How to Deal with Online Trolls

Establish house rules and get a good copywriter.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer

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Jordan Gaines Lewis. (2014, February 25). Internet trolls are also real-life trolls. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2014/feb/25/internet-trolls-are-also-real-life-trolls[/n] Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion professionals.…”

How do you deal with online trolls?

I often help com­pan­ies and organ­isa­tions deal with online trolls. This work is usu­ally done react­ively, but much must be done proactively.

In some not-so-rare cases, the “trolls” aren’t trolls but reg­u­lar and valu­able cus­tom­ers who are right to be angry. Such cases call for issues man­age­ment and crisis com­mu­nic­a­tion — depend­ing on the situation.

Still, some­times brands must deal with inter­net trolls. It’s a waste of resources that could’ve gone to bet­ter use else­where, but it’s a job that needs to be done.

Here’s my recom­men­ded approach for deal­ing with online trolls:

1 Proactive Online Troll Treatments

Most brands will deal with online trolls when they emerge. But the best approach is to do whatever you can to steer clear of them. Proactivity is highly recommended.

1.1 Establish House Rules

All brand plat­forms should have some form of house rules or com­munity policy. These rules should be pub­lic and clear to any­one inter­act­ing with your brand.

Most troll activ­ity can be blocked, deleted, or banned. But to min­im­ise the risk of a back­lash, you should nev­er take such actions for any oth­er reas­on than policy violations.

Canadian psy­cho­lo­gists Erin Buckels, Paul Trapnell, and Delroy Paulhus set up a sur­vey of per­son­al­ity invent­or­ies matched with ‘Internet com­ment­ing styles’ — in oth­er words, they attemp­ted to psy­cho­ana­lyse com­menters, which should be cause for a Nobel prize (and haz­ard pay) in itself. What came from the study will likely sur­prise no one: people who like to troll are also likely to show signs of ‘sad­ism, psy­cho­pathy, and Machiavellianism.’”
Source: Time [n]Chayka, K. (2014, February 13). Internet Trolls Are Actually Sadists, Study Finds. Time; Time. https://​time​.com/​8​2​6​5​/​i​n​t​e​r​n​e​t​-​t​r​o​l​l​s​-​a​r​e​-​a​c​t​u​a​l​l​y​-​s​a​d​i​s​t​s​-​s​t​u​d​y​-​f​i​n​ds/[/​n]

1.2 Spring Clean Your Accounts

It’s tedi­ous work, but you should spring clean amongst your fans, fol­low­ers, and sub­scribers, even if there are thousands.

Spring clean­ing means sift­ing through your online com­munity and look­ing for prom­in­ent troll accounts. When you find such accounts, delete them, ban them, block them, or unsub­scribe them.

While spring clean­ing might decrease your com­munity num­bers, you’ll bene­fit from bet­ter algorithmic scores.

Affiliate: I use Email List Validation to pro­tect my sender repu­ta­tion by keep­ing my PR email lists free from boun­cing emails.

1.3 Nurture a Brand Community

Nothing will pro­tect your brand bet­ter than nur­tur­ing a pos­it­ive and ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tion across all your social channels. 

When the shit hits the fan, hav­ing your com­munity take your side is cru­cial. And if they favour your brand’s online envir­on­ment, they won’t eas­ily allow online trolls to des­troy what they’ve helped build.

Affiliate: I use Mailchimp as my default email list manager.

1.4 Use Social Tech Strategically

Several tech­no­lo­gies will allow you to shape and man­age your com­munity engagement.

You can nur­ture a pos­it­ive online brand cul­ture by util­ising indi­vidu­al com­ment replies, reac­tions, pins, high­lights, badges, top lists, scores, sort­ing mech­an­isms, rewards, etc.

Here are a few on-site examples:

  • Allow vot­ing of com­ments up and down.
  • Sort com­ments by pop­ular­ity or rank.
  • Only allow com­ments from registered users.
  • Only allow com­ments from customers.
  • Highlight com­ments that get answered by an admin.
  • Move com­ments that get respon­ded to by an admin to the top.

