This began as a comment to Patricius’ recent posting on Trolls… When I attempted to post it, I found that the site limited the number of characters allowed. It is understandable, so rather than edit the comment to fit the limits, I decided to put it on my own blog and adapt it in a few details. Patricius asks his readers whether we think he is a troll. I would say right away that he is not – from the evidence of his transparency and honesty of identity.
In my experience, trolling is something that comes and goes. It has its emotional impact no matter how used to it we think we are. I had been free from it for quite a while, and then one struck a few days ago. The pattern is fairly constant. A troll is one who tries to drag a conversation to a very low level, pretending to “out” someone’s purportedly secret sins, usually of a sexual nature. There is nothing positive in troll messages. Trying to discuss with a troll is something like trying to negotiate with evil spirits. They will turn everything you say against you. Most often, you can’t even communicate with them, because the e-mail address they give isn’t a valid one and they use sophisticated means to give a false IP address. Their hatred is one-way and the only defence we have is to delete their messages before they get anywhere near our blogs. As always, don’t feed the trolls.
Trolling is a major problem on the internet. It is found in blogs, but also on Facebook, Twitter and anything that allows readers’ comments. Some trolls are so vicious that they cause a person to commit suicide. It is heartening to know that some such trolls have been arrested and sent to prison. There is a vast difference between trolling and flaming or even reasonable debate of a non-obsessive nature. I frequently allow comments of people who think I am wrong about something. I respect their freedom of speech. Flamers are often obsessive people with their pet single-issues. The real characteristic of the troll, on the other hand is anonymity and evil expression.
Trolls tend to have personality issues like psychopathy and sadism. What they do on the internet is no different from the antics of the school-yard bully, the rapist who stalks women in the street and people who are really sick and horrible. In short, the “virtual Ted Bundy”… Don’t feed the trolls is a bit of advice that is useful for those who find it difficult and spiritually / emotionally draining to deal with this kind of pure evil. I have recently been attacked because I chimed in on the Charlie Hebdo issue and opposed the “hyper-masculine” agenda of some conservative folk who would like to challenge atomic bombs and heavy artillery with pistols and blunderbusses! We need to stop being naive, get street wise and see that there are some very odd people out there.
Unless you are a real computer expert, which I am not, trolls are impossible to identify. They use false handles and give false e-mail addresses. My blog is configured to maintain new e-mail addresses on moderated status unless I approve them. It keeps my blog clean. There is a way to route communications through false front IP addresses. My recent pet troll used an IP address based in the Netherlands which is notorious for being used by trolls. The person in question certainly does not live in that country but probably in England or the USA. Google can get quite a lot of information, but there are limits you can break only when you are skilled in hacking and other illegal activities and low-down skulduggery.
It sometimes happens that a former friend becomes a troll. The e-mail is invalid and the IP address indicates a place you know to be elsewhere from the place he lives. The referrers make the identification easy. I knew one such former friend almost twenty years ago in England. He had had a hard life, a failed marriage and an attempt to live a religious life. We spent good and amusing times together. He was a gifted cartoonist and caricaturist, and will probably read this posting. He got involved in sedevacantism, as I did to an extent at the time. The difference is that my critical thinking evolved and I found it to be an untenable position intellectually, and he became very aggressive with it in the same way as people with political ideologies or who become fanatics. Going by recent conversations with people who know or who have known this person, there is no evolution of thought or personality. He is caught is some kind of vicious circle or prison. We find bitterness and jealousy as motivations of a distorted personality. I think anyone can fall into this predatory way of life, and especially if one has predispositions to narcissism or psychopathy.
A troll will often try the destabilising tactic of claiming freedom of speech, freedom to criticise. If I refuse the criticism and take the troll’s words at face value, I lower myself to the same level of ideology and obscurantism. One thing I learned from the Charlie Hebdo episode, apart from empathy for the families of those who were so cruelly murdered, was that freedom of speech has its limits. I don’t mind people criticising my views, joking about me or even being ironic, but there are limits like expressions of pure negativity and evil. That is the difference between a critic and a troll, as in the mainstream world when considering racial hatred, defence of atrocities and other such deviations.
Returning to Patricius, I have sometimes vowed never again to comment on his site on reading certain articles which I found hateful or at least exaggerated. On the other hand, I find him asking questions about himself and trying to understand his own failings in life. I have a lot of sympathy for Patricius, as we share a common friend in London.
