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How to Deal With Social Media Trolls


Did you know that humans only use 10 percent of their brains? Actually, that’s not true, but it’s a common misconception thanks to the internet. While that number is made up, this one is not: only 10 percent of social media users publically interact.

That means 90 percent of the millions of people who use social media are lurkers. People who just sit back and consume social media posts, silently in the shadows.

Why would so few people engage with social media when one of its most touted benefits is increased interaction and connectivity? There are multiple theories, but one reason why people might refrain from engaging with social media is internet trolls.

Internet trolls are not the cute little dolls from the ‘90s that had spiky, colorful hair. They are the folks who leave awful comments that make you roll your eyes and wonder, “Why?”

While these commenters are annoying to fellow internet denizens, they can be downright intrusive to brands on social media. Trolls can spark controversy, ignite emotions, and derail productive social media threads. In a worst case scenario, trolls can completely shift the conversation and attract bad PR for the brand.

So how can you keep your cool and deal with them peacefully?

Understand the Psychology of a Troll

To better combat internet trolls, it’s important to take a step back and examine why people become internet trolls. There must be reasons why a few people feel the need to disrupt social media comment sections when the vast majority of people don’t comment at all.

According to communication and psychology research published on Psychology Today, there are eight contributing factors that can lead to someone posting offensive and vulgar comments online.

  • Anonymity - People feel like they can get away with saying anything because what they say isn’t always tied to their real identity. Sites like Reddit and Twitter don’t force people to use a real identification like Facebook.
  • Perceived Obscurity - Even people comment with their Facebook account with their real identity, they feel a sense of obscurity. In the moment, they don’t sense the reach of the internet. A distasteful comment on a local newspaper account couldn’t possibly get any attention from someone outside of the town’s bubble. Yes it can.
  • Perceived Majority Status - It’s intimidating to speak up when you’re in the minority. But if you believe you’re in the majority, you’ll be more confident to make a harmful comment you might not otherwise make.
  • Social Identity Salience - The social identity model of deindividuation effects (referred as the SIDE model) states that online identities might mean more than our real-life identity. So a quiet, mild-mannered person at work might act like a drunken college student online. An extreme version of this according to author Jesse Fox is “mob mentality” in real-life, when you stop seeing yourself as an individual but rather a part of a great group.
  • Surrounded by “Friends” - Do you feel more confident chatting with a stranger when you’re at a small, dinner party at your friend’s home, or when you walk into a bar alone? If we feel like we’re among friends, we’re more confident to speak freely. Facebook gives people the feeling that they’re surrounded by friends, thus opening the doors for inappropriate comments.
  • Desensitization - Like anything else you’re over-exposed to, you’ll develop a sense of desensitization. Eat enough cake and it will no longer enjoy it like you once did. This desensitization can lead to people bypassing our “internal filters” that would normally catch vulgar comments.
  • Personality Traits - Everyone is different and has different personality traits. We see it everyday. Some people are just more outspoken than other people or feel the need to express every opinion they have, to anyone listening. These personality traits can transfer online.
  • Perceived Lack of Consequences - According to the social exchange theory, we are constantly weighing the costs and benefits of our communication and relationships. If people believe that there will be no repercussions of their actions, they’ll keep going. Anonymity and obscurity give people the feeling that there will be no consequences to their online actions.
  • In short, the internet gives individuals a greater sense of confidence. Whether it’s because they feel like they’re unknown or in the majority, internet trolls feel free to post horrible comments because of heightened confidence. Keep this in mind as you deal with internet trolls.

Establish an Internal Protocol & Post Public Guidelines

You can create a protocol by following similar steps to the ones outlined in this post here. Similarly, your company should have an internal protocol to deal with trolls. In your social media policy, clearly state what should be done in the event someone on your team encounters a troll. Not everyone will be equipped to handle a troll, so direct your team to a singular point of contact.

It’s also important that your team understand the difference between trolling and valid criticism of your brand. People should have the freedom to criticize your brand if they had a sub-par experience. They’re looking for answers. A troll doesn’t care about a resolution. They are purposefully being obtuse and abusing the privilege to comment. It’s an important differentiation to make.

In addition to an internal protocol, it’s important to have public community guidelines for your social media. This is a living document that sets the expectations for the community when it comes to engaging on your social media channels.

If you’re upfront with your guidelines, you’ll build a stronger community. Guidelines will make people feel safe within your community and give them the confidence to combat trolls on your behalf. Great social media communities are self-policing.

Tactical Tips For Handling Internet Trolls

Now that you’ve decided not to ignore the trolls and let them erode your brand’s online conversation, here are five tips on what to do when your brand encounters a troll.

Two Trolls Don’t Equal a Right

It’s been said that social media humanizes brands. This can be a doubled edged sword, as some brand’s social accounts have a very human feel to them. This personality can be great for engaging with fans and followers, but it can also give the person behind the brand the sense that they’re among friends.

That’s right, brands are susceptible to trolling as well. But unlike most internet trolls, there can be consequences for the brands. It can alienate them with customers and produce negative press. In general, it doesn’t look good for your brand to stoop to the level of an internet troll. Don’t troll your trolls as a solution.

Fight ‘em with Facts

Internet trolls are liable to say anything, including hyperbolic “facts” about your business. They will say blanket statements that use language like, “never” and “every.” They’re trying to be more forceful to evoke more emotion, which can blind them to the real facts.

When Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus was subject to #bendgate, which involved people (and companies) trolling the brand about how their new phone bends in your pocket, Apple responded with a fact-based statement. The company offered technical details to debunk the internet trolls.

If you engage with a troll that’s clearly exaggerating facts, respond calmly with the truth. Back up your claims so that everyone knows you’re speaking the truth. As long as you present facts, the credibility of the trolls’ statements will diminish.

Make Them Laugh

Have you ever been in an awkward situation, where there was clearly tension between two parties, and you didn’t know what to do, so you made a dumb joke to break the silence? Well, I have and it always defuses the situation. Apply this same logic to your trolls.

When you respond to the troll, you don’t necessarily have to take the strict, corporate approach. Throw them off by using humor and you’ll disarm the troll a bit and you’ll be able to rally other followers around you. Audiences love a witty response to a dumb question or comment.

Limit Your Responses

Internet trolls love attention. Their comments are usually made to hit an emotional chord and rile up a response. Which is why they use hyperbole in their language. By constantly responding to their messages, you’re feeding the troll. You’re giving them what they want, attention.

Be aware of how many times you respond to a troll. Many social media management tools allow you to track historical interactions with users and can even let you make notes for your team. Take advantage of this so that you aren’t constantly responding to the same troll and encouraging this future behavior.

Block When Necessary

Fortunately, social media sites offer options to block or ban specific users. This is a last resort tactic. If you have addressed the troll professionally but they are continuing to engage in a negative manner, it’s time to ban them. This is why your guidelines are important. It’s important that it’s clear there are rules of engagement within your social media. You’re not banning them for expressing opinions that aren’t favorable to the company. You’re banning them for excessive poor behavior.

Internet trolls are a pain. But they will always exist. Unfortunately, they’re a part of the internet ecosystem. Which is why your team must be ready to handle an internet troll responsibility. Failure to have a proper understanding of trolls and a protocol of action could end with disastrous results for your brand. Make sure you’re in control so the trolls don’t win!

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