In person, he was kind, respectful, and upstanding. There was nothing out of the ordinary in the physique of this man approaching middle age. Unassuming. A friendly smile. A steady presence.

On Twitter, he was different. Under various aliases, he seethed and raged, lashing out at opponents real and imagined, uttering vile sentiments that crossed all sorts of lines. He enjoyed the rush of transgressing society’s few remaining taboos (namely, racism and misogyny), saying what no one else would say, and trolling the insufficiently “based” while calling out the cowards.

Perhaps you think I’m describing a scandal that erupted last fall, in which the headmaster of a classical Christian school was exposed as someone with a number of anonymous Twitter accounts full of sinful statements. In that case, the darkness of a troubled man who described himself as a “despairing man angry at the world” was exposed.

But this story might fit any number of men who frequent evangelical churches or are involved in evangelical institutions. In the past decade, anonymous accounts on Twitter have proliferated, often trafficking in outrageously racist or misogynistic statements under the cover of anonymity.

More than Trolls

It’s common for Twitter users to roll their eyes and say, “Don’t feed the trolls.” But the phenomenon I’m describing goes beyond trolling.

Many, if not most, trolls choose not to remain anonymous. Under their real names, they hound a few people with their contrarian takes, expressing themselves in unhealthy ways with no intention for civil dialogue or persuasive back and forth. They get a rise out of tweaking the people for whom they feel contempt. As an observer and participant on social media, I’ve encountered trollish behavior for years, from both the left and the right. (And make no mistake, trolls on the left can be just as annoying and ridiculous as those on the right.)

The kind of Anonymous Twitter I’m talking about goes beyond the typical troll. It doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone who may choose, perhaps for prudential reasons, to try out opinions under a pseudonym. The Anonymous Twitter accounts I have in mind mercilessly mock and bully anyone belonging to a despised tribe and then deploy over-the-top rhetoric that would be either personally embarrassing or professionally costly if their identities were known.

No wonder the account remains anonymous. Behind the veil, the user adopts a different persona and says the unsayable, transgressing the boundaries of genuine conversation while enjoying the thrill of nonconformity.

I’ve witnessed this long enough to wonder, What’s going on here, in the heart of someone who engages in this behavior? Why the appeal? What’s the goal?

Even more, how can the church respond? Surely the mission field includes the young men who find a measure of satisfaction in creating and sustaining these accounts. So where do we start, as missionaries with the heart of Christ, in understanding and responding to this phenomenon?

Younger Millennials and Anonymous Twitter

To dig deeper, we must consider younger millennials and Gen Zers growing up in a social-media-infused world. I say “younger millennials” because there seems to be a qualitative difference in the online mentality between older millennials like myself and those who were born 5 to 15 years after me.

I’m not a digital native. I was 19 before I opened my own email account, and I was in college overseas before I had a simple cellphone. The situation was different for many born after 1986 or 1990. Exploring the internet anonymously during the late 1990s involved conversing through message boards and forums. Expectations changed in the early 2000s, and once Facebook took off and Twitter arrived, the ability to craft online personas became easier and the practice more widespread.

Younger millennials have never known a world without the possibility of fashioning and crafting an “online identity.” It’s a crucial piece of how they imagine “being online.” Even when not anonymous, many a young man’s crucial years of “owning” his faith or political views for himself happened not in conversation or learning environments that required physical proximity but through online postings and comments. Social media gives young people a canvas on which to imagine and paint a picture of themselves. No doubt this marks a shift in how we perceive our “identities”—both online and in the real world.

Crafting Online Personas

Chris Bail’s important work on the distorting effects of social media shows we don’t just broadcast our opinions; we put on different costumes. We try out different identities. We make statements, gauge the reaction, recalibrate our next statements, watch how others respond, and eventually tailor our online presence as we consider ourselves in relation to our online community, according to the values we perceive among the people we most appreciate. Sentiments that receive affirmation from the people we care about or outrage the people we despise create a feedback loop that leads to greater polarization, as behavior that would be generally frowned upon in the real world gets applauded as “courageous” and “bold” online.

In a world with fewer and fewer boundaries, young people figuring out their identities find meaning and significance in policing tribal lines, often directing their most vicious statements toward people who are “closest” to their tribe—adjacent in some way and yet not fully in line. The most common target is the traitor, the betrayer, or the compromiser—the one who interacts with an opposing tribe, considers other perspectives, or entertains the possibility of a good point made by someone in the “despised” category.

Why does this take place? Because when your sense of identity is tied to your online portrait (and increasingly divorced from place, family, work, and church), you feel the urge to create and police boundaries so you can stabilize your own self-understanding. Anonymous Twitter accounts satisfy this urge, which is why so many fire missiles not at the opposing side but at the tribe-adjacent people no longer deemed “sound.”

True Aggression?

If Bail’s research is right, it helps explain why some men find the rush of transgressive postings irresistible. And note I say men, not women, because in my experience much of the aggression expressed in anonymous accounts comes from men.

But is it true aggression? Granted, that’s how the postings of an Anonymous Twitter account sound, but I’m not sure the rage is really heartfelt. Sometimes I wonder if the shocking statements come from a deadened, desensitized heart, as if the aggressive, vitriolic response is just a way of feeling something, anything—of trying to get the blood pumping again.

I’m not convinced the vile sentiments expressed in Anonymous Twitter are a true reflection of the person’s central identity. In a fractured and fragmented world online, nearly everyone’s identities can be seen as “in flux” in some way or another. And, because it’s never been easier to create an online persona that differs widely from who you are “in person” or who you are “in public” or at your job or church, it’s become more common for people to try on multiple identities and enjoy the feeling. It’s the split personality—digital version.

