Social Media Trolls

How to Deal with Trolls on Social Media

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The web is dark and full of terrors, chief amongst them, the social media troll. Unlike the trolls of fairy tales, trolls on social media lurk not in caves or under bridges, but out in the open where they have the best chance of attracting an audience.

These are the web’s darkest denizens and they thrive on negative attention. They strive to incite hatred and provoke anger with each and every keystroke. But who are they and what should you do if you or your brand encounters one?

What are social media trolls?

A troll is someone who deliberately provokes others online, typically through inflammatory, offensive, or provocative comments. Their intent is to upset others and elicit an emotional response (preferably an angry one). In the pursuit of their goal, trolls might rant (often on a topic unrelated to the one at hand), make ad-hominem attacks, post death threats, or spew hate speech.

It’s important to note that not all angry posters and commenters are trolls. Writer and author Tim Dowling explains in a Guardian piece entitled Dealing with trolls: a guide: “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.”

Indeed, the internet is full of people who want to share their opinions. But, unlike those angry users who share their negative, but sincerely-held beliefs, trolls may not believe a word of what they write. They’ve chosen their words because they have the highest likelihood of upsetting others.

In short, trolls are online bullies.

Where can they be found?

Social Media Trolls - Image via m.prinke under CC BY-SA 2.0
Image via m.prinke under CC BY-SA 2.0

Trolls can be found on pretty much every platform on the internet that allows commenting or interaction of some variety. One study found that a disproportionately high percentage of online abuse occurs on Twitter. This is likely due to the more anonymous nature of the platform as compared to other social networks, such as Facebook, which require users to display their real identity. That being said, trolls can—and do—lurk anywhere online.

Trolls vs. upset customers: how to tell the difference

For many businesses, effective social customer service is an essential social strategy. But you can’t do it right if you genuinely don’t know who you should be helping and who you simply need to manage.

At times it can be tough to discern the difference between trolls and customers with legitimate concerns, as both types of users will likely adopt an angry tone in their posts. It’s in the substance of their communications that you’ll be able to determine the difference. Before you take any action on a possible troll post, you should listen to what the person is trying to say and think about their motivation.

In some cases, the person’s motivation may be simply to incite anger from the brand or other users online. That person is likely a troll. In other cases, the person may have been motivated to make an angry comment due to frustration about your company, customer service, or product. This person is likely a customer who needs to have their complaint heard. Real customers, upon having their issue addressed and resolved, will probably be satisfied and the unhappy messages will cease. Trolls won’t stop until they’re forced to or get bored.

Danny Bradbury explained this habit of trolls well in a piece in The Guardian: “They are not looking for a resolution, and prefer to engage you in a battle that no one can win.” Whether you’ve got a troll on your hands, or a simple customer service issue, Bradbury’s insight applies: “Unhappy customers and trolls have one thing in common: they both want to be acknowledged.”

5 signs you might be dealing with a troll

Social Media Trolls - Image via Denise Sebastian under CC BY-ND 2.0
Image via Denise Sebastian under CC BY-ND 2.0

Everyone knows the standard advice “don’t feed the trolls,” but how do you apply it when you’re not sure if the person on the other end of the connection is a troll or not? Our default instinct is to assume that the person who’s provoking us is sincere, though that’s frequently not the case. That’s why it’s handy to keep an eye out for the red flags and warning signs that will help you identify if you’re dealing with a troll.

1. Trying to evoke an emotional response

Being that this is literally in the definition of troll, it tends to be a good baseline indicator of trollishness. Trolls exist for the sole purpose of upsetting people. If you spot someone who seems to be deliberately stirring up trouble—by starting arguments or intentionally posting inflammatory content—they may very well be a troll. So when you find yourself getting emotional in a social media exchange, stop and ask yourself: is there any indication that this person isn’t sincere?

2. Entitlement

People who are inclined to troll others often have an inflated sense of self and the worth of their own time. Many trolls appear to operate under the assumption that the world revolves around them—or at least that it should.

3. Hyperbole

Social media trolls have a tendency to exaggerate. A lot. They like strong words like “never” and “every” as opposed to the typically more accurate “infrequently” and “some,” presumably because these extremes are more inflammatory.

4. Making it personal

Rather than discuss the matter at hand in a reasonable and logical way, trolls like to make things personal with ad-hominem attacks, which attack an opponent’s character rather than their argument. The use of frequent name-calling often helps identify this red flag.

5. Poor spelling and grammar

Trolls belong to a part of the internet that appears to never have seen the English language before but nevertheless wields it with reckless abandon. Their posts are often riddled with misused words, the wrong homophones (there, their, they’re; your, you’re; to, too, two; etc.), and other crimes against grammar. Trolls will often break other conventional writing etiquette by skipping capitalization altogether or, alternately, writing in ALL CAPS, misusing punctuation (or disregarding it entirely), and communicating in fractured text-speak, riddled with misspellings and nonsensical abbreviations. They’re also more likely to swear than the average social media user.

