Beating social media trolls


You may have already seen yesterday’s news that the Secretary of State for Justice, Kenneth Clarke, has proposed changes to British defamation laws which could see websites obliged to hand over personal details (including IP address) of those posting defamatory messages online.

A number of high-profile cases of online trolling and cyberbullying have become big news of late including those of Nicola Brookes and Louise Mensch MP. The idea behind the change to the law is about shifting responsibility for user-generated content from the web platforms (who are currently treated as the ‘publisher’ under existing libel laws) to the user themselves.

We think that the change is a sensible one. It simply doesn’t make sense for websites like Facebook (25m UK users) and Twitter (10m UK users) to be held responsible for every word written on their platforms – policing content would be an impossible in terms of both the scale of the job and lack of context for judging whether offending posts are indeed defamatory or threatening.

Last night Al Jazeera English interviewed me about this and asked why I think the changes proposed are a good thing for our freedom of speech. So why do I think that? Well, at the moment, as a user of social networks and blogs, if I take offence at something someone says to me, I can contact the platform in question and demand that I want the content removed. The platform, lacking context and in fear of being responsible for potentially libellous or otherwise illegal content more often than not will just remove it – regardless of whether a law has been broken or not. And if the law is broken it would take extremely costly legal action (as in the case of Nicola Brookes) to get a website to reveal the identities of the law breaker.

Under the proposed changes, if I feel genuinely aggrieved and can provide context to prove I have a case, not only can I have the offending content removed, I can have the identity of the troll revealed to me so that I can take appropriate legal action.

The message: that trolls and cyberbullies with fake names and photo-less profiles can no longer hide behind a cloak of anonymity when they fail to act responsibly online.

How to avoid being the victim of trolls

Anyone who engages online - both individuals and brands – is at risk of becoming the victims of trolling. Here are some top tips to help you avoid being a victim:

1. Privacy settings
Tightly controlled privacy settings will help you control who can engage with you online and the places where they can do it. The tighter these are the less likely it is that trolls will be able to infringe on your most ‘personal’ places online – inbox, Facebook wall and in your newsfeeds etc

2. Know your enemy
Is the perpetrator really a troll? What can you find out about them by looking at their profile? Clearly using a pseudonym? Faceless profile photo? Lots of activity on their profile in a similarly negative vein? You may well have yourself a troll.

3. Don’t feed the trolls
A piece of advice I often to give to brands I work with who are worried about trolling is that 99% of the time the best thing to say is nothing at all.Trolls thrive on the attention they get and knowing that they’ve caused offence or got a similar reaction. If you can, avoid getting involved and tell your friends and family (or indeed colleagues) to do the same and they’ll usually just go away.

2. Champions, active users and trolls


Image by alistair_35 via Flickr

As an online community manager, you will have a ‘gut’ understanding of who makes up your community. Their rough interests, probably the gender split and a fairly good grasp of age. But this will largely be based on who is posting, what they’re posting and how often. The real shape of the community will be far more nuanced.

The 90-9-1 rule

The 90-9-1 rule, or 90-9-1 principle, is a really handy way of remembering who does what on your community.

It’s also a helpful way of gauging how traffic visiting your site will translate to people posting on your site and engaging with the community.

In brief:

  • 90% of community users are passive members. They ‘lurk’ and read, without contributing.
  • 9% of community users are ‘editors’ that will modify content or add to an existing thread (by posting a comment or replying) but rarely create any content from scratch.
  • 1% of users are ‘creators’ that will participate a lot, including adding photos, starting new discussions and taking part in activity across the community.

With more low-effort forms of activity becoming commonplace, such as clicking to rate a piece of content, the ratio of editors to lurkers is likely to rise. However, the likelihood is the number of creators adding lots of fresh stuff to your community will always be a tiny percentage.

Community champions

As your online community grows, you will see a handful of members that not only create a lot of the content, they also seem to take a real pride in the community and take extra tasks upon themselves.

They are likely to:

  • Welcome new members, replying to introductory posts and helping to signpost useful content to them
  • Report any activity that breaks the rules or disrupts the community
  • Try and calm down disputes and appear to have the community’s interests at heart
  • Be very active in creating new content
  • Have ideas on the future of the community and promote the community externally
  • Encourage ‘good behaviour’ and show others how to behave through their own actions

These are your community champions. They will save you a lot of groundwork and help you to keep the community growing and safe.

Nurture them and appreciate them, but make sure you keep clear the boundaries between you and them. You don’t want them to get too big for their boots and become problems, splitting the community into them and us, nor do you want to feel beholden to them and uncomfortable making decisions that will affect them - such as removing iffy content they have posted.

The methods by which you reward and involve them is largely dependant on your specific needs, resources and the limits and possibilities of your community platform. But whether it’s a fruit basket or a cheerful personalised email every once in a while, you must show you appreciate them.

Active users

There will always be a large number of lurkers. Even if yours is a closed, private community where everybody knows everybody in real life, there will still be some who choose to eyeball without ever tapping the keys.

Everybody in between lurker and champion is an active user, in other words, users that do something on a fairly regular basis are active.

A good community manager will strive to entice lurkers out of their passivity - perhaps through polls and minimum effort functions - and convert active users into champions. What is vital to the health of the community, however, is keeping active users active, and keeping their activity levels high.

The Toxic Team

You will, of course, find that there is a small core of moaners and gripers. They’re not trolls or troublemakers for the sake of it, but they’re sceptical, easily affronted and standoffish. They’re also your best friend.

While it may not seem like it, and sometimes you’ll wish you could just ban them and be done with it, the members that are moaning but keep coming back time and again can help make a community.

Think about it:

  • they keep coming back so they feel that they are stakeholders
  • they care about the community and the experience
  • they want to engage
  • they’re telling you what is wrong and what can be improved
  • they’re probably saying what politer and more forgiving members are thinking
  • if you can turn them around and prove you respect them, all that sounding off will now be in your favour - they will be community champions.

Take them seriously. Don’t indulge their ideas if they’re ridiculous, but consider why they are saying what they are saying - do they have a point? Is there mileage in trying something new? Have you done something you should apologise for or explain? Perhaps they have misunderstood your actions, and if they have, then others will have to. Be transparent, honest.

Your toxic team will force you to be a better community manager, and the whole community will benefit. They also show you just how involved you need to be, because they will keep you on your toes!

Trolls and troublemakers

And then there are those that really are trolls and troublemakers.

PC Mag‘s encyclopaedia has a good definition of trolling:

  1. Surfing, or browsing, the Web.
  2. Posting derogatory messages about sensitive subjects on newsgroups and chat rooms to bait users into responding.
  3. Hanging around in a chat room without saying anything, like a “peeping tom.”

Trolls are pains, plain and simple. They try and wind up other members, create negative, dramatic situations and are deliberately provocative. They will do their level best to crank your tail too, but obviously you’ll never show them they’ve hit a nerve!

There are several possible types of troll (it may be a cry for help, they may be being picked on in their own lives, they may be desperately lonely), and while the effects are still the same and there are no excuses for rule-breaking, understanding the motivations can help you deal with them. But do not underestimate their determination, or potential power, just ask The Scotsman.

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