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🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Speech Without Accountability: Reckoning with Anonymous Christian Trolls

August 19th, 2022 | 13 min read

By Patrick Miller

Our church invited Aimee Byrd to speak on Sunday morning several weeks ago. It wasn’t the first time. It won’t be the last time. While we only ordain men, we also allow non-ordained individuals to teach our congregation periodically—including women. I know many Christians would disagree with our position (what is sometimes called “soft complementarianism,” though I don’t own that label) in good faith.

But this isn’t an article about complementarianism or egalitarianism. It’s a post about online anonymity, trolls, and godly speech.

Why? During the weeks before and after Aimee visited, a small army of vitriolic social media users, hiding behind fake names, bios, and (sometimes racist) images mobilized to attack our church and speaker with language that I can only describe as horrifying, ugly, and dehumanizing.

The worst part was that they spoke as Christians courageously defending the truth. I can’t repeat the worst things these anonymous users said because they are too offensive, but a few examples suffice to make the point. Our church, whose social media handle is @TheCrossingCoMo, was called “The Crossing homo.” They used other misogynistic and homophobic slurs to insult us:

  • “What kind of pansies are these?!”
  • “Evangelical pansies, the worst kind of pansy.”
  • “The men at that church better have some testosterone gel ready to apply afterward.”
  • “These clowns are salivating over her.”

They mocked Aimee’s character and our character without knowing us:

  • “It’s always these weak, responsibility abdicating lazy white knights who champion these types of women. They do it because it’s convenient for them.”
  • “Her education consists of an English degree. Her theological credentials were bestowed by the University of Hubris under Dr. Conceit.”

They took screenshots of Aimee, mocking her appearance and humanity. They created offensive memes with her face superimposed on other bodies. Some of these images—which explicitly misrepresented our speaker as a “she-pastor”—made their way from anon Twitter to un-anonymous Twitter, and finally to larger accounts like William Wolfe.

As is often the case in the world of trolls, a bottomless plate of posts fed their mutual hunger for quarrels with hundreds of likes, comments, and retweets. Buoyed by the support of larger non-anonymous accounts—who often set the agenda for their trollish underlings—their tweets only got more offensive with time. The most extreme voices received the most positive feedback.

The message was clear: if you want online attention from the anti-woke-Christian-crowd this weekend, join the mob and burn the witch.

When people challenged their anonymity, they repeated the same tortured response, “If I revealed my identity, I’d be banned from social media and jeopardize my livelihood.” In other words, they feel they have a right to self-expression without any accountability.

There is no problem with holding strong convictions and engaging in charitable debate online. I took no umbrage at those who disagreed with our choice to host Aimee in good faith. But is it Christlike to hide behind an anonymous account, and spew hateful language in long comment threads and subtweets?

More importantly: should Christians have anonymous accounts online? Secular free speech advocates, including Jonathan Haidt, argue that our online platforms should ban anonymity in a bid to increase (however incrementally) online civility. Should Christians join the cause?

Anonymity in Genesis

The book of Genesis includes more stories of anonymity and falsely taken identities than any other book in the Bible. While these episodes are all descriptive accounts of historical events, the author placed them throughout Genesis, suggesting he intended his readers to interpret them thematically and draw obvious ethical conclusions:

  • Abraham pretends to be Sarah’s brother on two occasions to avoid the threat of a foreign king killing him to have her.
  • Isaac repeated this pattern with his wife, Rebecca.
  • Jacob pretended to be Esau to steal Isaac’s blessing at Rebecca’s urging.
  • Tamar dressed like a prostitute to trick Judah into sleeping with her.
  • Joseph hid his identity from his brothers when they came to Egypt in search of food.

In the first two cases, the consequences of hidden identity were dire. Abraham and Isaac’s anonymity not only put their wives at sexual risk but also jeopardized God’s plan to create a nation through whom all nations would be blessed. Their choices precipitated a community-wide crisis of infertility and created profound mistrust between Abraham/Isaac and their neighbors.

To what degree do anonymous “Christian” accounts create eerily similar problems? Do they jeopardize God’s mission by making Jesus ugly to outsiders? Do they promote factionalism, hatred, and division, tearing at the fabric of communal trust required for social shalom?

