On Christian goats and trolls

Something has got my goat in quite a big way – in fact, it got my goat quite a long time ago, but now I actually want to do something about it.

I love social media and social networking dearly. I write a blog(s); I tweet – probably too much; my life is organised via Facebook; heck, I’ve even spent time teaching people how to use it better. It’s definitely a good thing in my opinion, as long as it’s used with care and thought. The problem is that we are humans, and sometimes we’re not careful or thoughtful.

There are trolls (as they’re known) across the internet. Recently, there’s been a lot of coverage of the hideous comments many women receive on blogs or articles, simply because they’re women – especially if they’re writing on an issue that seems to be ‘feminist’ in nature. But they’re everywhere, from newspaper columns to blogs and random Facebook pages. Oh, and Twitter – there’s nothing like Twitter for a vicious, insult strewn argument…

I’m not naïve, I know that everyone gets annoyed or upset and does things that maybe, if they’d thought more about, they wouldn’t have done. This applies just as much to the internet as it does to the real world. Nor am I perfect – I’ve made mistakes just like everyone else. However, I have higher expectations of good online behaviour from my Christian brethren (perhaps that is naïve?), after all, isn’t the greatest commandment to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love your neighbour as yourself?

Is bitching about other Christians in a public forum an example of following this commandment?

What about haranguing an individual just because you’re fed up with the (Christian) organisation they work for?

What if the people making the comments are ordained? Shouldn’t they know better more than anyone else? [In every single case that’s recently got my goat, the person concerned has been ordained.]

My goat has been severely got over the last few weeks. Time and again I’ve seen examples of this behaviour and last week it made me so angry that I wrote an original version of this post, just so I could do some cathartic venting. Some good friends read it and said that, once I’d removed the specifics, it might make for a helpful blogpost – so this is it.

In a Facebook thread where some of the worst behaviour was found, came a response that actually proved inspiring:

“To say it’s ok to discuss xxxxxxx, as though they are not also a brother or a sister, someone who will flourish best with edification, support and respectful engagement kinda defeats the whole point of battling through a life of faith.

It is not ok to malign people as though they were not human, let alone fellow believers working, to the best of their knowledge, for the good of the Kingdom. There is a marked difference between expressing feelings of dissatisfaction and seeking solutions with like-minded people and aggressively hurling abuse!”

I’d also like to challenge the people making these negative comments.
Would they say these things in front of the people they’re insulting? Have they thought about how people would feel after reading some of their posts? Have they considered how they might feel if they read something similar about themselves?

Ultimately, what is it about social media that people feel gives them permission to behave in a way that they wouldn’t do in ‘real life’? And, how, as Christians do we encourage others not to behave in this way? How do we demonstrate Christian love and relationship in a virtual context?

I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions, but I thought they’d provoke some thought and possibly discussion. Interestingly, on the day when I needed to vent, a post along similar lines to this was published on the Big Bible blog, so other people are thinking about it too. In the mean time, perhaps the best approach is to challenge behaviour that isn’t appropriate – like my friend above did – and put ourselves alongside those who are being attacked. Oh, and to not press ‘send’ in haste…


  1. I think professionalism and social media is a really hot topic at the moment. I am a teacher and I have to be so careful what I write. I have a facebook but it’s on total lockdown and I don’t have a twitter. I NEVER blog about my job, because what if a parent or even one of the children I teach found it?

    I think people see the internet as somehow different from real life and forget that if they are in a position of responsibility like the people you describe in your post, they really should be more careful. It’s just one of the things that comes with having a job like that.

  2. Absolutely!

    Teachers definitely need to be careful, but I’ve noticed that in Higher Ed the boundaries can become blurred, which complicates things. (e.g. should I befriend my lecturers at vicar school on Facebook?).

    I’ve already made rules for myself as to how I deal with Facebook requests from people at the church I work at – if I’d socially go drinking with them then it’s fine; otherwise no. Plus, I have to be aware that I’m in a position of responsibility.

    I know that the Methodist Church (where I used to work) has a social media policy that its employees and ministers ought to follow, but I don’t know if the CofE has one. I also know (knowing the denomination of the ordained people who’ve offended me) that their ministers aren’t sticking to it!

