How to Deal with Online Trolls

Establish house rules and get a good copywriter.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

How do you deal with online trolls?

I often help companies and organisations deal with online trolls. This work is usually done reactively, but a lot 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 specific 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 some form of 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

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 bring your community numbers down, you’ll benefit from better algorithmic scores.

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, it’s crucial to have your community be taking your side. And if they favour your brand’s online environment, they won’t easily allow online trolls to destroy what they’ve helped build.

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

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.

2.1.1 Public: Online Vandals

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 as soon as it gets boring.

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: Guardian

2.1.2 Public: Keyboard Warriors

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.

2.1.3 Public: Virtue Signalists

Virtue Signalists often move in coordinated 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.

2.1.4 Public: Bleeding Hearts

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.

2.1.5 Public: Social Activists

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).

2.1.6 Public: Fake Accounts

Fake Accounts come in wide varieties, but since these should be quickly blocked and deleted, they can be categorised as one single public.

2.1.7 Public: Crazy Ones

Poor mental health is a serious issue, and sufferers are real victims. However, as a brand on the internet, you will encounter Crazy Ones. This public often appears individually.

2.1.8 Public: Meme Flooders

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.

2.1.9 Public: Ambulance Chasers

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.

2.1.10 Public: Brand Haters

If you’re a big enough public brand, there will be Brand Haters. They’re 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 Do Nothing

No, always take action.

Even if troll attacks sometimes go away by themselves, your brand might be setting a harmful precedence for itself long-term.

2.3.2 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.

2.3.3 Use the Grown-Up Tonality

In most cases, whenever a response is required, resorting to the Grown-Up Tonality is often the best choice:

2.3.4 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 here 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.

2.3.5 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. And data is harvested through online monitoring systems and then evaluated.

2.3.6 De-Platform

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 of conditions stated by the social network itself. But even then, there’s a high probability that the social network won’t respond to your reports.

Attempting to de-platform someone is a typical high-risk, low-reward endeavour.

Read also: De-Platforming as a Public Relations Strategy

Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwerhttps://www.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.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Nice points. I like this part your own policy “Critical comments are welcome, but bring some positive energy to the discussion — or I won’t add your comment”.

    I’m admin in a Facebook group for people living in my neighbourhood and one of the rules that changed the tone of voice most to the better was when I added the rule (freely translated) “Are you angry about something? Consider first if it really is something that the group can help solve or discuss. This group is no place to let off steam.”

    Regarding trolls, the argument that if they can’t comment on your company’s page, they’ll just do it somewhere else on a place that you don’t control is still valid, but it needs to be weighed against the fact that one troll can destroy the conversation and the mood on a whole page. Hard stuff to tackle…

  2. Neat list! There are a few caveats I’d like to add:

    1. If you don’t have a solid product or service, you will end up driving customers to become trolls (lex Comcast). There’s nothing you can do about this except for improve your product/service, until then all your attempts at “social” will end with trolls.

    2. If you’re doing business in an area where lifestyle plays in, it will be harder. Like L’Oreal who had to close down their Advent calendar on Facebook because animal rights activists hi-jacked it. Always know who your dislikers are and have a strategy to handle them. Be prepared that dislikers can show up because of other departments (lex Svensk Mjölk sues Oatly -> Arla gets the brunt of it). In a way, working with social channels means assuming responsibility for everything your company does, whether it’s PR, Support or customer service.

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