How to Deal with Online Trolls

Establish house rules and get a good copywriter.

Cover photo: @jerrysilfwer


How do you deal with online trolls?

I often help com­pan­ies and organ­isa­tions deal with online trolls. 

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 1Feinberg, 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

Here we go:

Pick Your Opponents Proactively

The paradox of prominence.
The para­dox of prominence.
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The Paradox of Prominence

The ever-loom­ing “dark side” of what drives people’s interest can be chal­len­ging for pub­lic rela­tions (PR) and com­mu­nic­a­tions pro­fes­sion­als. This phe­nomen­on, where every strength inher­ently pos­sesses a cor­res­pond­ing down­side, can be called the “para­dox of prominence.” 

An example of this para­dox is the halo effect, where phys­ic­al attract­ive­ness becomes an asset for a spokes­per­son. Attractiveness often leads to pos­it­ive biases; attract­ive indi­vidu­als are fre­quently per­ceived as more cred­ible and com­pet­ent. 2Eagly, A. H., Ashmore, R. D., Makhijani, M. G., & Longo, L. C. (1991). What is beau­ti­ful is good, but…: A meta-ana­lyt­ic review of research on the phys­ic­al attract­ive­ness ste­reo­type. … Continue read­ing 3Silfwer, J. (2023, December 17). The Halo Effect: Why Attractiveness Matters in PR. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​h​a​l​o​-​e​f​f​e​ct/

However, this same attrib­ute can spark neg­at­ive reac­tions. Critics might claim that the indi­vidu­al’s suc­cess or vis­ib­il­ity is primar­ily due to their looks, under­min­ing their com­pet­en­cies. This dual­ity illus­trates how the qual­it­ies that draw pos­it­ive atten­tion can sim­ul­tan­eously attract cri­ti­cism and scepticism.

Competence, anoth­er valu­able trait, often encoun­ters sim­il­ar pit­falls. Highly com­pet­ent indi­vidu­als inspire con­fid­ence and admir­a­tion. Nevertheless, this com­pet­ence can be per­ceived neg­at­ively when will­fully inter­preted as arrog­ance. Studies sug­gest that while com­pet­ence garners respect, it can also lead to social pen­al­ties, such as envy and resent­ment. 4Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A mod­el of (often mixed) ste­reo­type con­tent: Competence and warmth respect­ively fol­low from per­ceived status and com­pet­i­tion. Journal of … Continue read­ing

Examples of the Paradox of Prominence

The para­dox of prom­in­ence seems to be an inher­ent aspect of human interest dynamics. 

ProminencePositive OutcomeNegative Outcome
Physical attract­ive­nessEnhanced cred­ib­il­ity and trustAccusations of super­fi­cial success
High com­pet­enceRespected and trus­ted as an expertPerceived as arrog­ant or unapproachable
CharismaAbility to inspire and attract followersViewed as manip­u­lat­ive or insincere
Strong advocacyIncreased sup­port and mobil­iz­a­tion for a causeTarget of intense cri­ti­cism from opponents
WealthSeen as suc­cess­ful and influentialResentment and accus­a­tions of greed or unfairness
AssertivenessEffective lead­er­ship and decision-makingLabeled as dom­in­eer­ing or aggressive
InnovationAdmired for cre­ativ­ity and forward-thinkingResistance to change and cri­ti­cism from traditionalists
High vis­ib­il­ityGreater recog­ni­tion and influenceIncreased scru­tiny and loss of privacy
GenerosityViewed as kind-hearted and philanthropicSuspected of ulteri­or motives
Success in com­pet­it­ive fieldsRole mod­el and sym­bol of achievementEnvy and attempts to under­mine accomplishments

We must recog­nise that with every increase in vis­ib­il­ity, there is a cor­res­pond­ing increase in scru­tiny and criticism.

Pick Your Opponents Wisely

Public aware­ness comes with inev­it­able costs.

In the quest for great­er vis­ib­il­ity and influ­ence, it is crit­ic­al to acknow­ledge that “being uni­ver­sally well-liked” is a naïve and unreal­ist­ic goal. 

  • Public rela­tions pro­fes­sion­als must stra­tegic­ally decide the audi­ences they aim to attract and — of equal import­ance! — the adversar­ies they are will­ing to con­tend with.

