating comments and to enforcing my comments policy. But given that I may miss some here or there, how should we treat those who ignore the wisdom of the Proverbs and the example of Jesus? How should we respond to rude, obnoxious, and caustic commenters—the infamous “blog trolls”? Having dealt with and thought about this for a number of years now, I’ll offer a little bit of advice that might be helpful.

Before offering my advice, let me make a confession. I am not innocent of the behavior that the Bible rebukes. I am a blog troll at heart, though hopefully a repentant one. If anyone needs the wisdom of the Proverbs on this point, it’s me. Here’s an area in which we could all do better, and hopefully this advice might keep us from becoming what we are attempting to correct (Matt. 7:5; Gal. 6:1). So here’s my advice on responding to blog trolls.

1. Do not fail to recognize a blog troll when he appears. A blog troll is someone who makes outlandish, rude, and offensive comments. A blog troll is not someone who simply disagrees with you. In fact, you might even find yourself involved in a thread in which the troll agrees with your point of view! The issue here has less to do with the substance of a debate than it does with the tone. Blog trolls are often prone to unqualified hyperbole, name-calling, caricature, and insults. In short, the blog troll fits the profile of the Proverbial “fool” who is not able to control his tongue.

Proverbs 18:2 – “A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind.”
Proverbs 12:18 – “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
Proverbs 15:2, 4 – “2 The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, But the mouth of fools spouts folly…4 A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit.”

2. Do not respond in kind to a blog troll. Blog trolls feed on arousing the ire of their targets. If you feed a blog troll by equaling his vitriol, then he will come back for more. Instead, think of ways to speak kind words in all your communication with a blog troll.

Proverbs 26:4 – “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, Lest you also be like him.”
Proverbs 15:1 – “A gentle answer turns away wrath, But a harsh word stirs up anger.”

3. Do not expect a blog troll to receive correction. The Proverbs teach that “fools” are very limited in their ability to receive correction. This is not to say that you should never engage a troll. It is to say that you need to be careful before casting your pearls before swine.

Proverbs 17:10 – “A rebuke goes deeper into one who has understanding Than a hundred blows into a fool.”
Proverbs 27:22 – “Though you grind a fool in a mortar, grinding him like grain with a pestle, you will not remove his folly from him.”

Along with this, do not demand apologies from a troll. This tactic generally encourages him to dig in and to defend the righteousness of his cause all the more. This leads to more rude and caustic commentary, and the cycle starts all over again.

Proverbs 12:15 – “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes.”

4. Do not attempt to rebuke the blog troll in a public forum. That only leads to more nasty conflict. If you feel that you have been wronged, then the private confrontation of Matthew 18:15 may be the best way forward. Try to get the blog troll’s e-mail address, and resolve the matter there. Sometimes you can accomplish more in private where folks tend to feel less of a need to save face. If the troll responds nastily to private correction, you and everyone else can be thankful that the outburst took place out of public view.

Matthew 18:15 – “And if your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.”

5. Do not acknowledge the comments of an unrepentant blog troll. If the blog troll is unresponsive to your private efforts to get him to play nice, you should ignore his comments thence forward. Once again, do not feed a blog troll. It only makes him bigger. If everyone will simply pay no attention to blog troll comments, the blog troll will eventually go away.

6. Do not be a blog troll. Instead, aspire to this:

Colossians 4:6 “Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned, as it were, with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person.”

Certainly there is more that could be said on this topic, but perhaps this post will give us enough food for thought so that our online interaction might be elevated to another level. It’s much better to moderate our own comments than to have someone else do it for us.

—–

[In case you have never noticed my comments policy before, I am printing it below. It is based on Justin Taylor’s, but I have added a few things to it. Please note that I plan to renew efforts to eliminate comments from those who do not leave their first and last names. Thanks for reading and participating in the conversation!]

Comments Policy

I welcome blog comments, although they are often notorious for unfruitful and uncharitable discussions.

I hope this can be a place where we “seek understanding” before critiquing, where we are quick to listen and slow to speak, where we can evaluate and critique each others views charitably, where we encourage and build up each other rather than tearing down and destroying each other.

