Why trolling can’t be ignored, and how SMEs can manage it

Computer empty chair trolls

Source: Unsplash/Emmanuel Ikwuegbu.

Online trolling is having a devastating impact on Australian society, with research suggesting 39% of Australians have experienced one or more forms of online harassment.

The impact is significant to both individuals and firms, and the government is planning legislation to unmask ‘the trolls’ by making social media companies liable for third-party comments.

But what does this mean for small and medium-sized business? And how can SMEs manage trolling that happens on their social media pages?

What does the new ‘anti-troll’ bill mean for SMEs?

The Morrison government has recently proposed legislative changes to identify online trolls, characterised as ‘individuals who abuse others and write hurtful comments online’. Under the proposed changes, social media companies would be deemed as publishers of third-party comments on their platform.

To avoid defamation proceedings by those who are targeted by trolls, social media companies must have a complaints procedure in place to identify commenters. Victims will be able to submit complaints, which then need to be followed up by the social media company to identify the ‘troll’, and if they constitute serious harm, the victim can pursue legal action. The underlying premise is that removing anonymity will prevent ‘trolls’ from abusing others online.

For businesses, the new bill offers protection on social media by excluding them from the definition of publishers, meaning they will not be liable for third-party comments made on their social media pages.

However, even though businesses are not legally liable for third-party comments, trolling on brand-owned digital channels still poses significant risk. If not managed effectively, it could have a serious impact on brand reputation, customer experience, and be a waste of time and resources if it escalates into a viral event. Such viral examples include the hijacking of Dub the Dew, an unmoderated competition run by a Mountain Dew affiliate to name a new soft drink flavour, where people submitted offensive entries such as ‘Hitler did nothing wrong’. Another involved a Simpsons fan group sending fake news stories to 7News on Facebook, describing a dramatic situation, only to then reveal it was trolling by posting an image of a scene from the show. 

Experiencing trolling directed at your business or customers on your social media pages can be intimidating, particularly the first time it happens. To respond effectively, SMEs need to move away from thinking about ‘evil trolls’ as a specific group of people and think about trolling as a consumer behaviour that needs to be understood and managed more effectively.

Shifting the focus from ‘trolls’, toward understanding trolling

For some time, researchers have attempted to identify ‘trolls’ and understand their motivations and behaviours. The problem with this approach is that trolling is usually performed anonymously, meaning it is hard to be certain of who the troll is, or why they are trolling. We often see examples where trolls are eventually revealed to be ordinary people, and not the vile creatures we often imagine them to be. In addition, widespread use of the term ‘troll’ to label people who misbehave online has resulted in trolling becoming a catch-all term for negative online behaviour.

However, to understand what trolling is, and how businesses can manage it, we need to move away from thinking about trolls as specific types of people, and towards thinking about trolling as a social phenomenon.

A recent Swinburne University of Technology study looked at the history of trolling and how it is directed at brands online. It defines trolling as the use of antagonism, deception and vigilantism, or any combination of these practices, to provoke reactions from people or institutions. Within this framework for understanding trolling, antagonistic trolling involves any malicious, offensive, abusive or negative behaviours intended to provoke reactions from brands and observing consumers. Deceptive trolling comprises behaviours like sarcasm, manipulating identity, misleading others, and using bait and switch techniques to provoke reactions. Vigilante trolling is a form of retribution for product or service failures, transgressions, and ideological disagreements with the brand, often enacted by shaming and mocking the brand to provoke reactions.

Antagonistic, deceptive and vigilante trolling can include a range of specific practices, which are enabled by the online environment. This includes following a brand’s social media pages and persistently commenting on posts made by the business and other consumers. It can also include creating and sharing content through videos and memes that shame, parody, or mock the business. In some cases, consumers can engage in trolling marketing initiatives like hashtag campaigns, editing Wikipedia pages, and submitting provocative entries into online competitions, among others.

Regardless of the size of the business, incidents of trolling can easily escalate and go viral. Participation is often low effort, and if the reason for the trolling is humorous, amusing or relatable, numerous consumers could participate. As the trolling escalates, consumers compete for social status and ‘kudos’ by engaging in increasingly elaborate, outlandish and impactful behaviours. And the media plays a major role in amplifying trolling through sensationalised coverage.

While most SMEs tend to ignore the threat of trolling until they experience it themselves, there are a few basic practices that can put in place to manage trolling and limit its potential to cause damage.

Practices to manage trolling

Despite the limited resources of many SMEs, it is possible to manage trolling more effectively by monitoring social media channels, identifying the type of trolling and its level of threat, and developing response strategies.

1. Monitoring social media channels

If a business has social media accounts, they should be monitored and moderated to some degree. This can be done in-house by an employee of the business, or it can be outsourced to a social media or digital agency partner. Depending on resources, the degree of monitoring can also vary, from constant monitoring (more expensive) to daily or weekly monitoring (less expensive). Actively monitoring and moderating social media pages will deter trolling behaviours, identify trolling quickly and allow the business to respond in a timely manner, with a view to avoiding potential escalation.

2. Identifying the type of trolling

When monitoring social media channels, it is also important to be able to identify and classify the type of trolling observed. Being able to spot provocation, and then being able to determine whether it is antagonism (i.e. malicious, offensive, abusive, or negative behaviours), deception (i.e. sarcasm, manipulating identity, misleading others, and using bait and switch techniques), vigilantism (i.e. retribution for product or service failures, transgressions, and ideological disagreements) or some combination of these, will also allow the business to decide on how severe the threat is and how to best respond. Without this understanding, there is a risk that the business could respond inappropriately, leading to further escalation of the incident and the trolling.

3. Developing response strategies

If the brand is monitoring and classifying incidents of trolling, it can develop response strategies much more effectively. As a hygiene factor, every business operating on social media should have social media policies, which outline acceptable terms of use and community behaviours. This allows the brand to delete antagonistic trolling and ban users to repeatedly offend. In addition, the brand should have a ‘risk register’ which is continually updated. This involves compiling a list of all the possible issues related to the business that could be targeted by consumers, and a predetermined response for each one, which can be quickly referenced and used by those managing the social media channels. For incidents not in the risk register, an escalation procedure should be put in place to develop bespoke responses. 

Finally, if the trolling is not harmful in any way to the business or its customers, the business could consider engaging with consumers in a playful manner, as a form of banter, which might even lead to positive publicity. 

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