If you are living nearby a place where summer festivals are held, then each summer you almost always will make a certain observation: most of the people are enjoying the show and won’t harm you, but there is always a small (sometimes bigger) fraction of people that misbehaves. They are stomping through your front yard, trampling on your flower beds, and after the show they decorate your footpath with their piss and vomit. First you call the police or stand sentinel over your garden by yourself; this might help for a while, but when you think it’s over, then this kind of people will start just right from the beginning. And mess your garden once more.
These people have an equivalent in the Internet: they are called trolls.
Rewind. Back in the 1980s, when I was discovering the joy of computing, there were no trolls at all. Even when I browsed through the various BBSs with my 2400 baud modem, there were hardly any trolls. I’ve met my first trolls in the usenet, back in the early 1990s. Many usenet newsgroups are still perfect troll breeding grounds, and since the usenet is far older than the Internet, many developments that would happen later in the Internet were anticipated there.
Conclusion #1: trolling needs a network.
A troll is a person (usually male; I don’t know any female trolls) who joins a discussion for the purpose of provoking. Neither is he interested in a discussion nor the topic itself: his only interest is deliberate provocation. This is sometimes a narrow path; back in the 1980s I was as eager as my friends were explaining why my computer was better than any other one. A pointless, but mostly humorous rivalry, because we usually knew that all of our small systems were limited. But take out the humor and give it a destructive note, and suddenly it becomes trolling. The troll wants to upset people; it’s his raison d´être.
Conclusion #2: trolls are not funny.
If you have made it this far, you may read on. Of course we’re talking about SacredSunday. To me, the SacredSunday photo theme is a bit like a flower bed in Google Plus. It isn’t supporting any religion or vision of life by definition: a superficial observer might think of a photographic architectural theme, or one about traveling. But actually it is a theme about stories: about men’s search for spirituality; about a precious moment; about the big and the less big questions in life. And it’s very easy to make fun of this and of the people telling these stories. Only when people are vulnerable, trolling is getting its biggest impact. This is the field of operation where the troll is reaching his peak form. Just for the fun of it.
The troll isn’t interested in questions of faith or faithlessness. A troll isn’t necessarily atheistic when he’s bashing believers; he is just wearing an atheist mask. The troll isn’t interested in arguing; he’s only interested in trolling. The only meaningful suggestion of a secular alternative to SacredSunday was a SecularSunday theme, proposed by Helen Sotiriades. Obviously there was not much interest, the aforementioned trolls are not interested in alternatives: they just want to troll.
Conclusion #3: trolls are destructive.
Trolls often refer to the freedom of speech as soon as they are meeting with resistance. But this point is setting a thief to catch a thief: the troll’s victim suddenly takes the villain’s place, and the troll becomes a defender of freedom. But it’s just a manipulative technique; everybody who ever felt victim to bullying is experiencing this method first-hand.
Freedom. What is freedom? Most of you may think it’s your fundamental right, but actually it is not. Freedom is only possible through reason, says Immanuel Kant. And freedom means obligation: only the dutiful decision is a free decision, that means purely affective decisions don’t have anything to do with freedom. From this point of view the troll’s attack is definitely not an act of freedom. And even if you don’t agree to that, you may accept that there are many definitions of freedom, and that a troll does always know to make use of the definition that suits him best. The troll is only interested in his own (definition of) freedom, not in the freedom of others. His view of the world is completely egocentric; he needs the other’s attention at the cost of other’s freedom.
Conclusion #4: trolls are sociopathic.
So there are some people trolling SacredSunday. And I’m sure that’s not the only theme being harassed by trolls. As we have seen, trolls are inevitable. They are a product of the network. Due to their sociopathic nature, cure is difficult. Probably some trolls are caring daddies at home, but trolling is a severe character defect IMHO. Trolls think they are smart, but in fact they aren’t. So what can we do?
In my twenty years of Internet experience I’ve learned that arguing with trolls doesn’t make sense. Any contact, any attempt of discussion will only lead to more severe provocations. Any attempt to get their accounts deleted will make them alleged heroes of freedom, and unsuspecting people will help them in the name of freedom of speech. This kind of discussion was happening today; it is mostly affect-controlled: the victim is defending himself against reproaches, and the troll is laughing up his sleeve in the background.
Again: what can we do? There is only one way: since the troll is a creature of the swamp, he must be drained out. Don’t feed the troll is still a good advice, even after many years. New trolls are born daily, so we somehow have to live with them. When a troll is losing attention he probably will move away; he will try to provoke others for a couple of times, but when nobody listens, he will eventually leave. Another tool is blocking: usenet clients gave us the blacklist. That’s a list of users we don’t want to read: their output becomes invisible to us. The Google+ equivalent is blocking the troll’s account. If you want to tell him, drop him a comment saying ‚plonk‘, then block him.
Only in very rare cases you can score a direct hit against a troll: that happens when he’s coming out of the wood and does something criminal, such as threatening you personally. Your reply is very simple and a surgical thrust into his heart: sue him.
tl;dr / executive summary: SacredSunday attracted the attention of trolls, pretending to be atheists. Due to their sociopathic nature and their usage of manipulative techniques, resistance against them is difficult, but possible. The troll phenomenon is an aftereffect of large networks.