As Genesis continues, it becomes obvious that the consequences of anonymity are not just communal, they’re familial. Jacob’s decision to falsify his identity sent Esau into a murderous rage, which in turn caused Jacob to flee the promised land for several decades. His choices leave his family fractured and estranged.

In a similar fashion, I often wonder how online anonymity changes the psyche of the individual at home. If they spend hours every day dunking on people, mocking those they disagree with, and stabilizing their deep insecurities with online acts of domination, does that behavior move offline? Does trollish speech spill into their conversations with their spouses, kids, or coworkers? Does their paranoia over online cancellation (a point trolls repeat with alarming frequency) translate into paranoia and estrangement at home? James warns Christians that our lives tend to follow behind what our mouths say (James 3:3-5).

The final two examples of anonymity in Genesis are morally murky. Tamar sleeps with her father-in-law. While it’s hard to argue this was an upright decision, Judah declares her “righteous.” Joseph uses his false identity to cause his entire family terrible anxiety, eventually imprisoning one of his brothers, and yet somehow the entire episode leads to reconciliation. Perhaps these stories offer a muddy defense of anonymity—in a broken world, we sometimes need to hide who we are.

So it should surprise no one to learn that there are legitimate reasons to hide your identity online. Victims of abuse often share their stories anonymously, because of (very real) fear of their abusers. Other social media users are justly concerned about the ways Big Tech scrapes and processes their data. But, just as in the cases of Tamar and Joseph, people using anonymous accounts must take careful stock of how their decision to do so impacts the social networks around them.

Should we ban online anonymity?

The examples in Genesis are not a perfect analogy to online anonymity. They are descriptive accounts, not prescriptive texts. Yet, they all illustrate the dangers created when members of God’s family hide behind false identities. Together, they paint a coherent image of the cost of anonymity: social decay, familial estrangement, the dissolution of trust, and the obstruction of God’s global and local mission.

Jonathan Haidt aptly described the social reasoning behind banning online anonymity in an interview on Sam Harris’ podcast,

“I don’t ever want to be on an unregulated neighborhood on the Internet ever again. By unregulated, what I mean is, people can go there who nobody knows — if they make a death threat, nobody can even tell who they are — There’s no reason I would ever want to be in such a neighborhood. There’s nothing good that comes of it.”

Those familiar with Haidt’s work might be surprised by his stance. Surely banning anonymous accounts would have a choking effect on free speech? Think for example, of the positive ways pseudonymity has allowed individuals to publish pieces on difficult topics in print media. Or consider how the promise of anonymity allows whistle-blowers and abuse victims to tell their stories.

These are all valid concerns that must be debated before any platforms move to ban anonymous accounts. But we should note the key difference between online speech by individual accounts and institutional publications: oversight and accountability. An editorial or publishing staff ultimately makes the decision about what is credible and what to publish. This doesn’t prevent errors, but it does limit them. In the case of anonymous accounts, there is no accountability.

A different speech comparison sharpens the issue further: the difference obvious between anonymous and non-anonymous accounts. If I, as a non-anonymous citizen of the internet, post something erroneous or incendiary, I can expect to have friends, coworkers, pastors and family confront me. Knowing that is a gift. It causes me to restrain my tongue and keeps me out of a lot of trouble. The wisdom of proverbs applies in the 21st century, “Those who guard their mouths and their tongues keep themselves from calamity” (Prov. 21:23).

There is no easy answer to the problem of online anonymity. We will need to make difficult compromises. The internet blurs the line between private and public speech, just as it perforates the separation between private and public individuals. Responding to the historically novel concept (and oxymoron!) of an anonymous public speaker who lacks institutional oversight will require fresh solutions, not reheated aphorisms from an antiquated media landscape. For those reasons we should at least consider the argument for banning social media anonymity seriously.

Why Christians should reject anonymous, critical speech.

Even if we reject Haidt’s proposal to ban anonymity online, that doesn’t absolve individuals of their collective, social responsibilities to one another. On a moral level, he’s correct. No one wants to live in that neighborhood. This is especially true for Christians who care to follow Jesus’s second great commandment, love your neighbor as yourself. We are obliged by our king not to build digital neighborhoods where anonymous bullying is encouraged, much less become the verbal vandals within them.

