When I first met my husband’s Uncle Mel (not his real name), I was hopeful. I’m a left-leaning, pacifist Canadian, and Mel is a proud Florida Republican with a safe full of guns in his living room. But, despite those seemingly insurmountable ideological differences, in person, Mel is warm and funny and, at his core, just wants his family to be safe and happy, like I do.
Take that real relationship and put it on the Internet, though, and things change. I friended Mel on Facebook, and soon he was filling my timeline with angry memes mocking feminists, the Obamas, anti-gun activists, Black Lives Matter, the media and basically everything I hold sacred.
I’m all for political debate and discussion. But that requires both people listening to each other, and Mel was bombarding me with disturbing comments in an attempt to upset me. He was trolling.
Hate-following other moms turned me into a cyberbully I unfollowed him so his vitriol wouldn’t show up in my feed, but as the last elections in both Canada and America drew closer, Mel got aggressive, sharing my posts on his own page so his friends could openly mock me and posting offensive material on my wall to agitate and pick fights with my friends. One day I opened Facebook to find a photograph of a decapitated child, meant as some kind of statement about terrorism. As I quickly closed the page and stifled my nausea, I noticed my daughter standing behind me, her mouth agape. She had seen it too. I sent an enraged email telling Mel he had violated my trust and traumatized my daughter; he apologized and temporarily backed off, but after a while he was back to trolling.
Despite all of this, Uncle Mel is part of our family, and it’s important for us to maintain a relationship with him. We don’t see him often, and when we do, there’s an unspoken agreement that we focus on the things we have in common, not the things that divide us. I’m not one to hide my emotions, so my kids, who are eight and 11, know that Uncle Mel can upset me via social media. But they also know that he’s kind and generous and that he’s one of the last living connections we have to that side of the family. The lesson they’ve learned from his trolling is twofold: that they can have a relationship with someone they disagree with and that letting political differences escalate into trolling can hurt the person on the other side of the computer screen.
I quietly give Mel as little access to my Facebook page as possible (without unfriending or blocking him) so we can maintain a real-life relationship. I can’t unlearn what I know about his beliefs and lack of courtesy online, but to keep the peace I have to look for the humanity behind the troll.