Troll Control: How to Deal With Online Attacks
Online consultations just may be the best way yet to deal directly with the public. But it has a downside. When you engage online, you are vulnerable to attacks by any person or group with an agenda, such as NIMBY’s, special interest groups, or garden variety zealots, to name a few.
A common fear of engaging online has to do with ‘trolls.’ In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory or off-topic messages in an online forum in order to provoke participants or otherwise disrupt the discussion.
PlaceSpeak realizes that attacks from groups like these are more than just a nuisance— they can have a real effect on the success of your idea and wipe out the effectiveness of any marketing and public relations efforts. A single misstep can not only fanned the flames of opponents, it can explode into a news story.
Of course, this isn’t limited to online engagement. You can be attacked in ANY medium – posters, flyers, rallies, letters, town hall meetings, the list goes on. While online engagement makes it cheap and easy for opponents to raise issues, it also makes it cheap and easy for you to address their concerns.
While our multi-step verification system will help keep out the most disruptive, anonymous trolls; no system is foolproof. So, here are some basic steps you can take to deal with dissenting opinions that may arise during your online engagement activities:
Post an Online Engagement Policy
While PlaceSpeak has a basic commenting policy to deal with hateful and off-topic comments, it is a good idea to outline your own rules of engagement on your topic page, including what sorts of posts you will remove. (As an aside, it is also a good idea to include a similar statement on your website, Facebook page and any other web sites where users can post comments).
Such a policy shouldn’t discourage passion or criticism, but rather protect you and other participants from undue or irrelevant attacks. Inappropriate profanity or unconstructive criticism doesn’t bring any value to your consultation.
When in doubt use the ‘Kitchen Table Test”: If you wouldn’t allow it to be said at your kitchen table, don’t allow it in your forum.
But Don’t Hide Behind It
It is important to remember, however, that while engagement policies are great, and necessary, they are not sufficient to ward off online attacks. These policies only help you control people who are saying extreme, libelous, racist, expletive-laden things. They will not shield you from people or groups who have legitimate concerns about your project or initiative—and nor should they.
It is recommended that you be proactive not reactive when responding to criticisms. Acting defensively to worried or angry residents will strip you—and your proposal—of its integrity. Moreover, censoring valid viewpoints or concerns is a recipe for a PR disaster. If you use your engagement policy to remove or limit critical comments, you will appear underhanded or afraid to engage. This can inflame the dissenters and encourage them to voice their positions in other forums, where you will have no ability to respond.
Keep the Peace
When commenters start to debate each things can get ugly fast. Since everyone wants their participants to feel comfortable, it’s important to diffuse this situation as quickly as possible. If a heated exchange occurs, reach out to all participants of the forum—even if they were not directly participating. It is important to make sure that everybody feels welcome and comfortable.
Then, make a separate post in the forum, reminding residents about the general rules and policies for participating in the discussion forum. If the same offenders come back and being attacking other residents, take actions to have them removed from the discussion. Remember, it is essential that residents feel that they have a safe place to talk about your proposal. When someone with malicious intent enters the discussion, it can throw off the balance and side track your efforts.
Information spreads fast online. This is particularly true with negative assertions. It’s important that you addressed any complaints and issues posted in your forum. Inactivity appear as though you’re trying to ignore the issue. Being unresponsive will only incite more anger and increase the chance the poster will come back with more critical posts.
The quicker you can respond the better. Do not wait to get an official position from your executive team or client. Rather prepare a response based on the following questions:
- Are their concerns accurate?
- If they are NOT accurate, respond with facts that shows they are not true.
- If they ARE accurate, what steps can you take to immediately address the concerns? What longer term steps can you to prevent the concern from recurring?
- If they are accurate, but you are not in a position to address them, can you explain why you took that position and provide concise reasons why?
In dealing with upset residents, you must remember that you are closer to your proposal than they are. What may seem like routine information to you is often brand new to neighborhood. It may not be even be your specific proposal that the resident is concerned over, but rather overall city policy or another nearby development.
Scale your response based on the location of comment and level of concern. If the comment (and related concern) is limited to the discussion forum or your Facebook page, address the concern then and there. This will cover 90% of concerns and comments. For the rare concern that gains traction with the broader community, you will need to mount a larger response, just as you would with any coordinated offline opposition.
Next week, we’ll look at 5 ways to deal with legitimate critics.