Pretty Simple: web, digital, social

Pop quiz, social media hot shots…

Your organisation has done something that’s not at all popular. You’ve mentioned it on your official Facebook page. The world unites in protest and mounts a mass-trolling exercise against you, racking up over 10,000 comments on your page, many of which are pretty offensive.

What do you do?

This will be a question currently being asked at Belfast City Council, whose controversial decision to destroy an illegal dog has caused a storm online and seen thousands of Facebook users, from aroud the world, repeatedly posting the word “Killers” in ASCII art, alongside other strongly worded comments:

Comments on Facebook, including the word "Killers"

Some of the contributions

Dealing with trolls

Arguably, most of the contributors could reasonably be described as trolls:

someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.



Some trolls

Last month, the Guardian published a useful guide to dealing with trolls. Let’s take a look at the 6 top tips from that article, to see if they’d help out in this situation:

1. Know your troll.

A troll is someone who persistently seeks to derail rational discourse through mindless abuse, needling, hectoring, or even threats of violence. A troll is not someone who disagrees with you, dislikes your work or disapproves of your moral choices. That’s an idiot.

2. The line is not always so easy to draw.

There is a grey area between spirited dissent and out-and-out trolling that houses the passionately misinformed, the casually profane, schoolchildren taking the piss and otherwise intelligent people who don’t put spaces after commas. For the sake of convenience this group is often referred to as “the internet”.

It’s important to tell the difference, as you don’t want to miss genuine comments or valid questions. The US Air Force use a brilliant web post response assessment flowchart which helps you to determine how to respond to comments. This is a great tool for helping to spot your trolls and act accordingly.

3. Don’t feed the trolls.

Trolling is one of those rare problems best handled by ignoring it – if you do, it usually goes away. Trolls want your attention and discomfiture; they feed on your impotent rage. If they’re trying to be funny, your willingness to rise to the bait provides the punchline. If you don’t, there’s no joke. The secret to withholding attention is consistency: never respond. That way, the trolls can’t even be sure you’ve read their abuse.

I’d call this the golden rule, and is often the most effective. But it’s a difficult road to take if you decide to leave comments online and “rise about it all”.

4. Unmask your troll.

Trolls thrive on anonymity, but they’re not, in my experience, too careful about guarding it. A little digging will usually turn up something that makes their bile seem beside the point. The information you uncover needn’t include names, addresses or photographs – just enough to turn your rage into pity. I, for example, enjoy reading the blogs of people who tell me I can’t write.

I don’t agree with this one. I suspect most of the commenters are already using their genuine accounts (few would bother to set up a false account just to comment on a page). But even so, I’m not sure an organisation should be spending time tracking individuals without a really good, genuine reason. It’s unlikely to lead to anything productive, and is also a bit creepy.

5. Remember: it’s not allowed.

Trolling is unwelcome on most moderated sites (including the Guardian’s), bullying is a violation of Facebook policy and Twitter has rules against making threats. Ignore the trolls, but don’t just ignore them. Click those Report Abuse buttons.

6. You don’t have to provide a platform.

If you host your own website with a forum or comments section, feel free to delete offensive or abusive material. People may tell you this is either a violation of free speech or a cowardly attempt to stifle debate but, generally speaking, these people are trolls.

These last two points are critical. In addition to Facebook’s terms, many organisations publish their own acceptable use policy (see Edinburgh’s, for example). If you’re planning to get involved in any form of comment moderation, such a policy will be vital in laying down the ground rules and sticking to them consistently, also giving you something to refer people to, should they accuse you of censorship.

However, few of these approaches are going to help Belfast and the ongoing assault on their Facebook page. It would be impractical for someone to pick through the thousands of comments and delete or respond to each one. Equally, leaving them up means you’ve provided a platform for some pretty offensive content. It could be that the only reasonable measure would be to delete the affected posts entirely, but replace them with an honest, carefully worded statement. You can’t beat the trolls if they come in big enough groups, but you can limit the damage they do.

PS The lack of official response is perhaps explained by the fact that today and tomorrow are public holidays in Belfast, although the comments have been gathering since yesterday.

However, this presents its own problems. We can’t possibly monitor social media 24/7, and evenings, weekends and public holidays are ideal times for trolls to strike, in the knowledge that their posts are likely to be up for some time. Depending on the comment, this could be a real problem (for example, if someone posts something that could put others in danger, or which contains defamatory statements).

Update 13 July

Despite the public holiday, someone has now responded to the trolls with the following message:

For any users not aware why comments are being made on this page about Belfast City Council and a dog called Lennox – see this statement:

All page users are reminded that this is community page for Belfast City.

Anyone who is continually detrimental to others’ enjoyment of this page risks being permanently removed as fans.

Offensive and inappropriate comments and bad language will be removed.

This is a commendable attempt to tackle the issue head on. Although trying to reason with trolls is rarely successful, they clearly state the terms of use and warn that people may be banned.

It looks like the affected posts have been removed, and the pace of commenting has (for now) reduced. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops over the weekend. And perhaps, when the dust finally settles, some of the trolls will stick around and become genuine fans.

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