Trolling: How to take action against online bullies

Though the Internet offers plenty of fun and opportunity, especially on social networks, there are also many negative trends, one of which is trolling. Trolls are users whose sole aim is to interfere with others, put people and companies in a bad light and cause as much damage as possible. Read on to find out what exactly trolling is, how you can recognise a troll, and how you can best deal with them.

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What is trolling?

Anyone participating in online discussions or operating a social media profile as a brand or company has probably at some point experienced trolling whereby individual users disrupt chats with inappropriate comments, verbally attack people, and provoke them. In short: they cause trouble in the comment sections. In harmless cases, these so-called Internet trolls are simply annoying; in the worst case, they might damage a company’s reputation, or even spread fake news.

The goals of trolling

In short, the aim of trolling is to spread chaos. When the phenomenon first emerged, it was primarily about the fun of disruption. Peaceful discussions were supposed to turn into heated debates through accusations whereby the content of a debate became a minor matter. In gaming communities, the term “griefer” is common: a user deliberately sabotages the course of the game without violating any official rules.

Today, trolling is about much more – especially when public figures and companies are the focus. Here, the aim is often to damage a reputation or spread alternative truths. Examples of successful trolling include the 2016 US election, in which Trump won, presumably supported by Russian trolls. Another example is discussions on coronavirus measures, spreading the rumour that Bill Gates was controlling vaccinations in order to provide people with computer chips. Disturbingly, what sounds absurd to some can become an alternative truth for others, spread by trolls. Trolling can be incredibly powerful.

Disgruntled customer or troll: trolling characteristics

So how can you recognise trolling? Not everyone leaving a negative comment or review is necessarily a troll. Often it’s simply an angry customer letting off steam. Companies should respond accordingly.

Fact

A study by social scientists and computer scientists at Stanford and Cornell University in the US found that people are generally in a worse mood on Mondays and in the evening, and that the troll rate on the Internet rises accordingly during these times. When posting, you may want to consider these times.

With this in mind, it is usually easy to distinguish a troll from a serious critic based on the following criteria:

  1. Comments do not refer to the content of a post or a discussion in general, but are merely wild insults, provocations, or personal attacks against other users or a company or brand.
  2. Quotes and contents are taken out of context, twisted, and claims are made that cannot be substantiated with a (reputable) source.
  3. A single question is asked (repeatedly), which does not necessarily have anything to do with the actual discussion.
  4. Troll messages are often self-centred and exaggerated. Formulations begin with “I...” and terms like “never”, “everyone” and superlatives can be found. The exaggerated use of capital letters, exclamation marks and question marks are also common, as well as swear words.
  5. Trolling of businesses or politicians may involve users based abroad. Accordingly, the punctuation, spelling, and grammar will be poor.

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‘Don’t feed the troll’ and other tips to avoid trolling

A widespread and important tip against trolling, especially for individuals, is: ‘Don't feed the troll.’ If you become a target of a troll attack on your profile or in the comments section within a discussion, do not respond. This may be difficult because we tend to want to justify ourselves or refute a rumour. Keep in mind that trolls are after having a stage for their hate and provocation. When they don't get any attention, they often move on.

Unfortunately, this rule doesn’t always work for businesses and those with public profiles, because ignoring a troll doesn't mean your followers will do so too. And as soon as someone else steps in (in defence of your company), trolling can quickly escalate. So before or if it gets to that point, here are tips for dealing with trolling.

Tip 1: Block the troll

Block the troll. This works across social networks and can be used by private individuals on a website. You can also report comments on Facebook and other platforms as inappropriate or offensive and blacklist trolls if necessary.

Tip 2: Publish a netiquette

Write a netiquette for your online profile. These are guidelines on how companies and, above all, users should communicate and discuss with one another which comments and content are prohibited, and when such comments and content may be deleted or users excluded from the discussion.

With these rules, you gain virtual permission to delete inappropriate comments. Because deleting content without comment can backfire and fuel a digital frenzy. Above all, serious users, who tend to be in the majority, prefer to know the rules. The rules on deletion of content should be comprehensible to them.

Tip 3: Answer once briefly and factually

If you must reply to a troll, do it once, briefly and based on facts. Because trolling is often about the same topic or the same lie, it may be a good idea to write a detailed and fact-based statement, if necessary, on your website, and to refer to it after an attack by a troll.

Tip 4: Use humour

Use humour to deal with trolls. Admittedly, it’s a fine line and should be well thought through, but above all remain honest and authentic. Used correctly, humour can silence a troll and at the same time convey a sympathetic image of yourself to the rest of your followers.

Tip 5: Admit mistakes and apologise

It pays to be humble. Admit mistakes and apologise. Sometimes there is a grain of truth to the most bitter troll comment. If this is the case: stand by it, preferably in an official and public manner, as described in tip 3. This lets you take the wind out of the troll's sails and at the same time shows you take user questions and criticism seriously.


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