By stra­tegic­ally har­ness­ing this para­dox, pub­lic rela­tions pro­fes­sion­als can man­age pub­lic per­cep­tion by inter­n­al­ising expec­ted “down­sides” as addi­tion­al aware­ness drivers. 

Learn more: The Paradox of Prominence

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Categorise Your Online Trolls

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Types of Online Trolls

There are vari­ous types of online trolls — and they behave dif­fer­ently. Depending on how and where they com­mu­nic­ate, you can find clues on how to best deal with them.

I use the fol­low­ing cat­egor­isa­tion of online trolls:

  • 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 typ­ic­ally 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 many vari­et­ies, but since they should be quickly blocked and deleted, they can be cat­egor­ised as one single pub­lic account.
  • Meme Flooders often mean no harm and are just look­ing for some fun. However, 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.

Please note: Publics provid­ing fair cri­tique or voicing legit­im­ate con­cerns should nev­er be cat­egor­ised — or treated! — as online trolls.

Learn more: How To Deal With Online Trolls

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Use the High Road Tonality

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The High Road Tonality

An organ­isa­tion is the poly­phon­ic 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 the 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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Establish House Rules

Establish online house rules (social media policy statements).
Establish online house rules (social media policy statements).
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Online House Rules (Social Media Policy Statements)

An organ­isa­tion’s social media accounts must be man­aged. While social media reac­tions can­not be fully con­trolled, a sup­port­ive cul­ture can be cul­tiv­ated in your organ­isa­tion’s feeds.

Keeping branded social media accounts, for­ums, and com­ment sec­tions in check will require act­ive mod­er­a­tion. Active mod­er­a­tion means delet­ing, ban­ning, block­ing, unfol­low­ing, and report­ing abuse.

It’s bad form to kick someone out arbit­rar­ily. Kicking someone out for mak­ing your brand uncom­fort­able is a recipe for PR backlash.

All brands must, there­fore, estab­lish online house rules.
(Also known as social media policy state­ments.)

Still, estab­lish­ing online house rules is easy. You need only one short and pos­it­ive state­ment to cla­ri­fy when, how, and why some user-gen­er­ated con­tent will be removed.

House Rule Examples

Here are a few short, encour­aging, and pos­it­ive state­ments for dif­fer­ent types of brands:

  • Coffee shop: “Join our cosy corner of cof­fee lov­ers. Share your love for great brews and friendly chats. Let’s keep it warm and wel­com­ing for everyone.”
  • Fitness centre: “Welcome to our fit­ness fam­ily. Cheer each oth­er on and share your pro­gress. Together, we cre­ate a sup­port­ive and motiv­at­ing community.”
  • Fashion retail­er: “Fashion is fun and express­ive! Share your style, inspire oth­ers, and let’s keep our space styl­ish and kind for all fashionistas.”
  • Tech com­pany: “Innovate, share, and learn with us! Our tech com­munity thrives on pos­it­iv­ity and respect. Let’s build some­thing great together.”
  • Travel agency: “Embark on jour­neys with fel­low trav­el­lers! Share your adven­tures and tips. Let’s keep our travel tales inspir­ing and respectful.” 
  • Bookstore: “Dive into a world of stor­ies! Share your favour­ite reads and dis­cuss them with fel­low book lov­ers. Let’s keep our book­ish com­munity open and friendly.”
  • Pet sup­plies store: “A place for pet lov­ers! Share your furry friends’ stor­ies and tips. Let’s keep it paws­it­ive and sup­port­ive for all pet parents.”
  • Organic food brand: “Healthy liv­ing starts here! Share your organ­ic recipes and well­ness tips. Let’s cul­tiv­ate a nur­tur­ing and pos­it­ive space.”
  • Gaming com­pany: “Game on! Share your scores, tips, and game stor­ies. Let’s keep our gam­ing com­munity fun and inclus­ive for all players.”
  • Beauty brand: “Celebrate beauty in all forms! Share your beauty tips and exper­i­ences. Let’s make our beauty com­munity kind and empowering.”
  • Automotive brand: “Drive your pas­sion for cars! Share your rides and auto­mot­ive tips. Let’s keep our auto­mot­ive com­munity respect­ful and enthusiastic.”
  • Music store: “Rock on! Share your favour­ite tunes and music stor­ies. Let’s keep our music­al com­munity har­mo­ni­ous and supportive.” 
  • Sports brand: “Fuel your pas­sion for sports! Share your achieve­ments and tips. Let’s keep our sports com­munity encour­aging and spirited.”
  • Home décor brand: “Create your dream space! Share your décor ideas and inspir­a­tions. Let’s keep our home décor com­munity cosy and inspiring.”
  • Outdoor gear store: “Explore the great out­doors. Share your adven­tures and gear tips. Let’s keep our out­door com­munity adven­tur­ous and respectful.”
  • Education plat­form: “Learn and grow with us! Share your know­ledge and study tips. Let’s keep our learn­ing com­munity pos­it­ive and collaborative.”
  • Green energy com­pany: “Power a green­er future. Share your eco-friendly tips and exper­i­ences. Let’s keep our green energy com­munity sus­tain­able and inspiring.”
  • Art sup­ply store: “Create your mas­ter­piece. Share your art and cre­at­ive tips. Let’s keep our art com­munity vibrant and encouraging.”
  • Health and well­ness brand: “Embrace well­ness with us. Share your health tips and exper­i­ences. Let’s keep our well­ness com­munity sup­port­ive and uplifting.”
  • Cooking brand: “Cook up some­thing amaz­ing! Share your recipes and cook­ing tips. Let’s keep our culin­ary com­munity deli­cious and friendly.”