2 Reactive Online Troll Treatments

Of course, humans have always had this poten­tial for the irra­tion­ally vin­dict­ive, but the advent of the inter­net finally allowed it to thrive. Because as soon as you stuck someone behind a com­puter, a dan­ger­ously insu­lar shield of anonym­ity came down and, for those inclined, hap­pily took over.“
Source: Gizmodo [n]Feinberg, A. (2014, October 30). The Birth of the Internet Troll. Gizmodo; Gizmodo. https://​giz​modo​.com/​t​h​e​-​f​i​r​s​t​-​i​n​t​e​r​n​e​t​-​t​r​o​l​l​-​1​6​5​2​4​8​5​292[/​n]

Whether your brand is pre­pared or not, online troll attacks do occur. How do you deal with them reactively?

2.1 Categorise Your Online Trolls

Online trolls are examples of pub­lics. They’re best cat­egor­ised by how and where they communicate.

Why cat­egor­ise online trolls? There are many dif­fer­ent types of online trolls. Depending on how and where they com­mu­nic­ate, you can find clues on how to best deal with them.

There’s no offi­cial cat­egor­isa­tion of online trolls, of course. Below are a few examples of pub­lics to show­case how to map vari­ous psychologies.

  • Online Vandals are motiv­ated by destruc­tion. They could flood your feed with troll com­ments for no reas­on oth­er than to wreak hav­oc. They are sel­dom the first to arrive but will leave when it gets boring.
  • Keyboard Warriors are typ­ic­ally anonym­ous or use pro­files with few fol­low­ers or friends. Their motives are often polit­ic­al, and their aggres­sion is often fueled by social exclu­sion. It’s worth not­ing that this pub­lic often does­n’t tar­get the brand but its followers.
  • Virtue Signalists often move in coördin­ated packs and will attack you on mor­al grounds. This pub­lic is eager to report your con­tent and might even tar­get employ­ees (or their friends and fam­ily) via email campaigns.
  • Bleeding Hearts will pro­claim their vic­tim­hood and blame your brand for des­troy­ing their lives. Emotions will run high, and there will be no con­ver­sa­tion. It’s worth not­ing that hear­ing this pub­lic out might aggrav­ate them even more.
  • Social Activists are sim­il­ar to Virtue Signalists. While Virtue Signalists will attack your brand to make them­selves feel bet­ter, Social Activists will look for a tan­gible brand response (often seen as a victory).
  • Bot Accounts come in wide vari­et­ies, but since these should be quickly blocked and deleted, they can be cat­egor­ised as one single public.
  • Meme Flooders often mean no harm and are just look­ing for some fun. But a sud­den flood of memes can still spell trouble for a brand’s social feeds. This pub­lic moves in packs and typ­ic­ally does­n’t stay for long. 
  • Ambulance Chasers are a curi­ous bunch. They turn up whenev­er there’s a scan­dal because they’re look­ing for front-row seats. While they might be pass­ive, they can some­times try to add fuel to the fire for entertainment.
  • Brand Haters are typ­ic­ally per­sist­ent and tend to stay around until the brand finds a way to settle their reas­on for being angry. Brand Haters can some­times let go if they get some form of compensation.

2.2 Online Staff Mode 

When online trolls attack your brand, their activ­ity must be mon­itored, and actions must be taken imme­di­ately. The soon­er you take action, the better.

If online trolls are allowed to wreak hav­oc without the brand tak­ing any meas­ures for too long, their activ­ity will attract oth­ers, and your prob­lems might become more prom­in­ent than they have to be.

So, when your brand deals with online trolls, staff up accord­ingly. It’s rarely a good idea for every­one to leave work while online trolls ramp up dur­ing the night.

2.3 Choose Your Response

2.3.1 Ban, Block, Report

Banning, block­ing, and report­ing are applic­able when online trolls are enga­ging in the feeds of your brand’s social accounts or com­ment forms on your web­site or app:

If someone viol­ates your house rules (i.e. com­ment policy), they’re online trolls. And as such, you can go ahead and ban, block, and delete them.

