Pope Francis gently tiptoes into the dangerous territory of those digital trolls

Long ago, during one of the Key West, Fla., "Faith Angle" conferences run by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life (click here for amazing transcripts), journalist and digital maven Steven Waldman made an interesting comment about online trolls. The goal of those gatherings was to inspire dialogues between scholars and mainstream reporters about religion and the news. Needless to say, changes caused by the Internet were a big part of that.

Waldman is best known for his work as senior advisor to the chair of the Federal Communications Commission and, before that, as the co-founder and CEO of Beliefnet.com. Especially in its early years, Beliefnet was precisely the kind of place where journalists were, for better or for worse, banging their heads on the emerging realities of Internet life.

Everyone learned pretty fast that things could get really hairy (troll image, of course) when you threw open the comments pages on sites focusing on religion, media, politics, social issues, etc. Clearly there had to be some rules. One of the rules Waldman described to me that night in Key West came up during this week's "Crossroads" podcast chat with host Todd Wilken. Click here to check that out.

Anyway, Waldman said that one of the key rules Beliefnet staffers used when encountering fierce opinions in the comments pages went something like this. You could leave a comment that said something like: "According to the beliefs of my faith, I think that what you are saying is wrong and, thus, you could end up going to hell." That was strong stuff, but acceptable. Otherwise, the site's editors would have been saying that believers in traditional forms of some major religions -- Islam and Christianity, for starters -- would be banned from talking about core elements of their faith.

But here is what believers were NOT allowed to say in the comments pages: "According to the beliefs of my faith, I think that what you are saying is wrong and, thus, you could end up going to hell and I would like to assist in sending you on that journey as soon as possible (or stronger words to that effect)."

In other words, strong words in sincere discussions about ultimate issues were fine. People yelling threats at one another were not.

Ah, life among the digital trolls. Anyone whose job includes monitoring comments pages encounters them all the time. This week, my "On Religion" column for the Universal syndicate focused on a new statement by Pope Francis -- his message for the 50th World Communications Day -- that very gently tiptoed into troll territory. His words were also linked to his church's current Year of Mercy.

But first, what is a "troll." In my column I noted that Psychology Today, in an article entitled "Internet Trolls are Narcissists, Psychopaths and Sadists," defined the term this way: "An Internet troll is someone who comes into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation. ... Trolls will lie, exaggerate and offend to get a response."

This led to a conversation with a veteran Catholic blogger and editor.

At the heart of the pope's argument is a call to focus on the humanity of those encountered online, even if they behave like trolls, noted writer Elizabeth Scalia, known as "The Anchoress" during her 12 years in the Catholic blogosphere. She is editor of the English edition of Aleteia.org, a global Catholic website.
"I think that trolls are miserable and they want the world to be miserable with them. They aren't even trying to make a coherent argument anymore," she said. "That's why I try to resist the temptation to punch down. ... It's one thing to be involved in a real debate. It's something else to deal with people who are not even arguing in good faith."
The problem, especially in debates about faith, worship and doctrine, is that it's easy to focus so hard on winning that you "lose sight of the humanity of the person on the other side," said Scalia. That's crucial when the goal -- especially during the Year of Mercy -- is to "admonish" sinners whom the church believes are in need of compassion.
Striving to "correct" errors, Scalia said, doesn't mean "getting out your hammer and hitting people with it."

The pope never addressed "trolls" by name and focused on communication (especially inside the church) that focused on real discussions of real issues. He talked about conflicts -- even those that cause conflict -- but never directly addressed what people should do when they encounter people who want to cause wildfires, as opposed to shedding light.

The pope had this to say (among other things):

"We can and we must judge situations of sin -- such as violence, corruption and exploitation -- but we may not judge individuals, since only God can see into the depths of their hearts. ... It is our task to admonish those who err and to denounce the evil and injustice of certain ways of acting, for the sake of setting victims free and raising up those who have fallen."
Nevertheless, he warned, "Harsh and moralistic words and actions risk further alienating those whom we wish to lead to conversion and freedom, reinforcing their sense of rejection and defensiveness."

Yes, but what do you do when a troll shows up? Simply decline to reply? Say "thanks for your comment" and sign off?

Maybe the goal is to not say anything, when responding to a troll, that one would need to discuss during the sacrament of Confession, or similar forums.

What do you think?

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