Business leaders who are not very active online are often put off by the idea of being trolled. This reticence then leads them to shy away from having a strong social media presence. There are different schools of thought about how to manage online abuse.
Start-up co-founders, Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich from Buffer, talk about three strategies:
- The Seth Rogen school of thought – turn off comments, so you don’t have to engage. This negates the “social” aspect of social media, but it puts your content out there for people to enjoy.
- Commit to active moderation of comments – this will still mean you will read negative comments, but you don’t have to let them be published on your sites or engage with them.
- Expect that it will happen and don’t let it get you down – the consequence of having a bigger online presence is that negative comments are likely to increase. If you don’t let it get to you, you can reap the rewards from the positive comments and engagements you do receive.
Regardless of which philosophy you lean towards, there are additional gendered, sexualised and racial dimensions to negative comments that complicate how companies manage online abuse.
Responding to abuse
Anita Sarkeesian has faced an especially violent backlash for pioneering a Kickstarter campaign to fund her documentary on sexism in online gaming. She even received bomb threats and was forced to cancel appearances as a result.
Similarly Lindy West, formerly a leading writer for the feminist site Jezebel, has given a deeply personal, funny and moving account of what the evolution of online engagement has cost her personally. She had been writing online for many years, but as social media shifted to a more personal experience, moving away from anonymous postings and focusing on real-life personalities and images, the amount of personal attacks she received increased.
Things got worse when West made a funny YouTube video that involved her talking about food. Lindy talks about receiving daily abuse from strangers who focus on her appearance and especially her weight. She says that for years, despite writing for a feminist site, she found the abuse to be overwhelming. She says she cried everyday. This only stopped when she started to investigate the “trolls” who were hurling abuse. She says that seeing their personal accounts and videos revealed they were very angry and emotionally awkward men who disliked themselves. They managed their self-loathing and fear by spreading abuse.
West’s account is probably one that most new bloggers may fear. West receives an especially painful level of abuse because she is targeted as a woman, who is judged by her looks rather than by her professionalism, wit and the content of her blogging.
Negative comments can have a profoundly negative impact on bloggers – but we also have responsibility to create a safe space for our audience. Abusive attitudes, “devil’s advocate” arguments and anything else that derails conversations are not useful to anyone. Instead, they reinforce existing inequalities. News sites are trusted to encourage healthy public debate, but even these sites are moderated if they are going to be inclusive. Whether you run a niche blog for your community group or an international commercial site, robust debate does not mean that ad hominem attacks and bigotry should be tolerated.
Online abuse can make a blog, website or social media account dangerous to the mental health of your followers, by reproducing the marginalisation they face in their everyday lives. There are no two sides to racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism (discrimination of people with disabilities) and other forms of exclusion. Do not fall into the trap thinking that you need to make room for bigotry.
Online moderation of audience comments is not censorship. Moderation exists to keep conversations on track and inclusive to all members.
What should your organisation consider in order to minimise and respond to negative comments?
Accounts that I have professionally managed for businesses and not-for-profit groups are seldom trolled when they focus on “feel good” topics (wellbeing, food, fashion) but others are trolled regularly, specifically those that address anti-racism, anti-sexism and other social justice issues. My personal social media accounts as well as the not-for-profits I co-manage are trolled daily, especially those focused on gender and racial inclusion.
Regardless of your topic, your blog and social media strategy needs a code of conduct for public engagement that addresses safety. Some questions to ask of your company before launching a blog or social media account:
- Why are you starting/ maintaining your blog or social media? Is it to connect with your audience/clients? To promote your services? To expand your customer service? Be explicit about the purpose of your social media in your social media guidelines and then make your guidelines public and easy to find
- What are the boundaries of discussion? Are some ideas, values and forms of expression not aligned with your organisation? What are they? Name them, even if you think they are common sense. If you are against racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination, you need to state this
- What resources do you have to meet your social media/blogging goals? Social media is 24/7. Never assume your audience uses technology the same way you do – people might choose to comment while you’re asleep, on weekends, and while you’re on much needed leave. Do you have capacity to hire a social media manager? Social media is a full-time job. It requires skill, knowledge and vigilance. You can always outsource this but be sure that your manager has a strong understanding of your service/product and company values. Know that audiences expect their comments to be responded to within 24 hours if you are a business. Your social media policy should address when audiences can expect a response
- Are there some posts that might draw out negative comments? If so, you will need to consider checking your social media and blog threads more regularly, and if you’re unable to look after the discussion, you might temporarily turn off comments, but be sure to let readers know
- Are you prepared to ban commenters? You should be. Go back to your company mission and build in some examples of behaviour that you will not tolerate. You can then point to your policy, which should be public, so that rowdy audiences know why they might be banned if things get out of hand
- If you are running a business or not-for-profit, what are the guidelines for your staff? Are you prepared to take action if one of your employees makes comments on their personal social media that go against your social media policies? Check with industrial laws in your country about what action you can take, and be clear with employees. Employees should all receive social media training, even if they don’t manage your accounts. Everyone should know their rights and responsibilities, as well as their protections
- What support will you offer your social media managers and staff who are participating on your blog and social media? Make clear what resources staff might receive if they experience excessive trolling, and where they can access help, such as counselling and time off if needed.
Enforcing your guidelines
For my personal sites, I have one general set of guidelines that I maintain, including for this blog:
- Discuss social science: given I run several research accounts, anyone who wants to argue against the evidence, they need to do so in a constructive way, also pointing to credible sources
- Be polite: personal attacks will not be published
- Stay on topic: going off track or drawing unhelpful misdirection can lead to comments being deleted
- Be aware of your own bias: given I blog about social justice, anyone commenting in my spaces need to check their privilege. Personal anecdotes cannot be used to dismiss documented incidents of discrimination.
I’ve drawn inspiration from journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates, who moderates his articles using the metaphor of a dinner party. If he has rude individuals who suddenly burst into his house and start abusing guests at his dinner party, he will ask them to leave. If he did not take action, his dinner party would be ruined. This doesn’t infringe on the interloper’s freedom and it does not take away their human rights. They can start their own dinner party for rude people, and you don’t have to go.
Social media and blogging is a two-way public conversation. If you wouldn’t allow abuse of your colleagues at a staff function, then don’t allow abuse on your blog and social media.
What are you willing to allow at your online dinner party, and what would cause you to kick out rude guests?