  3. Hi Liz
    Thanks, a great post, and thanks for the link to Big Bible – glad we’re hitting relevant issues!

    I often say that social media tends to be human nature… amplified, but so often, people forget that there are other PEOPLE at the other end of social media – the screen can stop them thinking about how someone may take that. I often wonder how prepared people would be to say some things face-to-face (and hope people work towards true reflection between the two) .. or maybe they would, in which case we need to change things at a deeper level!

  4. Having endured Facebook fallout over the weekend thanks to, literally, playground squabbling about the head teacher praying (which led to big rants about “these people” and lying Christian parents etc) I can’t stress to much how hurtful people’s comments can be.

    Yes – i can choose to rise about them, I can choose to reason through it and see their aggression for what it is….but generally, if you walk away from a conversation feeling you’ve been slapped (or stung if you’re a Bridget Jones fan) then you probably have….whether they were overtly aggressive or passive and snide.

    I’m proud to say, I did not react by writing my own passive aggressive status update!

    Yeay me!

  5. Thanks for taking the time to write the non-rant version Liz- it is such an important topic. There was a huge storm at a school I worked in where a group of 11 year old pupils used FB to cyber-bully another child- the school/parents/teachers all had to work together to quell it….kind of hard when it’s being modelled from ‘above’. We discussed the issue long and hard at theological college- and thankfully I’ve only ever seen my peers use it to encourage, chat about their day, bless or rant about football!! However, I think we all need regular reminders that it’s not just what you write- it’s how it’s read. I’ve had someone for whom English is not their first language totally misunderstand something totally innocent that I wrote….words are powerful!

  6. @Becca – Ahhhh, the passive aggressive status update! Have to say, I’m a sucker for the passive aggressive tweet…
    You are doing a fabulous job in modelling great online behaviour. I’d originally intended to mention your request for hugs/support on Facebook as a brilliant example of how virtual community can work, but it got lost in the edit. Praying your patience continues!

    @Wendy – Did it ever come up at college officially? My Dad was asking the other day if he should be teaching his students about the pitfalls (he doesn’t really use it enough to know, but is aware of the issues). We’ve had casual chats about it at college, but I’d love to know if there was an ‘official’ line.

  7. Sadly I witnessed such behaviour by Christians towards other Christians a long time ago – 1998, to be precise. One of the perpetrators also happened to be ordained, and the consequential fallout resulted in a number of people leaving the church he led, including his own son.

    It is one of the contributing factors to why I too left the Church I was dedicated in, grew up in, and my parents still attend, to the extent that not only will I not set foot in the building but also what faith I did have no longer exists.

    It is both saddening and depressing to hear that such behaviour is not only still alive, but has ‘jumped the species barrier’ into the world of Social Media.

  8. I’m really sorry to hear that Tom, and am very aware that others have had the same negative experiences. It’s a terrible thing to happen.

  9. A hugely important topic. I often avoid discussions of any real seriousness online because I don’t want to get into the nastiness that inevitably seems to come up. I hope our manners catch up with our technology soon!

  10. Great post – that is highly relevant at the moment. I have been a tad confused over the behaviour / comments from select Christians. I am all for sharing our opinions and thoughts – but within reason and with the right attitude. It has taught me to re-read, breath, and re-read again my comments before pressing send!
    Thanks 🙂

  11. Another great example here… http://www.unmarketing.com/2012/01/10/worst-use-of-social-media-of-2012-boners-bbq/

    It’s not just the Church.

    As the article says ‘Social media does not make Business (Church) good or bad. It amplifies what is already there.’

  12. @Nicola – same here! Main reason why I avoid Twitter arguments!

    @JoC – Very true. (As we’ve experienced…)

  13. @ Liz…just seen your reply to my reply- if no-one tells me these things I forget to look! Anyway, there wasn’t an official college line- we talked about it in formation groups. I think it would be excellent for theological colleges to cover this issue- they would need to bring in someone who knew what they were talking about though, else risk showing ignorance and lack of current media usage and thought (have a great story to tell you about this OFF LINE!!)- tell your Dad to employ you to do this important task (and pay you well!!) xx

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