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

Learn more: Online House Rules (Social Media Policy Statements)

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Spring Clean Your Accounts (Ban, Block, Report)

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 5Chayka, 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/

People who viol­ate your online house rules (e.g., com­ment policy) are online trolls. You can ban, block, and delete them. 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. 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:

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’s repu­ta­tion by keep­ing my PR email lists free from boun­cing emails.

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.

Implement Social Tech

Social tech­no­lo­gies could allow you to shape and man­age your online com­munity’s behaviours.

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.

Implement “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.

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 of brands using 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.

Monitor and Evaluate

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

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 cautiously.

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.

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 6Jordan Gaines Lewis. (2014, February 25). Internet trolls are also real-life trolls. The Guardian. … Continue read­ing

Read also: De-Platforming as a Public Relations Strategy

Signature - Jerry Silfwer - Doctor Spin

Thanks for read­ing. Please sup­port my blog by shar­ing art­icles with oth­er com­mu­nic­a­tions and mar­ket­ing pro­fes­sion­als. You might also con­sider my PR ser­vices or speak­ing engage­ments.

PR Resource: List of Social Media Issues

Social media issues.
Social media issues.
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List of Social Media Issues

Social media isn’t just sun­shine and rain­bows. With massive change come new social media issues we must deal with.

Here are a few examples of social media issues:

Read also: Social Media: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

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1 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
2 Eagly, A. H., Ashmore, R. D., Makhijani, M. G., & Longo, L. C. (1991). What is beau­ti­ful is good, but…: A meta-ana­lyt­ic review of research on the phys­ic­al attract­ive­ness ste­reo­type. Psychological Bulletin, 110(1), 109 – 128. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​3​7​/​0​033 – 2909.110.1.109
3 Silfwer, J. (2023, December 17). The Halo Effect: Why Attractiveness Matters in PR. Doctor Spin | The PR Blog. https://​doc​tor​spin​.net/​h​a​l​o​-​e​f​f​e​ct/
4 Fiske, S. T., Cuddy, A. J. C., Glick, P., & Xu, J. (2002). A mod­el of (often mixed) ste­reo­type con­tent: Competence and warmth respect­ively fol­low from per­ceived status and com­pet­i­tion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 82(6), 878 – 902. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​3​7​/​0​022 – 3514.82.6.878
5 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/
6 Jordan Gaines Lewis. (2014, February 25). Internet trolls are also real-life trolls. The Guardian. https://​www​.the​guard​i​an​.com/​s​c​i​e​n​c​e​/​h​e​a​d​-​q​u​a​r​t​e​r​s​/​2​0​1​4​/​f​e​b​/​2​5​/​i​n​t​e​r​n​e​t​-​t​r​o​l​l​s​-​a​r​e​-​a​l​s​o​-​r​e​a​l​-​l​i​f​e​-​t​r​o​lls
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at Spin Factory and KIX Communication Index. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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