The internet makes communication fast, easy, and often anonymous. That's great...most of the time. But every good technology can be abused. One of the more common abuses of the internet is a unique species of insufferable jerks: internet trolls.
On a fishing boat, "trolling" means dragging a line through the water to see what you can catch. Modern trolling means provoking people to see who gets offended. In old-time stories, trolls were nasty creatures hiding under bridges and harassing people who went by. Modern trolls are nasty creatures which hide behind social media profiles and harass people they encounter online. These are the ones who show up just to say something rude, offensive, or mean, then sit back and watch the resulting chaos. An especially nasty form of troll is the cyber-bully, who focuses on harassing or insulting a particular person or group of people.
So how do you handle a person who's trolling on the internet? More importantly, how can we respond to trolls in a godly way?
First and foremost, the goal of a troll is to get attention. The angrier you get over their antics, the more the troll is "winning." The best revenge on a troll (a.k.a. bully) is to deny them what they really want: power, attention, reactions, etc. When their would-be victims don't take the bait, the troll starves—so to speak. Like all obnoxious pests, they'll eventually leave and go where they can do the most damage.
This is why the most common approach is summed up in a cliché: "Don't feed the trolls." Usually, the only sure-fire way to stop bad behavior is to NOT reward it. Ignoring the troll—that is, not responding at all, acting as if they don't even exist—is not only effective, it's much better for your time and your reputation. Don't let a troll trick you into an argument you'll regret later!
Spiritually speaking, putting up with harassment and bullying is one of the toughest parts of life. The Christian approach is especially hard because it means relying on love instead of anger. Spiritually speaking, we can't control other people. All we can do is make an effort to control how we react to others (2 Timothy 1:7). If we can do that, then WE have the power, and they don't.
Revenge and "getting even" are not options for a follower of Christ (Romans 12:17). Showing grace and mercy to people who harm others is meant to overcome their evil—not shame them into seeing how immoral and wrong they really are. Let God be responsible for touching and changing their hearts (Romans 12:18-20).
In certain instances, showing mercy might be the best way to approach a troll: express sympathy instead of anger, and let them know you're aware that they're obviously hurt and angry over some pain. In some cases, this might be enough to convict the person to stop hurting people who aren't the cause of their problems.
Then again, in some cases, the person may be so angry and hateful that they don't really care anymore (Proverbs 29:1). But that is not something you can predict or control. Ask God for wisdom in knowing if this sort of response would be appropriate (James 1:5).
Practically speaking, when there's no physical harm, there isn't much to be done against a determined troll. Asking them to stop typically just makes them worse. That doesn't mean everyone is helpless, however. Depending on what platform or forum you're on, there are some tricks that you or an admin can try.
For instance, your forum might try banning certain IP addresses to stop the troll from seeing or interacting with that group. Other forums use "whitelisting," where accounts and messages are only allowed from an approved list. Some websites require approval from an admin for all comments or messages. (412teens does this!)
Sites like Facebook are actually well ahead of the trolling curve. On Facebook, admins have the option to "hide" posts, so nobody even sees them. And individual users can "block" certain people, so they never have to see the troll's comments or actions at all. Mobile phones can often block messages or calls from people who troll on a more personal level.
In the end, practical steps against trolling boils down to how much time and effort (and maybe money) that website is willing to put in. How much hassle is it worth to stop it from happening? All internet resources—even ours—have to make decisions on how to balance access to users and openness with security and control of content.
It's a sad fact that some trolls are not "just" trolling. Some go as far as making death threats or verbal assaults, posting violent images, attempting to use viruses or malware, or other dangerous behaviors. In those cases, seriously consider getting law enforcement involved. With login names, dates, and IP addresses, it's not overly difficult for authorities to figure out who is sending those messages.
It might be even worth pointing that out to site admins and/or the trolls themselves. Screenshots of harmful posts are helpful in making a case that someone is really a threat. Of course, if it's clear this person is just being a jerk, the police probably won't be very interested.
If you're dealing with an internet troll, you have our sympathies. It's emotionally draining and frustrating to see someone abuse their freedom of speech in order to hurt other people out of spite. But in an open, free, and public arena like the internet, it's tough to avoid entirely.
Beyond prayer, and some technology-based defenses, there's little one can do to shake loose of trolls. On the flip side, trolls can't bother you without your permission. Nothing repels slimy, snide little monsters, who have nothing better to do than offend, like being ignored.
"If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." —Romans 12:18
Internet trolls are annoying pests trying to be as offensive or rude as possible just to provoke others. Christians aren't supposed to respond the same way or to seek revenge (Romans 12:16-21). As hard as it can be, the best response is "don't feed the trolls." Ignoring them, without any response at all, is usually an effective way to make them go away (Matthew 5:39). Websites might have ways of blocking or limiting trolls as well. Of course, threats of violence might require contacting law enforcement. No matter what, it's important not to give up control to the troll: don't take the bait, and don't let them "win" by making you angry!
Jeff is a staff writer with Got Questions Ministries and used to be a mechanical engineer. When he's not accidentally setting things on fire in his workshop, or petting strange dogs, he loves helping people better understand God’s Word and how it applies to our lives. Jeff's calling is to untangle the "big picture" of Christian faith, making it easier to understand.