We live in a pitiless world, but one that has always been that way. A certain amount of prudence is called for in deciding what we write. We might be horrified about the dominant alpha males of our own time, but there have always been such men who owned the world throughout history. God alone knows how they fare beyond the death that awaits us all. I take pride in being a man of softness, gentleness and aspiration to be kind and loving in the place of hatred and violence. Jung taught that we are all biological males or females (with some biological exceptions because of genetic errors, etc.) but with male and female sides of our souls and personalities. We all need to work on this in our lives to emerge as integrated and free persons.
I am not threatened by trolls, because I don’t allow them on my blog. They have no freedom of speech because their purpose is manifestly evil and negative. They have their work to do on themselves as we all have. Long consideration of evil personalities has led me to go though many years of self-questioning, questioning of my Christian commitment and vocation in a way that is very different from classical spiritual discernment. Jung has his limits, but he established a very sound psychoanalytical method by which we could each find our own personalities and souls, all the things that “float our boats”. We all have our archetypes and inspirations from our childhood. Individuation is what enables us to free ourselves from the snares laid by evil spirits and the prison of our own making. This is perhaps the most meaningful understanding of evil: it brings us to seek good by the high road and doing positive and beautiful things.
We have to lift ourselves out of the mire to soar and do what we are good at doing, what gives us a sense of vocation and purpose. We all have to run the gauntlet of those miserable characters at their keyboards. It is worse when they can do greater spiritual harm or even physical injury. It is better for us not to know them, but rather to pray for them that God may bring them light and deliverance. That now seems to be a part of my ministry in spite of my weakness and sensitivity.
Pray for me as we prepare to enter Lent and the arid desert.
I agree with your policy of banning trolls. This renders Sarum Use available for proper discussion on serious issues. Similarly for friendly discussion and occasional non malevolent banter on less weighty matters.
I would advise all who manage Christian websites and blogs to do likewise.
Of course people will disagree with each other quite strongly at times but unrestrained trolls have an entirely negative influence and should be kept out of it.
Moderation is important and laxity with trolls has caused seriously harmful effects on Christian blogs and websites over the years. The deterioration on one of the well known orthodox Anglican sites in recent months is very noticeable. Sensible, intelligent, discussion and thought through examination of issues are now much diminished there.
The trolls in question who have brought this situation into being can fairly be described as deliberately seeking to insult and cause offence. They make no constructive contribution, and hatred is sometimes evident.
I find their motivation baffling and would say that the problems most probably arise from sociopathic personality disorders and mental health issues.
We need to make a careful distinction between trolls and other problem people like flamers and those with an obsessive agenda with some kind of psychological problem at its root. Trolls are not simply people who disagree with the guy running the blog. Their aim is to trash the blog itself and demoralise everyone connected with it. Their agenda is nihilist and their language is evil.
I will quote one, trusting that its out-of-contextness will neutralise its evil purpose:
My first dealings with this troll (or at least with the same handle) was when I wrote about some Western Rite Orthodox folk in the US, and he/she wanted to “out” the priest in charge of the community in question. The situation then degraded. I used to have another demon living in Japan who is a conservative Roman Catholic. His expression was just as foul. These are the real trolls. They are overcome by prayer and fasting!
The troll will probably have a go at this one. The comment won’t get through, even with a new (false) e-mail address, but the content may prove useful in time as a specimen for further study of “trollology”. It’s just a question of keeping a scrapbook.
You describe them perfectly. At my place, nobody can write comments anonymously and all comments are moderated. One troll game is to try to get your trust by writing a string of friendly or neutral comments, then attacking. Almost everybody gets one chance and I do publish negative comments, but when somebody becomes a troll, all his or her new comments get deleted unread.
On my blog, someone who starts with nice comments and then starts crapping gets moderated. My system as allowed by my blog provider: I approve an e-mail address once and then people can post freely and the comments show immediately. The weakness is that someone can put in a false handle and a bogus e-mail address and they post anonymously.
However, If my trust is abused, I put the e-mail address and / or IP address onto a moderation list and comments from it / them are moderated for my approval. If the troll changes handle and e-mail address, he is moderated as a first-timer. In this way, I keep complete control over trolldom. At the same time, I don’t have to moderate comments from “good” commenters like yourself.
Of course, I get to see the comments when I open my administrator page with my handle and password, but I am the only one to see the troll ones. I make a copy and then trash the comment in question from the blog site.
Dear Father Anthony, I have told you many times how valuable your blog is to me, on account of your insights as well as the cross-flow of opinions that so often raise matters previously not considered. Your temperament and everlasting patience makes you just the right person to run a “debate and discussion” blog, and I take the view that if YOU have trashed a particular comment, then it MUST have been bad!!!
