You Don’t Owe Trolls Anything

Internet Troll Looming over a user

In 1995, I was an internet Utopian. All I could imagine was a future where the free and open exchange of ideas would democratize the very concept of knowledge itself, and the world would get better and more advanced at an ever-quickening pace. The global, geographical, and economic barriers to knowledge would be flattened, and mankind would benefit from a new Golden Age.

I have worked on the internet for more than 20 years now, and this Utopian future has turned out to be at least somewhat true. Anyone with a cell phone has access to the sum total of human knowledge and history, right in their pocket! Technology has advanced at an extreme speed, and increased access has bred innovation.

It has also flattened and equalized the world of advertising, and brands can now reach people at a scale which was previously impossible without huge marketing budgets. Access to brands has also changed significantly – you no longer have to write a letter or make a phone call or be in a focus group to give feedback about a product or service you enjoyed, or did not.

These changes, in a vacuum, are good! Right? This is how it was supposed to work out. However, along with this progress, the internet has also given rise to trolls of all kinds, and brands and individuals are not always clear about how to handle them. So let’s define what a troll is, and then talk about how to deal with them.

What is a troll?

A troll is not anyone who says something bad about you on the internet. Social media can be a terrific channel for customer service, and when used to address a legitimate grievance or to shine a light on a product or service shortcoming, a brand can do a lot of good for itself and its customers by transparently working through those issues in a public setting. It helps a customer and probably converts them into an advocate for the brand as a result of receiving excellent customer service. It also makes the whole process visible to that customer’s social circle, and with a good outcome, that’s better than any advertising you can buy.

Trolls are different. Trolls are ex-employees with an ax to grind who leave a negative review on your Facebook Page. Trolls are people that cruise the internet with the express purpose of causing trouble for individuals and brands, and they can target any brand for any reason, or for no reason at all. Trolls make arguments in bad faith, spread hate speech, sow discord, and can never be convinced to see things a different way, because the way they claim to see things isn’t the point – the point is to be cruel and nasty and cause trouble.

This ^ dude does not have a grievance, nor is he making an argument in good faith.

This ^ dude does not have a grievance, nor is he making an argument in good faith.

You’ll know the difference. If someone is yelling at you on the internet for reasons that don’t make sense (or that are not readily apparent) and you make a good faith effort to find out if there’s something real for you to address, with trolls you will discover that there’s nothing going on other than a need to be a jerk on the internet.

You should evaluate everything at first glance from a transparent, honest place. It might be that someone is mad and maybe not expressing themselves well, but there’s something legitimate causing that anger. In that case, you’ll be amazed at how listening carefully and working authentically to resolve someone’s issue can transform the entire experience for everyone into something positive. That situation is not what we’re talking about – we’re talking about people that are unreasonable and nasty and do not have a real customer service issue, or a real interest in seeking a resolution.

So, what do you do with trolls?

The answer is, you don’t owe them anything. You don’t owe them a debate, you don’t owe them any space within your brand experience, and you don’t owe them a position of power over you, which habitual trolls will try to gain at the first sign of engagement.

Kick / Ban / Ignore / Report

The most obvious kind of troll is someone who swings by and leaves hate speech, racial epithets, or other horrible things on your Page or in your reviews. Your investigative duty is light here: do you know this person? Is there any context at all? If so, you can contact them by other means. If not, your responsibility is fulfilled. All that’s left is to ban them from your Page, kick them out of your group, or block them and ignore them on Twitter.

Make sure you report them, too, and that’s really where you should start, as most platforms will follow a report of harassment or threats with the option to kick, ban, block, or ignore the offender. You don’t have to put up with that and you don’t owe them the visibility or access of having anyone else see it, either.

Don’t take the bait

The siren song of the online troll is “Debate me!” as if their premise has merit and they deserve honest consideration from you when they are in no way making any kind of argument in good faith. Don’t give in, and resist the temptation to “be the better person” or “kill them with kindness.” The reason? You won’t ever change their mind.

In order to change someone’s mind, they have to be capable of, and interested in, having a real debate on the merits, and they have to be coming from a place of respect. Real trolling behavior has none of those qualities, and trolls often don’t even really believe what they are saying. Cruelty and negativity is the point. They want to make you feel bad, and trying to engage them like they are interested in anything else gives them more of an opportunity to do just that. Don’t do it.

Also, the more you magnanimously engage with a troll, the more likely they are to dig deep and try to find arguments that will set you off, or to find personal information about you they’ll tease or reveal in an effort to scare you. Don’t let it get to that point. Say later to the haters.

Can I roast, tho?

We live an age where brand Twitter accounts have become true citizens of their environments. The Wendy’s Twitter account is an amazing example of this – real comedy, internet savagery, and some quality roasting for other brands. You might also see a brand account like DiGiorno or Steak-umm, both of which do a great job of breaking out of the brand Twitter account marketing-bot mold and live fully inside of Weird Twitter.

I like these accounts, but they are true expressions of craft and professional effort. The people that run these accounts are fully invested in this and have lots of practice – they are either professional writers (and well-conditioned Twitter users) from creative agencies, or someone in house who is fully empowered to live and breathe the life required of a Twitter brand account. At the core of it, the person behind the account truly understands the internet, and has the inborn instincts to recognize and assess situations for potential risks and rewards.

I am all for authenticity, and a core component of the Swash Labs operating philosophy is that the brand should speak in a voice that is real and authentic and reflective of the people that make up the company. But that isn’t always easy on the internet, and with as vicious as some parts of social media have become, sometimes the best bet is to err on the side of caution and not get down in the mud with someone that is motivated by trolling and causing trouble.

What I’m saying is this: Practice your karate before you enter the all-valley tournament, and until you know the crane kick all the way, don’t try it out in front of everyone.

Josh Berthumetrolls