Is the author of the Anonymous Twitter account that spews racist and misogynist filth a covert racist and misogynist? Possibly. Probably. But always? Could it be this is someone who thrills at the transgression of boundaries without any perceived cost, much like a churchgoing young man harboring a secret porn addiction? Is the Anonymous Twitter user really filled with hatred toward ethnic minorities? Or is he playing “dress-up” — pretending to exhibit a bravado and twisted courage lacking in his real life?

Some of the anonymous accounts are so over the top in their campy racism and misogyny that it feels like the mirror image of the drag queen—the irreality of a person playing a part for a twisted culture of perversion. It’s a show. A performance. But the performer gets a kick out of it more than the audience.

Why Men?

I wouldn’t want anyone to assume my questions intend to excuse the behavior of Anonymous Twitter. These accounts are often abominable. But I do think it’s important to understand the phenomenon and why men, in particular, are tempted toward this behavior. Where does the appeal come from?

At some level, we must consider the flailing and fledgling missteps of manhood in our day. If you’re a minister of the gospel and you’re not asking why some men are gravitating toward books and podcasts promoting Stoicism, or the frank talk of Jordan Peterson, or the numerous “body-builder-training-types” on Instagram, or Andrew Tate (especially among teenage boys), you’re missing a major piece of a cultural puzzle right now. Men all around us are looking for a challenge, and they won’t take seriously a church that doesn’t call them to something.

If you look past what’s obviously non-Christian or appalling in many in these examples—if you can look past the lies to the deeper longings being addressed—you’ll see that much of what appears to be “calling out” for weakness is being received as a “calling up” to strength. Even if the supposed virtues are worldly and unbiblical or lack Christlike character, surely you can see that in a world that no longer regularly celebrates the contribution of men or manhood, the thirst for self-improvement and self-discipline is real and enduring.

Men need ways to channel healthy ambition, to channel the impulses to build and repair with heroic self-sacrifice and courage. And yet, too often we divvy up certain virtues (and even the fruit of the Spirit) into characteristically “masculine” or “feminine” categories, thus leaving us all impoverished and deformed in character. Or we go the other way and flatten out into “sameness” men and women’s expression of virtues and fruit of the Spirit, so we no longer recognize the distinctive ways in which women exhibit strength and valor or the distinctive ways men express kindness and gentleness.

All across the spectrum, you find commentators chattering away about the crisis of manhood in the wake of gender confusion, the denigration and disparagement of men traditionally involved in “men’s work,” and the quest for significance and identity among men who seem to be lost and demoralized in our strange new world. No wonder some young people prefer the “manhood pretenders” of Andrew Tate or the manners-defying conduct of being brash and abrasive. It’s about the fight!

This spasm of outrage we so often see online is connected to a lack of significance among young men and a lack of male meaning. Life hasn’t turned out as expected. The future looks bleak. And when some men feel something is wrong, they dull the pain through self-satisfaction, try to break out of the destructive cycle through excessive self-discipline, or are seduced by the promise of Anonymous Twitter, where they deploy guerrilla warfare tactics as foot soldiers for the “heroic” generals who wage war in public.

Some may defend their use of anonymity as protection against being “canceled” or as a fight for free speech. But the notion that all of us all of the time need a global platform on which to broadcast whatever opinion we have (and without consequences) only makes sense in a world with sentiments and sensibilities deeply formed by online culture. It’s far more likely that a man who engages in this behavior will succumb to social media’s perverse incentives and harm his soul than that his witty retorts will have an effect on society.

What’s more, the battle becomes a substitute for community, a way of compensating for offline relationships where in the past all sorts of far-flung thoughts were shared, discussed, refined, and corrected. Without face-to-face friendships, self-broadcasting steps into the void.

Online, you can adopt a “manly” and “macho” persona that drips with bravado and “courage” (never mind the question of how it’s possible to be courageous while remaining anonymous!). You can say things that shock and provoke. And even if no one reacts, you receive the thrill of transgressing the cultural boundary. You get the initial satisfaction of saying the awful thing, calling names, and belittling and bullying others, all as a mask for your own insecurity and inadequacy. You can appear strong, even as you struggle with your weight. Magnetic, even as you struggle in your marriage. Free, even as you feel trapped by a job that doesn’t give you the chance to build anything.

There’s also the adrenalin rush of treating Twitter like a video game—of seeing what content will fit the algorithm and win clout. You may not feel like you’re winning at life, but you can win at Twitter.

Reaching the Lost Boys

The church isn’t to blame for the sinful actions of men on social media. But the church cannot be blind to some of the reasons these sins are so seductive.

These aren’t real men but boys—lost boys who have returned to the middle-school locker room to brag about their exploits and assert their dominance, all from a desire to make a mark on the world in a way that hides their sense of inner powerlessness. It’s the tantrum of a little boy who despairs at a world that will not bend to his desires and who has given up the desire to master his urges and exhibit self-control.

And this is part of our mission field. The causes that lead some men to this kind of behavior are part of the environment in which we’re called to be faithful. The response to Anonymous Twitter is a church where men can know and be known, where an exhilarating vision—the mountaintop summit of Christlikeness—and a desire not for moral mediocrity but moral majesty through the power of the Spirit is God’s call on our lives. We inhabit a spiritual battlefield with epic stakes. Unless we grasp and promote a vision of men of substance, we’ll see more seduced by Neverland, where the lost boys never grow up but become the shadows of Anonymous Twitter.

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