The problem is that digital anonymity is profoundly appealing. Who wouldn’t be tempted to speak without accountability? Of course, if that speech was seasoned with kindness, grace, mercy, or patience, then there would be no problem. Instead, much anonymous speech is licentious, unkind, quarrelsome, and angry—exactly what Paul warned the Christians in Galatia to avoid,

“19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21, emphasis added).

Online vitriol and fighting cannot build the kingdom of God—no matter how righteous the cause may be—because online vitriol and fighting cannot inherit the kingdom. Our words matter tremendously to God, and while I reject shrill descriptions of language as “violence,” I cannot help but see the spirit of Cain animating the anon community. They slay their siblings, believing no one will see them. They scoff at those who confront them, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Yes, you are.

At this point, I can imagine some readers demurring: what about Luther and Calvin? They weren’t exactly nice to their polemical sparring partners. While I hold deep respect for our theological forebears, I do not think it is incumbent upon us to repeat their errors. I will not defend Luther’s sharp tongue any more than I’ll defend his anti-semitism. These were imperfect men, and we rightly learn from their successes and failures.

But perhaps you’d point back to John the Baptist, Paul or Jesus in one of their more prickly moments. You’re right. Clearly, there’s a place for direct speech and hard truth if Paul can warn about the above vices in the same letter he invites men to castrate themselves.

But we must be careful not to remove the sting of Biblical imperatives with a narrative sleight of hand. While it’s true that Jesus flipped over tables, it’s also true that he warned, “Anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell,” and taught, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” (Matt. 5:22; 5:44).

Jesus was not alone. Paul warned against wicked speech in multiple places, including speech characterized by “anger, rage, malice, slander” (Col. 3:8). To the contrary, Paul commands, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Col. 4:6).

But what about when you’re dealing with those whom you see as theological enemies of Christ? Surely, you can go full John the Baptist on that brood of vipers!

Well, Paul told Timothy otherwise, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness” (2 Tim 2:24-25). Peter describes a similar posture when Christians defend their faith. They must do so with “gentleness and respect” (Pet. 3:15).

The problem with the “Jesus did it!” and “John the Baptist did it!” ethic is that it decontextualizes a small number of narrative passages and gives them interpretive priority over a massive number of imperative passages. We give pride of place to stories whose ethical lessons are less clear than those taught in the imperatives passages.

Worse yet, this argument sets the sharp-tongued believer in the seats of Jesus and John the Baptist. The truth is that they are neither. They may very well be in a different seat.

But even if you were taking up the mantle of Christ or John the Baptist, you would remain accountable to scripture in your speech. While both men spoke strongly and pointedly, they never showed the kind of mean-spiritedness common among anon trolls. In a recent newsletter, Brian Mattson drew a helpful line between boldness and meanness,

Does speaking with “gentleness and respect” mean that we cannot speak with boldness or that we cannot denounce idolatry? By no means. … It is possible, if difficult, believe it or not, to speak very strongly and persuasively without ad hominem insults, childish jokes, and mean-spiritedness.

He goes on to point out that wittiness, strong personalities, sarcasm, and pointy prose are not off limits, biblically. But they must know their place, “They are seasoning or a garnish (Col. 4:6), not the entrée.”

When we place the prickly stories of Jesus in their narrative context, this rings true. He did not deploy ad hominem attacks. He was never mean-spirited or churlish. But he did speak strongly—as a seasoning to a gracious dish, not as the main course. He was the rare teacher who actually practiced what he preached.

All of that said, applying Jesus’ example to anon accounts is tremendously difficult because Jesus never spoke a critical word anonymously. He courageously bore the consequences of his speech, including the violent hatred of his enemies. The same applies to John the Baptist, who was beheaded for speech. Likewise, Paul never penned an anonymous letter. He always chose to confront sin in his own name. Anything less would’ve been a cowardly abnegation of his Christian responsibilities (Matt. 5:15-20).

I believe they all rejected anonymity because they understood that anonymity radically changes the contours of any speech act, but especially critical speech. Anonymity warps critical speech—which can be a gift!—into the worst version of itself: mocking, scoffing, insulting, churlish meanness.