When decided to be the right action to take, ban­ning, block­ing, and delet­ing should be an imme­di­ate response.

If it’s unclear wheth­er or not someone viol­ates your house rules, revise them and make any changes known to your brand com­munity.

2.3.2 Use the High Road Tonality

The High Road Tonality

An organ­isa­tion is the total sum of all its cowork­ers. Imagine tak­ing the most mature traits from each cowork­er and com­bin­ing them into one voice — the High Road Tonality.

  • Openness. A mature organ­isa­tion under­stands that every­one must be allowed to express their thoughts and opinions.
  • Fairness. A mature organ­isa­tion will see (and respect) both sides of a divis­ive argument.
  • Strength. A mature organ­isa­tion is con­fid­ent in its chosen strategies and acquired abil­it­ies, not because they’re per­fect, but because they are grounded.
  • Wisdom. A mature organ­isa­tion will take their time to explain com­plex top­ics without condescending.
  • Humility. A mature organ­isa­tion under­stands that no one can have everything com­pletely figured out and that we all have learn­ing and grow­ing to do.

Learn more: The High Road Tonality: Don’t Be Pushed Around

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2.3.3 Use Fancy Copywriting

Online trolls might be bad people, but you can throw many types of them off by react­ing in a way they wouldn’t expect you to.

There are many suc­cess­ful case stud­ies where brands have used fancy copy­writ­ing to fight against online trolls. The idea is to make the gen­er­al online audi­ence favour your brand instead and turn them against online trolls.

Fancy copy­writ­ing might be your choice weapon if you take the fight. 

Be charm­ing.
Be clev­er.

Fancy copy­writ­ing is an art form, though.

You need a copy­writer or a PR writer who can pro­duce glim­mer­ing online responses in a high-pres­sure situation.

2.3.4 Monitor and Evaluate

When online trolls attack, it’s chal­len­ging to gauge pro­por­tion­al­ity. Coworkers might be upset and feel per­son­ally attacked. Leaders might feel pres­sured to push for action.

Your brand’s first line of defence against mak­ing bad calls is data. Data is har­ves­ted through online mon­it­or­ing sys­tems and then evaluated.

2.3.5 Attempt De-Platforming

If online trolls are giv­ing your brand grief out­side your brand plat­forms (social accounts, web­sites, apps, etc.), you might still be able to ban, block, or report their con­tent. However, this is a high-stakes strategy and should only be used with the utmost caution.

Brands should be care­ful about try­ing to de-plat­form someone. Although they might be online trolls, they’re not in viol­a­tion of your house rules any­more. Because they’re not in your “house.”

The only time de-plat­form­ing is a reas­on­able course of action is if an online troll viol­ates the terms or con­di­tions stated by the social net­work. But even then, there’s a high prob­ab­il­ity that the social net­work won’t respond to your reports.

Read also: De-Platforming as a Public Relations Strategy

Scores on the Dark Tetrad per­son­al­ity test revealed that trolls are, by far, more likely to have nar­ciss­ist­ic, Machiavellian, psy­cho­path­ic, and sad­ist­ic per­son­al­ity traits. Okay, so that’s not so sur­pris­ing. But Buckels and col­leagues wanted to take it a step fur­ther: how much enjoy­ment are these trolls get­ting from their online shenanigans? The research­ers con­struc­ted their own Global Assessment of Internet Trolling (GAIT), which asked such ques­tions as ‘I have sent people to shock web­sites for the lulz’ and ‘The more beau­ti­ful and pure a thing is, the more sat­is­fy­ing it is to cor­rupt.’ (Sadly, some people indeed answered these ques­tions with a ‘yes’).“
Source: The Guardian [n]Jordan Gaines Lewis. (2014, February 25). Internet trolls are also real-life trolls. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2014/feb/25/internet-trolls-are-also-real-life-trolls[/n]


Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing it with oth­er PR- and com­mu­nic­a­tion pro­fes­sion­als. For ques­tions or PR sup­port, con­tact me via jerry@​spinfactory.​com.

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://doctorspin.net/
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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