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Some people just love to cause grief. Trolls are part of the social media landscape. They come in many different forms and can sometimes be difficult to identify from real customers. As a business, trolls aren’t just annoying for you, they can do serious damage to your reputation. By antagonizing legitimate users, they create negative experiences — and even though they aren’t your fault, those negative experiences stick.
When trolls slide into the comments sections or Twitter threads, they present a unique challenge for social media managers. On the surface, it’s a simple issue. However, deleting every troll comment and blocking troll accounts is not only exhaustively time-consuming, but potentially a missed opportunity to endear your business to legitimate audiences.
The Current Situation
Many social media platforms are feeling the pressure to clean up their community and help users avoid offensive and hateful content. Some, like Twitter, have made updates to that effect. Twitter’s algorithm updates work to identify potentially harmful content and hide it behind a collapsible tag.
Algorithms, however, are imperfect. They might always be imperfect when it comes to analyzing and approximating human behavior.
Most platforms also have a report function that users can leverage to voice complaints about a specific post or comment. In many situations, troll comments will be pushed out of view, or reported so often that they get removed.
However, report functions don’t always work well, either. Facebook is becoming famous for inconsistent and incorrect decision making when it comes to hate speech on their platform.
So it’s a good idea to get out ahead of trolls yourself. But how?
The Most Obvious Answer May Not Work Well
The first thing you might think of doing is manually removing, reporting, and blocking comments from trolls. But as your audience grows, that’s going to prove far too time-consuming. Moderation and comment curation is one of the best ways to create productive discussion spaces. However many platforms limit the control you have over what other people post, and depending on the scope of your business, comment moderation may be something you just can’t afford to do.
The other easy option is to leave them alone. Your audience is smart, they know a troll when they see one, and the comments of other people aren’t your responsibility. This is all mostly true, however, many trolls are very good at making comments that appear to be “real arguments” on the surface, just for the purposes of derailing a discussion and creating an argument. Then, people get sucked in and your comments section turns into a flame war between legitimate users who are not trolling.
Trolls are there to cause suffering. It’s their goal, and when that suffering happens in relation to your content, it chases people away from your brand.
Alternative Strategies: Respond and Engage Carefully
You might be thinking that responding to a troll is the absolute last thing you want to do. After all, everyone says “don’t feed the trolls” but the fact is that in some circumstances, actively responding to hatred can become a net positive for your business.
The thing about “not feeding” the trolls is that ignoring them rarely makes them go away. They will shout louder, comment more, and say ever more inflammatory things to get a response. And if they get a response out of your customers, they’ll get what they want — whether or not you ignore them. There are three potential ways to respond to a troll:
Stay classy, kill them with kindness
This approach does not distinguish a troll from a customer. Respond to their complaint or grievance just as you would a legitimate concern. Let them know their feedback is important, and entertain suggestions (to a point). When the troll inevitably asks for something ridiculous, you can end the conversation knowing that your business comes off as a class act that attempted to make an issue right.
This is also an excellent strategy if you’re not quite sure whether you’re dealing with a troll, or just a very irate customer. It’s an important distinction.
Use humor: Hop on down to their level and throw a punch
This strategy has a ton of potential to backfire, but one only needs to look at the Wendy’s Twitter account to see the power of humor, and even troll-like behavior when employed carefully by social media managers. Responding to trolls with humor turns them and their comments into a joke, and if your response is “savage” enough, it’s likely to earn you a lot of brownie points and social engagement.
Take care not to personally attack anyone or get drawn into an argument. This is still about rising above whatever argument the troll is trying to start. Defamation and libel absolutely still apply to social media, so take care not to personally attack someone, even a troll, or accuse them of doing anything illegal. Social media posts are becoming more common sights in courtrooms as admissible evidence, so don’t accidentally get yourself into legal trouble.
Use the opportunity to take a stand and net a PR win
If the troll is posting something particularly hateful, it might be necessary to craft a response. If hate speech goes unanswered it can appear that your company is apathetic or negligent in addressing it, and would rather avoid a potentially ugly situation than stand up for customers and local communities. Depending on the political and social leanings of your target audience, it could be more damaging not to respond to a troll, which reads as tacit acceptance or at least avoidance of the issue.
Executed carefully, demonstrating your company’s support for a group of people that a troll is looking to target can turn an unfortunate situation into a win. Keep an eye on the engagement metrics of your responses to gage their effectiveness, because an appropriately heartfelt rejection of a troll’s premise demonstrates a willingness to go to bat for audiences who regularly engage with your content.
Trolls are a conundrum. Often, you’re damned if you ignore them and damned if you respond. If you craft your responses carefully, however, you can turn that challenge around and come out of it ahead.
Guest Post: Ben Steele writes stuff: anecdotes, motivation, real talk about the freelance life and marketing