Doctor SpinHow to Deal with Online Trolls

How to Deal with Online Trolls

Establish house rules and get a good copywriter.

How do you deal with online trolls?

I often help companies and organizations to deal with online trolls. Sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly by setting up processes for how to deal with them.

In some not-so-rare-cases, the “trolls” aren’t actually trolls, but rather normal and valuable customers who are right to be angry.

Such cases call for issues management, crisis management and crisis communication — depending on the specific situation.

Still, sometimes you have to deal with internet trolls going wild. It’s sad, but it’s a job that needs to be done.[note]In Sweden, we even have a television show where we hunt some of these trolls down.[/note]

Here are several tactics for you to use.

1. Throw them off

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.

For instance:

Online trolls that thinks that brands aren’t listening are often thrown off by getting a response.

Online trolls who expects brands to post defensive responses are often thrown off by companies that respond by wanting to understand more.

Online trolls that are expecting politeness are often thrown off by brands who responds with rejection, intelligence, or humour. 

Exactly what these online trolls expects varies; personally I often find it easier to understand their dynamics by using this very basic classification of mine:

Type A: The angry ones

It’s very difficult to reason with angry trolls, but they can cool off in time. There’s a sub-group of passive aggressive trolls that just won’t quit, but they’re often times less intensive when they attack.

When dealing with angry trolls, don’t put the blame back on them — any defensive measures might make them, even more, aggressive.

Type B: The bleeding ones

When trolls are righteous activists and their actions are often fuelled by a cause they perceive to be of absolute importance, which in turn gives them the right to act out. 

They’re often not really talking to you (even if they address you directly), but rather trying to sway your audience to their side. They expect you to fight back or stay silent.

Type C: The crazy ones

Ranging from tin-foil-hatters to all-in narcissists, the common trait is that they believe themselves to be the center of the universe and they seem to have a lot of time on their hands. 

Never confirm their view of the world, because you’re the bad guy in their version of reality.

Learn more: The Birth Of The Internet Troll at Gizmodo.

2. Don’t feed them

So, you’re being challenged to a duel at dawn.


But if someone challenges you, you should get to choose the venue and the weapon, right?

Online trolls obviously wants to have the duel right there on your Facebook wall for all the world to see, but why should you agree to this?

Instead of engaging in the channel of their choosing, let them know that you will accept their challenge if they’re willing to meet you halfway.

When possible, move the conversation to another medium that’s less public or better suited for the purpose, like email or a user forum with specific threads for specific issues.

3. Establish house rules

House rules are important, on Facebook especially.

Even if your Facebook page technically belongs to Facebook and not to you, it’s still a space that reflects you and your brand.

As an example, you can set up a rule that says that you won’t be dealing with customer service issues on your Facebook wall but rather on a user forum elsewhere.

If trolls are messing around with customer service queries, then you can point them in the right direction rather than getting into another pointless argument.

And every now and then you can do a sweep and delete everything that violates your house rules and thus foster and nurture the culture you want to have.

Where to put up house rules?

On a landing page, controlled by you.
As a pinned post.
Directly in the social media cover picture.

You get the idea.

Life designer and self-help podcaster Tim Ferriss asks for a “living room policy”. If someone disregards this, I delete them without thinking twice about it.

Here’s how Tim’s comment policy section looks:

It’s your house, so it should be your rules.

4. Use your tech

If you have a comment section on your site, online trolls can cause serious problems.

If you run a popular site, manual pre-moderation can turn into a daunting task very quickly.

Here are some technical quick-fixes:

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 gets answered by an admin.
Move comments that gets answered by an admin to the top.

Learn more: See how Coca-Cola starts a discussion about internet hate through an actual online #MakeItHappy campaign.

5. Clean up your list

Online trolls sometimes gets onto your lists.

Removing people from your subscriber lists can be a bit tricky from a democratic perspective, so without legal counsel, you should only remove people manually if you have solid (and preferably documented) reasons.

Like a clear policy, for instance.

Why remove online trolls from your lists?

Trolls tend to be reactive and email send outs might often act as triggers, pushing them to misbehave in other channels.

6. Ban, block, and report

Sometimes you should just ban or block “your” online trolls, especially on social networks that allow for this.

Many companies are somewhat scared to do this; what if there’s blowback?

Well, remember what I said about putting up some sort of “house rules” or policy?

Some might give rule-breakers a warning, before banning, reporting or blocking them.

The important thing is this: If someone disrespects your house rules, don’t mess around. Cut them off.

Here’s how Marie Forleo takes care of business when “Susie” acts out in the comments:

Typical online troll behaviour.

… and Marie replies:

A powerful take-no-prisoners response.

7. Empower good behaviour

Running a social channel, whether it’s a social network account or a comment field on your site, you’re responsible for fostering the participatory culture that you want to see.

It’s easy to end up in a situation where you’re devoting all your visible efforts to the trolls and as a side-effect, you ignore the people who behave the way you want them to! 

That’s not good, right?

I’ve had the good fortune to grow up with dogs. Training dogs have taught me the power of positive reinforcements — and the even greater power of no positive reinforcement.

Dogs are constantly looking for approval and they get really happy when they get it!

Therefore, you don’t have to punish a dog that’s behaving badly — ignoring their bad behaviour will have an, even more, profound effect[note]The classic Bandwagon Effect is powerful. If people see other people acting out like trolls, more people will stop thinking for themselves and convince themselves that such troll-like behaviour is normalised and start acting out themselves.[/note].

8. Use fancy copywriting

When someone brings a verbal fight to your doorstep, you can always choose to actually engage. 

If you decide to take the fight, then fancy copywriting is your weapon of choice.

Be charming.
Be clever.

Find the best writer at the company and put that person to work.

Make sure to win the popularity vote since you’ve decided to fight it out in public.

Exchanging punches online is a very tricky business, though. Especially if you’re a business. You can’t act weak, but you can’t be too aggressive, either.

But why not? If you’re proud of your business and confident in your decisions, then it makes sense to actually take a fight every now and then. 

Here are some fancy copywriting examples via Social Media Examiner:

A bit of comedy can sometimes go a long way.
Sometimes, a bit of sass could do the trick.
An eye for an eye.

Bonus resource: The Supermensch tonality

The Grown-Up Tonality

An organisation is the total sum of all its coworkers. Imagine taking the most mature traits from each one and combining them into one voice — the Grown-Up Tonality. How would a grown-up reply to a challenging question?

  • Listening. A grown-up understands that everyone must be allowed to express their thoughts and opinions.
  • Balance. A grown-up can see (and respect) both sides of a divisive question.
  • Integrity. A grown-up is confident in their chosen strategies and acquired abilities, not because they’re perfect, but because they are grounded in their actions.
  • Extrapolation. A grown-up will take their time to explain (and appreciate) complex situations without resorting to over-simplification.
  • Humility. A grown-up is comfortable with the fact that no one can have everything completely figured out and that we all have some learning and growing to do.

    Learn more about The Grown-Up Tonality.

Photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash.


Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka 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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