trollsWhen agencies are considering entering social media, one of the early concerns is “what do I do about negative comments?”

Often, people read the community comments within their local newspaper sites and are fearful that they will experience the same type of vitriol, hatred and rumor-mongering when they seek to share information online.

So, when I get asked about how to handle naysayers, I share the following:

There are trolls online. In fact, wikipedia does an excellent job of providing a good definition of an internet troll:

A troll is a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community (such as a forum, chat room, or blog), either accidentally or with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

These people are not the majority of people online, but many people and agencies will encounter a troll at sometime in their online career.

While the common advice given is not to “feed the trolls,” the issue can be a little more complex than that.

There are cases where people will have a serious bone to pick with an agency or topic and will seem relentless.

There are several approaches that agencies can take with a troll:

  • Look for educational points of interest.  For example, trolls will often begin with a seed of truth.  Often, however, there is misinformation involved.  It can be helpful to provide the accurate information (not necessarily for the troll, but for others who will see the conversation and wonder about the reality of the claim).
  • If, after sharing, the troll continues to berate, disengage.  There is a great quote by Robert Quillen, a journalist, who said a “discussion is an exchange of information, and argument is an exchange of ignorance.”  Don’t allow yourself to be drawn into an argument.
  • It is also important to post language on your social sites about what types of behavior will not be tolerated.  In my case, I use the following guidelines on my websites:   Any graphic, prejudicial, off-topic, inflammatory, repetitive, vexatious, offensive, commercial or otherwise inappropriate posts will be deleted.  You participate at your own risk, taking personal responsibility for your comments, your username and any information provided.

For Facebook, you have the ability to turn off comments on your page and you can delete comments should they fail to abide by your social media guidelines; however, I recommend using these methods as a last resort.  Your community, if provided the right information, will choose whether to speak up or ignore the troll altogether.  It is rare for a troll to replicate and often he or she will be standing alone, seeming to provoke others just for the sake of attention.  Those who lurk or watch the community will see a troll and regularly steer clear of them.  Often, community trolls earn a reputation for these types of behaviors.

For agencies or bloggers who are concerned about trolls, “moderating” posted comments allows you to see the comments in advance before they show up publicly on your site.

Remember, as a public service agency, you will never please 100% of your stakeholders 100% of the time.  Negative comments are not to be feared, but rather signal feedback that provide you the opportunity to evaluate whether or not there is a problem that needs to be addressed.

If there is a problem or lack of information, address it as openly as you can.  And if there isn’t, be flattered that someone finds you controversial enough to poke.

Just remember the old adage from George Bernard Shaw: Never wrestle a pig. You both get dirty and the pig likes it.

There is one scenario that is important to consider when it comes to trolls and that involves cyber-bullying. If someone is being picked on, singled out and harassed, it is important to step up and help that person. I have seen this occur online and won’t hesitate to open a dialogue with someone if I see them become an unnecessary target. As someone who has lost far too many friends to suicide, please be mindful and aware.


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