Trolls and policing the conversation

6 Dec 2010 by Randall Helms, 1 Comment »

About a week ago the New York Times published a very interesting article about how website owners can handle internet trolls, a topic that is of particular relevance to anyone working to build and maintain an online community, whether on their own platform or through a service like Facebook.

The article, “When Anonymity Breeds Contempt”, is by Julie Zhuo, a product design manager at Facebook. In it, Ms. Zhuo looks at trolls and the havoc they wreak on all kinds of online communities, as well as how new approaches to site design can minimize the impact of the determinedly abusive:

Psychological research has proven again and again that anonymity increases unethical behavior. Road rage bubbles up in the relative anonymity of one’s car. And in the online world, which can offer total anonymity, the effect is even more pronounced. People — even ordinary, good people — often change their behavior in radical ways. There’s even a term for it: the online disinhibition effect.

Many forums and online communities are looking for ways to strike back …

(The) the law by itself cannot do enough to disarm the Internet’s trolls. Content providers, social networking platforms and community sites must also do their part by rethinking the systems they have in place for user commentary so as to discourage — or disallow — anonymity …

Instead of waiting around for human nature to change, let’s start to rein in bad behavior by promoting accountability. Content providers, stop allowing anonymous comments. Moderate your comments and forums. Look into using comment services to improve the quality of engagement on your site. Ask your users to report trolls and call them out for polluting the conversation.

In slowly lifting the veil of anonymity, perhaps we can see the troll not as the frightening monster of lore, but as what we all really are: human.

Trolls present a major challenge to any brand that wants to use social media for customer engagement.

Firstly, because trolls can upset the delicate balancing act inherent in a brand’s participation in social media. One of the biggest ways in which social media is different from traditional marketing communications is that the marketer surrenders some control of the message to the consumer(s); they accept that what can be gained from a genuine two-way conversation outweighs the risks inherent of opening up to the unpredictability of the general public. This means that marketers have to accept that the conversation might move in directions that they might not have anticipated, and when it does, they need to be willing to move with the conversation.

In my opinion, to do this successfully means being willing to police the conversation with a light touch. Trolls, by deliberately seeking to destroy and degrade the conversation, make this a much more difficult, if not untenable, approach. Given a free hand, trolls will wreck the conversation, but, on the other hand, if they provoke a strong reaction from the community managers, then that reflects badly on the brand as being ‘censors’ or ‘afraid of criticism’ (which are the usual cries whenever someone tries to police an internet discussion). It’s a fine line to tread!

In my opinion, the best approach to take is to establish upfront a clear set of rules for the community and to make sure that they are applied consistently and transparently. Also, it is important to encourage the community to be self-policing to the fullest extent possible, to take some of the strain off the community managers. As Ms. Zhou discusses in her article, removing anonymity is useful when it comes to reducing rude and hostile online behaviour, although it’s not a magic pill, as can be seen by even a cursory glance at the comments on the Facebook feeds of major newsmedia like The Economist. In terms of sanctions, the obvious ones are suspensions and, for repeat offenders, bans. Taken together, these approaches should help to mitigate, if not completely extinguish, the impact of trolls.

Sadly, the trolls will always be with us.

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