In a recent study by Cornell and Stanford universities, Antisocial Behavior in Online Discussion Communities, researchers found that language used in posts was a good indicator if a user would be banned from commenting in the future. They wrote that future-banned users’ posts “are harder to understand by standard readability metrics.” Additionally, they found that, “They are also more likely to use language that may stir further conflict,” which they clarified as including “less positive words” and “more profanity.”

6 strategies for dealing with trolls on social media (and why they work)

Social Media Trolls - Image via Roshan Vyas under CC BY-ND 2.0
Image via Roshan Vyas under CC BY-ND 2.0

So, you’ve determined that you are, in fact, dealing with a troll. This list details different individual strategies that you can use to deal with trolls on social media. It’s important to remember that different strategies might be better suited to different situations. Choose a strategy that suits you, your brand, and the type of troll you have. Whatever your response, make sure it fits with your brand voice and guidelines.

1. Listen and correct mistakes

Whether it’s a simple customer complaint or a troll, this step stays more or less the same. First, listen to what the person has to say. Then, if a mistake has been made, correct it, let the person know what you did, and explain why. If the person is a disgruntled customer, they’ll likely appreciate being heard and responded to. If handled well, these interactions can turn frustration into brand loyalty. If the person is a troll, then your response isn’t really for the individual, but rather for the community. It serves to show your online community at large that you are listening to what they have to say and that you will take action in a professional manner. Your response also indicates to the troll that you are unlikely to be ruffled by their attacks, which may serve to discourage them from bothering you in the future.

In his Entrepreneur piece Fighting Trolls, Spammers and Troublemakers Online, Jeffrey Hayzlett explains: “Companies control their destiny and brand reputation on social media. The customer may not always be right, but they are always heard. Listen to your customers and take action. You’ll drive engagement, grow followers and build brand loyalty with every positive step taken.”

2. Ignore them

If the person really is a troll, there to upset others and cause negative reactions, a common response is to simply ignore them. Because trolls want attention, the theory here is that, by refusing to pay that attention to them, you deprive them of their life force, and they will go elsewhere to get the attention they crave. Gini Dietrich explains why this works in her Spin Sucks piece Seven Tips for Dealing with Online Trolls: “Online trolls want the attention. They crave the defensiveness. They want you to get upset. Don’t give them the pleasure.”

This can work great in some situations. In others, not so much. For example, while you may refuse to pay attention to your social media troll, well-meaning members of your community may not and they may inadvertently fuel the troll by responding to their posts. If this is the case, then move on to plan B and choose one of the other strategies for dealing with the troll because, at this point, inactivity is no longer an option and you will likely need to respond in some manner.

3. Respond with facts

Is your troll of the false rumors and negative lies variety? Then this response may be for you. Calmly and clearly (carefully avoiding a defense edge to your response) reply and correct the misinformation that the troll has shared. While the troll likely doesn’t care (and probably knows very well that everything they’ve written is absolutely made-up), not everyone in your community does. This response is for them. The point is to nip things in the bud before a rumor has a chance to get out of hand and keep others from spreading the lie.

Apple executed this strategy effectively in response to #BendGate, which began with a video by Unbox Therapy that showed the iPhone bending. The video went viral and was viewed and shared millions of times. Of course, the internet latched onto the concept, making jokes, visual gags, and memes galore. Other brands even trolled Apple.

In response, reported Mashable, Apple issued a statement: “With normal use a bend in iPhone is extremely rare and through our first six days of sale, a total of nine customers have contacted Apple with a bent iPhone 6 Plus. As with any Apple product, if you have questions please contact Apple.” What makes that response really work is that Apple does not try to deny the issue of iPhones bending. Rather, the company acknowledges the issue and then uses facts to downplay the hype, making it clear that bent phones are uncommon. Finally, they encourage iPhone users to contact them directly, reinforcing the message that they’re listening to their customers’ concerns.  

4. Diffuse the situation with humor

This strategy is simple in theory, but can be tough in execution: make light of the situation in order to deprive it of its power. The use of humor can humanize your brand and diffuse the situation. While this strategy can be very effective, it’s important to be careful that your use of humor isn’t mean, but rather clever. People appreciate clever, whereas mean is likely to result in more nasty messages. Actor and beloved internet icon George Takei used humor quite effectively in his response to a rather personal insult and Sainsburys did an excellent job of this in their reply regarding a disappointing chicken sandwich.  