The purpose of my blog is different to yours. It is merely to put insights resources (and occasional bits of news) “out there”. When the blog began in 2008 I was already “overexposed” in the controversies of the day, and had no energy left to moderate a “debate and discussion” blog, and I have no inclination to do so now. My readership is an indication that what I do is in, fact, a little ministry valued by a range of quite different people. Only very occasionally does someone comment. I have only once trashed a comment from a writer who took exception to a view I expressed, and that was because of his vitriol, not the fact that he expressed a contrary view. But I always trash critical comments when the writer hides behind anonymity. (I would carefully protect anonymity only in the case of someone of whose bona fide I was persuaded and who asked to share something deeply personal that might be helpful to others.) Mind you, even some close friends think my view of anonymity strange, and tell me that I’m not respecting the genre of cyberspace and the culture that has grown up around its use. Well, being a bit counter-cultural has never worried me before, and it’s not going to now!
It looks like you are ably controlling the trolls Father Anthony! I agree with Fr David , I dont like anonymous comments either. Good wishes for Lent. Father Ed Bakker
I was struck by the malevolence of the Troll you quote, his attack not only on you but also on your good lady who has never posted anything on your blog AFAIK.
Thank you for the most thorough piece of “trollology” I’ve ever seen! (‘Flamerology’, too! – though I’d welcome more, here.)
I sometimes wonder how far the ‘troll’ is in the eye of the beholder – would Socrates (as blog commenter) be deemed a troll? If so, how much of the time and by whom? Is there ‘trollization’ as there is ‘demonization’? Would those who judicially murdered Socrates have (secretly) congratulated themselves as ‘troll-slayers’, had the characterization ‘troll’ existed?
You have provided an analytic description enabling the clear discussion of such things!
I see various results – which I have not (yet?) read – having gone to look if there is such a thing or term as ‘nymology’. I find David Chislett’s stance above – “I always trash critical comments when the writer hides behind anonymity” – regrettable, though certainly within his editorial (and, in an etymological sense, ‘hospital’, that is, ‘hostly’) rights. I’ve enjoyed Roger Pearse’s discussions of anonymity (and sock-puppetry), at his blog. In principle, to categorically “trash” comments of the anonymous (or pseudonymous?) ‘hospes’ (in its other sense) seems to me to risk a variant of what C.S. Lewis called “Bullverism”, the substitution of attention to the speaker, writer, etc. for attention to the ‘content’ of the utterance.
My feeling is that I have read far too little of the work of Fernando Pessoa, nonetheless, I wonder what he would have made of blogging and blog commenting. Would he have gone about it with heteronymic vigor? (Have a look at the catalogue of heteronyms in the English Wikipedia article on him!) (I don’t know enough about the polypseudonymity of Kurt Tucholsky to know if he’s relevant to such a consideration.) Are there, in fact, Pessoan (or Tucholskian) blog commenters (or blog hosts) out there, engaged in something very different from sock-puppetry, but entailing or relying on distinct multiple pseudonyms/’personae’, I wonder?
I don’t see the criterion as anonymity as such. Many commenters use pseudonyms to hide their real names, and that is a fact of the blogosphere. A certain level of discretion has to be respected. The person might have a job to protect or his position in the Church of England or the Roman Catholic Church for example. People can use such a handle or pseudonym for discretion, but the e-mail (hidden on the public page of the blog) is a real one. The person can be contacted by the blog owner via private e-mail.
The real issue is the difference between legitimate debate and satire, on one hand, and foul insults and evil intent on the other. The troll intends to destroy the subject, refuses dialogue and attempts to destroy the blog through demoralising the person running it. The troll invariably uses a false e-mail address and often uses proxy IP servers to avoid his true geographical location being known. For example, an American troll showing up in the Netherlands.
Another difficulty, more borderline, is created by obsessive expression, often the result of mental illness, which is like a record going round and round and the needle of the gramophone jumping in the groove at each revolution. Life is a hospital, as is the Church, but even the sick and infirm can make an effort to think of other people and their views as only part of a whole. I don’t want sincere and honest readers asking me if I think they are trolls. They are not. Trolls, like rapists and serial killers, are people without any conscience or care for others. If you ask yourself whether you might be wrong, that is proof that you are not such a being.
We need to be focused and see the real issue.
Trolls behave like demons possessing souls and insulting the priest and assistants at an exorcism. Perhaps some of our trolls are not human beings at all but demons from hell – that is what is brought to mind when reading their foul expression.