Commentary

Don't Let Trolls Take You Down

Trolls have been blowing ups constructive dialogue since the days when social media were known as Bulletin Board Systems, America Online was an upstart to CompuServe and Facebook wasn’t even a gleam in its founder’s eye.

In the early ’00s, I watched two small, issue-oriented “discussion groups” I started devolve into, first, heated exchanges and then widespread silence in the wake of trolls’ infiltration. I simply pulled the plug on them. It wasn’t worth the aggravation and time required to restore users’ confidence that I’d moderate more effectively.

Clearly, though, that’s not a smart or viable solution for commercial publishers and brands, particularly now that social media has become a driving force in the exchange of goods and services as well as of ideas.

The incredible global growth of platforms such as the ephemeral Snapchat and the anonymous Yik Yak have turned shaming into a drive-by blood sport, and Periscope can make it visual. Jon Ronson wrote a powerful book about it. An excerpt, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life,” is not only a cautionary tale on the vitriol that you might face for a stupid, offhand comment, but also the confession of a reformed troll: Ronson himself.

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This week, in the wake of the racist and sexist haranguing of “Ghostbusters” actress Leslie Jones, Twitter permanently banned Breitbart Tech editor Milo Yiannopoulos, who purportedly used 4chan and Reddit to incite users to harass Jones.

“Twitter I understand you got free speech I get it. But there has to be some guidelines...,” Jones tweeted before leaving Twitter Tuesday “with tears and a very sad heart.” Twitter admitted that it “had not done enough to curb this type of behavior” and promised new policies and tools to deal with “trust and safety issues.”

So what can you do to make your social media channel safer short of giving up, as I did years ago, or curtailing responses and interaction, as Socially Aware blogger John Delaney recently detailed many publishers are opting to do?

I asked Delaney, whose day job is as a partner in one of the world’s largest law firms, and Eric Schiffer, who among other pursuits is an expert in reputation management, for their thoughts on effective ways to deal with trolls.

John Delaney, Partner, Morrison & Foerster
Trolls have become a huge headache for companies seeking to interact with customers through social media. Brands want to engage one-on-one with customers through social media, but trolls end up scaring off customers who would otherwise be interested in such engagement.

In response, many brands — and online publishers — are turning off their comments section. Which is a shame. This trend is taking the “social” out of social media.

But there are other ways to deal with trolls without cutting off all interactions with customers. 

One approach is to use a moderator, who can delete offensive or hateful comments. Ideally, a moderator should take a light touch. Negative but thoughtful comments regarding a company’s products ideally should not be deleted, but addressed.

Another approach is to carefully choose those social media platforms on which you will seek to engage with customers. For example, anonymity clearly fuels trolling. So trolls are less likely to be a problem on a platform such as Facebook -- where users must use their real names -- rather than on a platform such as Twitter, where users can conceal their identities.

Further, some platforms provide companies with greater control over user comments than other platforms do. For example, Disqus allows companies to block profiles of commenters who are posting inappropriate comments. Other platforms permit companies to review and select those user comments that will be accessible to others. 

Eric Schiffer, chairman, Reputation Management Consultants
The best way to deal with trolls is actually incredibly easy, but often overlooked by brands and publishers: Just ignore them. Most business owners don’t realize that they have the initial power when these interactions with trolls occur. As soon as you acknowledge a troll, you give away some of that power. Instead, if you come across a user who is clearly trolling, block them from your page and go about your day.

Trolls feed off your reaction to them, so if you continue to react, more and more will come. This is how communities become infested with trolls over time. When you choose the “ignore and block” approach, you don’t waste anybody’s time -- time that can instead be spent in productive ways for your business. There is also a zero percent chance for negative consequences or bad PR to emerge on the business's behalf.

Don’t let your brand go down to a troll’s level. The key is just being able to distinguish the difference between trolling and constructive criticism.

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