In order to provide a basic level of accountability and transparency, all commenters must use their own names. Pseudonyms are not allowed.

I often don’t have time to read all the comments. Nevertheless, when I read comments and find them getting outside of these guidelines, I reserve the right to edit or delete them.

I would encourage commenters to consider carefully the following commands and principles regarding our speech:

“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt” (Col. 4:6).

“By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matt. 12:37).

“Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:10).

“Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).

“Speak the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15, 25).

“If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26).

15 Responses to Don’t Feed the Trolls

  1. Rodney Olsen March 26, 2012 at 6:48 am #

    Great post. I’m often amazed at how quickly the tone can deteriorate in some conversations.

    I wrote my own comment policy some time ago. Mine’s a little more relaxed but I haven’t had the same kind of problems with trolls. http://rodneyolsen.net/comment-policy

  2. Kim Shay March 26, 2012 at 8:07 am #

    Thank you for these very helpful comments. I think your expectation that commenters use their names is a good one.

  3. Reg Schofield March 26, 2012 at 8:55 am #

    Well said . If I respond to anything , I will read and re-read it through numerous times and ask myself , does this inflame or hinder the conversation . Sometimes I admit , when responding , passion can carry one along to a place one should not go . Being passionate about the gospel and defending it is a good thing , but it doesn’t take much to slip into ad hominem attacks and being from Irish,Scottish and German descent , it doesn’t help ;^) . Very good post . Keep up the good work . Blessings.

  4. Albert Rommal March 26, 2012 at 9:07 am #

    Execellent counsel from Proverbs and very convicting too.

  5. Don Johnson March 26, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    I think psychologists have figured out that one reason mobs are dangerous is the anonymity that being in a mob can bestow, so making sure that people use their real names should help.

  6. Nicole McCarty March 26, 2012 at 11:38 am #

    Thank you for this article. Although a troll may seem unloveable to some, there may be others in their life that God has placed there to persevere in love and prayer for them, and feeding their religious delusions by caustic comments is just making their job harder, their burden heavier. Trolls inevitably use the absolute worst examples to fuel their arguments. Ask yourself if you are being that worst example of Christianity and if your comments are motivated by pride and arrogance rather than truth spoken with wisdom, patience, and love through the power of Christ.

  7. Richard Jones March 26, 2012 at 1:05 pm #

    Very timely! Thank you so much! Was just considering what my limits should be having encountered some atheists via twitter. How much name calling and condescending insults should I endure before pulling the plug? May God help me to “pull the plug” when needed but in a manner “seasoned with grace.”

  8. Nick Watts March 26, 2012 at 6:29 pm #

    Excellent post!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Bits & Pieces (3/26/12) | Better Things Ahead - March 26, 2012

    […] Don’t Feed the Trolls – An important post for those who write blogs, and those who read them about the nature of public discourse that takes place. […]

  2. The Proverbs 26 Principle And Dealing With Fools | mgpcpastor's blog - March 27, 2012

    […] Denny Burk has produced a helpful blog post which deals with the issue of interacting with folk who leave unhelpful comments on blogs and forums. In internet slang they’re called ‘trolls’. The same principles can be applied to face to face, real life relationships as well. 1. Do not fail to recognize a blog troll when he appears. A blog troll is someone who makes outlandish, rude, and offensive comments. A blog troll is not someone who simply disagrees with you. In fact, you might even find yourself involved in a thread in which the troll agrees with your point of view! The issue here has less to do with the substance of a debate than it does with the tone. Blog trolls are often prone to unqualified hyperbole, name-calling, caricature, and insults. In short, the blog troll fits the profile of the Proverbial “fool” who is not able to control his tongue. Proverbs 18:2 – “A fool does not delight in understanding, But only in revealing his own mind.” Proverbs 12:18 – “There is one who speaks rashly like the thrusts of a sword, But the tongue of the wise brings healing.” Proverbs 15:2, 4 – “2 The tongue of the wise makes knowledge acceptable, But the mouth of fools spouts folly…4 A soothing tongue is a tree of life, But perversion in it crushes the spirit.” […]

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