While Jesus, Paul, and John the Baptist may be poor analogs to modern-day anon accounts, there is at least one clear analog to anon speech in the Bible that I have not yet touched on: the speech of the serpent in Eden. He was the first character in Genesis to conceal his identity in order to critique a person—God himself.

The first anon words in human history set human history on fire.

The author of Genesis clearly wants the reader to contrast the serpent’s first words to the first speech acts of God. Elohim’s speech acts in Genesis 1 are generative extensions of himself. What he speaks comes to life. In Genesis 2, Yahweh walks with Adam, he does not sever the connection between his identity and his spoken words. Indeed, speech is always an outward expression of what hides the heart, as well an extension of the self (James 3:3-5). To read God’s words in scripture is to encounter God, the same way reading a letter from my wife is to encounter her in some sense. Together Genesis 1 and 2 show the profound power of words in a personal, relational world.

This explains why, with rare exceptions, critical speech should not be anonymous. When it is, the speaker should show extra caution, carefully evaluating whether their words conform to Biblical speech ethics. Realize that you’ve chosen to sever the link between the speaker and spoken word—an act that runs the risk of dehumanizing yourself and conforming you to the destructive image of the serpent. There is another way. The path of generative speech, wherein the speaker and speech act remain united in a gracious act of courageous—if sometimes critical—self-giving.

Counting the cost, extending grace, and building a better social internet

At the end of the day, individuals attacked by anon trolls can do little to hold their attackers accountable, which is why Christians must never forget: God knows their identity and God holds them accountable. This frees us to pray for them and extend grace.

I care about anon trolls because they are image bearers just like me. And just like them, I find anonymity tempting. I am no better. But answering this question keeps me from creating a platform for unaccountable speech: Would I rather rack up a few likes and shares and retweets or inherit the kingdom?

As Paul warns, “those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:20).

Those of us without anon accounts aren’t off the hook, either. How often do we like, comment on, or retweet an anon account’s dunk? That’s the digital equivalent of shouting Amen. When we give toxic speech praise, we feed the troll’s flesh, entrench his bad behavior, and incentivize others, who envy the troll’s likes and retweets, to do likewise.

We also harm ourselves. Brian Mattson got it right,

“Watching someone go hammer and tongs against some perceived enemy or sellout stimulates all the pleasure centers of the brain. It is, I believe, an actual addiction. It provides some kind of sweet, sweet hit of dopamine. This is a pleasure of the flesh, I think Paul would say.”

If watching the trolls in your tribe (anonymous or not!) dunk on your enemies gives you a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more clicks, likes and shares—your soul is at risk. The reason why Christians on both sides of the political aisle are suddenly surfacing half-baked defenses of unkindness is not coincidental. Our digital environment demands that Christians either defend their addiction to social media outrage or give it up. And there may be no one more addicted to online outrage than the average anon troll.

In the end, anonymity may not be absolutely unethical. But anonymity creates temptations so appealing that most Christians should avoid it unless anonymity actually protects their physical safety. In most cases, we should choose to live in the (un-anonymous) light. Our words should be seasoned by grace. We should welcome accountability for our speech. The universe of Christian social media should look distinct. It should be a world of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and self-control.

What happened to Aimee should have never happened. It wasn’t Christian. It was serpentine. It didn’t build God’s kingdom. It built the kingdom of darkness. It didn’t honor her dignity as an image bearer, or the church’s dignity as Christ’s bride. It only honored the trolls’ egos and self-interest. It didn’t serve King Jesus. It served an online addiction. The fact that this behavior has become an ever-present part of Aimee’s life should compel Christians—even those who disagree with her—to resist verbal evil in the name of kingdom values.

There’s a different way to disagree. There’s a different way to speak online. There’s a different way to defend the truth. The way of Jesus. Let’s walk in that way together, un-anonymously.

Patrick Miller

Patrick Miller (MDiv, Covenant Theological Seminary) is a pastor at The Crossing. He offers cultural commentary and interviews with leading Christian thinkers on the podcast Truth Over Tribe, and is the coauthor of the forthcoming book Truth Over Tribe: Pledging Allegiance to the Lamb, Not the Donkey or the Elephant. He is married to Emily and they have two kids.