Responding to Online Hate & Trolling: A New Resource

Responding to Online Hate & Trolling: A New Resource

This resource was developed by Rev. Heather Ramsey-Mabrouk, Director of the SNEUCC Center for Transformational Leadership, in consultation with the Rev. Timoth Sylvia, Pastor of the First Congregational Church in Randolph, MA. Rev. Sylvia has more than 136,000 followers on his @revtimoth TikTok account and is often the target of online hate.

While it has been somewhat common for churches, especially those with strong justice focused ministries, to receive angry letters, hateful messages, and nasty website comments or reviews over the years, acts of violence, vandalism and hatred against churches have increased in both frequency and intensity recently.  In our current climate of division and demonization of the perceived opposition, more and more churches and pastors are being inundated with hate mail, condemning emails and threatening voicemails in response to the work they are doing in the world to live the love and justice of Jesus and proclaim the Gospel.  Online spaces seem to be especially fertile ground for spiritual shaming, hateful propaganda, toxic theologies and internet trolls.

In the last month or so there have been several churches within the conference that have experienced vandalism of their building, harassment of pastors and leaders, and church websites or social media posts flooded with comments from internet trolls spewing hateful, toxic comments that occasionally threaten violence. 

As communities of faith who proclaim love, healing and radical welcome, we cannot ignore these acts of harm; AND we must be deeply intentional about how we respond.  In an effort to help congregations and church leaders be prepared to respond to online bullies and internet trolls, here are some best practices, strategies and suggestions to guide your discernment as you develop a plan.

Best Practices:

  1. Before an incident happens, have a response plan
    Many churches have a publicity plan or policy – an outline of who will respond to what questions from media/outside sources when an incident happens. Likewise, create a plan of who will address negative internet engagement and social media trolls. Be clear about who will respond, what response strategy will be used (see below), and what limits to the engagement are set.
  2. Know your message
    Know the message you want to convey with any response—write it, reflect on it, wordsmith it. Once your message is posted it can be captured, shared and perhaps taken out of context by anyone. Your core message should be the center of every response you post. If your response is intentionally and carefully crafted, it is less likely to be used to cause further harm.
  3. Be attentive to your online spaces
    Be sure someone is being attentive to each of your congregation’s online spaces.Have an active moderator equipped to monitor your social media sites.Task someone with keeping an eye on comments and interactions on your website and broadcasts (YouTube, Vimeo, Podcasts, etc.).When live streaming, have someone equipped and ready to monitor comments and any chat features.
  4. Develop a response strategy
    Make an intentional decision about what strategies you will use to address nasty and hateful comments. Decide whether you will respond differently to someone who is local v. an account from across the globe (which may or may not be a bot).Consider at what point another strategy will be used in the engagement (i.e. Delete and Block). Once you have selected a response strategy (or a set of response strategies), stick with it. Only make changes in strategy after spending some time in discernment and planning.
  5. Maintain your values
    Regardless of your strategy, be sure to maintain your core values. If such comments or behavior would not be tolerated in your physical or spiritual space, do not tolerate it in your virtual space (website, social media posts, live streams, etc.)"

    When responding to a comment, respond in such a way that reflects your values and theology. Consider how you might post a response that proclaims the Gospel from a loving and liberating perspective.
  6. Base your response on potential readers rather than the commenter
    If the comment is from an oversees account and/or appears to be a bot, your response will likely not be read by the commenter. It is likely they have dropped the comment and moved on. However, others will read your response (if you choose not to delete it—which is always an option). Consider if this is an opportunity to counteract toxic theology and offer an alternative image of God to those who might need to hear it. Consider whose life you might change or save if you offer the news of a loving, accepting, compassionate God?
  7. Ensure the safety of your congregation and community
    Prioritize the safety of yourself, your congregation and the community. If trolling becomes escalated, set up additional safety measures in your building and any place folx gather with you. Document trolling and harassment – keep emails, message threads, chat logs, and physical documents; take screen shots of posts and the comments. Involve law enforcement if needed.
  8. Know your limits
    For some engaging in confrontation online is draining or enraging in such a way that it impacts their centeredness, spiritual wellness or mental health. For others engaging in difficult online conversation/posting is easy and has little impact on their emotional well-being. Whenever possible have someone who fits the latter category be the one responding. Always schedule in some self-care time after engaging with online trolls.
  9. Establish your non-negotiables
    Plan and be clear about the point at which a post will be simply deleted, blocked, and/or reported. What is that line for you and your community? Is it certain phrases or language? Is it when physical harm or violence is threatened or invoked? Is it any comment that promotes hate?


Potential Response Strategies:

Counteract Hate with Love
Flood the post with kindness and encouragement.  Invite others (members or sibling churches, Association churches, etc.) to post words of encouragement, love and prayers.  These comments are not in response to the trolling posts but are an infusion of Christian hope and love into the virtual space.
Actively Engage
The one tasked with responding to hateful messages engages with the post or comment with a comment.  Again, be clear on the purpose of the post, ensure it reflects your collective values, and develop the response in advance for clear messaging.  Know when to end the engagement and block the trolling account.
Copy/Paste for Consistent Response
Choose to have a carefully crafted, concise response to any trolling comments.  The focus is not on the comment, but on the opportunity to proclaim the Gospel and articulate a theology of love and compassion.  Craft the statement carefully, intentionally and in advance.  Be sure your values and your core message are at the heart of the comment. Then copy and paste it to each comment.  Do not be swayed to differ the response or engage with any additional negative responses.
Delete and Block
Delete the comment and block the account.  Send the message that hate will not be tolerated and will not be allowed to take up any space in your online presence.  This is always an option!

Resist the temptation to…

  • Debate theology online.
    Many comments are posted by folks who are not local, are not invested in the community, and aren’t looking to start a conversation. The intent is to drop hate-bombs that shock and harm before moving on to the next site. If the poster is local and further conversation may be fruitful, take the conversation offline (and always be mindful of your safety and the safety of your community).
  • Respond in such a way that escalates the exchange.
  • Switch response strategies mid engagement without intentional discernment and reflection.
  • Put off planning for an internet troll until it happens to you.
  • Ignore the problem.

Graphic from a photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash


heather ramsey-mabrouk 1.jpg
Heather Ramsey Mabrouk

Heather ensures that the Center for Transformational Leadership reflects the SNEUCC value, “We believe God calls us to bring new life as agents of change and so we embrace and encourage adaptive and transformative leadership wherever the Body of ...

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