By Father Jacob Dankasa
Special to The Texas Catholic
The word “troll” became popular with the growth of the Internet and the widening availability of social media and instant messaging tools. It’s a cliché to say that the Internet, with all the blessings it brings, also comes with curses or baggage. Depending on how you use it, the Internet can be a source of joy or sorrow. One of the injectors of sorrow and bitterness on the Internet and social media is the presence of trolls. Troll, according to Dictionary.com, is viewed as an informal word defined as “1) To post inflammatory, inappropriate, controversial, or polarizing messages on (the Internet) for the purpose of cultivating animosity, upsetting others, or provoking a response; 2) To upset or provoke (others) by posting such messages; 3) To make such provocative comments about (others) in public.” A person who trolls is simply called a troll.
In this article, I’m most interested and focused on the religion trolls. It appears to me that today very many people of faith have either become trolls or are affected and influenced by trolls. The Internet trolls have so defined the conversation around faith and religion on the Internet and social media that many people today have become victims of online anger and bitterness. This anger and bitterness are affecting real-life individuals, family life and relationships.
In real life there is a tendency to relate to, and be more comfortable with, people who share our views, who agree with what we agree with. A Catholic Christian, for example, may be more comfortable discussing faith and religion with a Catholic Christian, an Evangelical Christian with a fellow Evangelical, a Muslim with a Muslim. A person with a politically conservative views will love being in conversation with one who shares similar views. The same can be said of a person with liberal political views. These are normal expectations. As long as there is agreement, there is peace. Such feelings or perceptions are very much the same online as offline. The difference is that in offline exchanges you put a real face on the person you are conversing with, and you may likely know that person well. It could be a family member, a friend, a schoolmate, a work colleague, or even a church member. The scenario is often different online, where the people you seem to share views with, that engage with you in conversation or feed you with information, may be total strangers, people you probably have never met. This difference can be observed either in comments over a public post or in discussing a subject posted online. All over the Internet, especially on social media, trolls are shaping the conversation, especially on faith and religion, and are bringing out the animal in many of us who are people of faith. Trolls are creating negative comments, negative posts, emotion-inciting articles and polarizing news to make us publicly engage our emotions in the most unchristian ways.
The tendency at times is to reply to negative comments with negativity, sometimes even using insulting terms to defend our faith. The lack of knowledge of the person or persons you are answering makes it much easier not to feel guilty about the words you use. But the problem with this feeling is that you forget that by going the same route as the other negative person you are creating a negative online profile for yourself, and for your faith, which is just what the troll wants.
Especially in discussions about religion or faith, the act of evangelization is damaged, or even defeated, when we become negative and insulting while expressing our faith or religion. There are trolls who will actually provoke deliberate negative and sometimes demeaning discussions about our faith just so that we will fall into this trap of back-and-forth negativity. Unfortunately, the troll doesn’t care about you and your faith. The troll in this case is actually winning – he is publicly drawing out your negative emotions to further discredit your faith or belief. No matter how badly you want to respond to bitter arguments about your faith, remember who you are and who you represent. If you are a Christian, a Catholic, you are not just a faceless voice — you represent Jesus and the Church. Your words will either bring people to Christ or push them further away. If you must respond, respond as Jesus would. Use words that befit the faith you stand for.
In online conversations you cannot run away from strangers if your task is to evangelize and change hearts. If you only preach to people who already agree with you, you may only be maintaining the status quo. To evangelize online you must be ready to allow yourself to be upset. But you must not allow yourself to be drawn into losing your cool. Allow the trolls to troll, but always be in control of your emotions before you hit that reply button. Remember, there may be someone who is looking to you for an example of decency. You may be the Christ online for someone, so be mindful of your word choice. Remember always that words matter.
The title of this article, “Converting the Internet Trolls,” may sound too ambitious, and it is true that you may not succeed in converting a troll. But by not responding like a troll, you have at least succeeded in not allowing them to convert you into a troll. And by controlling your emotions you are denying a troll the gratification of trolling you. And perhaps, at least occasionally, you may actually positively change the mind of a troll.
Father Jacob Dankasa is the pastor of Holy Family of Nazareth Catholic Church in Irving.