Only employ this strategy if it fits with your brand voice and you’re confident you can pull off a humorous response, otherwise you may want to choose a different strategy for dealing with your troll. Nothing’s worse than a joke that falls flat (and it could result in further trolling).

5. Block or ban, when appropriate

Most trolls are harmless. Annoying, but harmless. There are, however, cases where trolls take things too far. Perhaps they’ve escalated to threats or hate speech. In cases such as these, it’s reasonable to consider blocking or banning the user. It may also be worthwhile to check social network standards for appropriate content, and, if the troll’s posts violate them, submit a report.

Each social network has its own standards and reporting process:

6. Come up with your own response

Susan Carland, an Australian academic and Muslim woman, has risen to internet fame for devising an unusual response to trolls on Twitter: for each “hate-filled Tweet” she receives, she donates $1 to UNICEF. By the end of October 2015, she had already donated more than $1,000.

She explained her inspiration in an op-ed in the Sydney Morning Herald: “I’d tried blocking, muting, engaging and ignoring, but none of them felt like I was embodying the Koranic injunction of driving off darkness with light. I felt I should be actively generating good in the world for every ugly verbal bullet sent my way… These children seemed like the natural recipients for the antidote to hate. And donating to them every time I was abused felt like tangible good in response to virtual hate.” Now others have joined in her cause, some donating on her behalf to cover future Tweets she may receive from trolls. Inspired by her approach, UNICEF has launched a campaign called Tweets for Good, encouraging people to “Turn tweets of hate into a force for good.”

UNICEF-Tweets-for-Good

While Carland’s approach to dealing with trolls may not work for every scenario or recipient of trollish messages, her outside-the-box solution to the problem is certainly inspiring!

Things to avoid in your response to trolls

Avoid falling prey to the pitfall of feeding the trolls by skipping these social media troll no-nos.

Don’t let them get to you

This one is easier said than done, particularly if the troll’s posts feel personal, but it’s very important. In his Guardian piece Dowling points out: “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.” Additionally, if you let the trolls get to you, you’re much more likely to respond angrily, which brings me to my next point.

Don’t respond in kind

When someone’s attacking you or your brand, it’s easy to feel defensive, but you absolutely should not respond defensively. Being defensive—or worse, angry—in your response just brings you and your brand down to the troll’s level and will likely prompt them to keep trolling you, since they managed to get a rise out of you.

Don’t delete their posts

Deleting a troll’s post can result in an escalation of trollish behavior. The researchers in the Stanford-Cornell study found that, “taking extreme action against small infractions can exacerbate antisocial behavior.” They explained that, “given two users who initially write posts of similar quality, but where one user’s posts are then ‘unfairly’ deleted while the other user’s posts are not, the former is more likely to write worse in the future.”

Preventative measures you can implement today

Social Media Trolls - Image via Daniel Milner under CC BY 2.0
Image via Daniel Milner under CC BY 2.0

In addition to filing away these strategies for use against future troll attacks, you can also do some work right now to discourage users from poor social media behavior.

Create a policy

Each social network has a policy about community standards, but you can create your own policy on top of that as a reminder to people about what kind of behavior is—and isn’t—acceptable in your community. Having this written down and accessible makes it clear to commenters what the guidelines are for interacting with your brand. Additionally, if there is an infraction that results in banning or some other action, you can point people to the policy in order to highlight that the incident wasn’t personal, but rather a result of failure to adhere to the published community guidelines.

Photographer Brandon Stanton did just this with his Humans of New York project. Stanton explained HONY’s comment moderation rules in a Facebook post. The clear and concise rules he set out make it simple for fans and followers to understand how the community works and how they can function as a member of that community.

Hey Everyone,Wanted to say a quick word about the comment section. Been getting some emails from people who have been…

Posted by Humans of New York on Thursday, May 8, 2014

Build a supportive, friendly community

If your responses to trolls are carefully thought out and thoughtful in content, they can help you to build a supportive community. In some cases, this community will begin to police trolls for you, making the kind of behavior on which trolls thrive unwelcome. Bradbury explains in his Guardian piece: “The high road is the only road in social media, whether you’re handling customers with a legitimate gripe, or trolls with no intention of a happy outcome. Being responsive, responsible, and respectful online (and in private) has a great side benefit: it builds a community of social media followers who will respect and stand by you. When trolls do come along, it will be difficult for them to spew their bile for long in a positive and supportive community.”

Listen

Pay attention to your social media presence and the response it receives, whether it takes the form of comments on your social profiles, direct mentions that tag your company, or posts that simply talk about you. Social media monitoring is crucial in helping you to catch trolls (or other issues) before they get out of hand. Learn how to listen better with these 9 effective social media monitoring tools.

Catch trolls on social media before they gain an audience by setting up your Hootsuite dashboard for social listening.

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