Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Trolls and other antisocial, disruptive and divisive social networkers – Part 1

Posted in social networking and business by Timothy Platt on December 7, 2010

When people talk about social networking their focus is generally on the positive. We generally network and connect online with people who we are in some sense compatible with, at least to the level of having at least some points of shared interest or concern. And we stop social networking with people who we see as violating our understanding of proper behavior. In this and for individual networkers, bad behavior online is a rapidly self-correcting problem.

The situation is very different for organizations and businesses, and particularly where anyone and everyone can post reviews, comments, praise or complaints about you, and on third party review sites as well as through your own web sites and other online channels. This sharing of voice and opinion can be done through online groups and other channels that are oriented toward more general and wide ranging content. This can also be done through online review sites like Yelp or through review features on sites that simply offer this capability as a value added feature (e.g. many online yellow pages phone books.) In this case there is generally a sharp and clear focus where these reviews are directly linked to online profiles highlighting the specific business or organization being reviewed.

This would all be fine and I would not be writing about this today if everyone out there posting reviews and other commentary always strived to be fair and honest, and scrupulously accurate and if they always revealed their true relationship to the target of their reviews and to any potential competitors. That, of course, is not always the case and a consequence is that businesses and other organizations can come to feel that they are a fixed target.

1. People who actually work for or own a business or organization can post favorably about it, pretending to be an unbiased third party reviewer, and this type of spoofing has a way of coming out and being identified for what it is. That has credibility damaging repercussions. And the well meaning but misguided employee who does this may be posting this way strictly as a personal initiative.
2. Competitors can post reviews, and negative, damaging ones and while they may be identified after the fact for who they actually are and to their own detriment, the initial damage will already have been done. And people will remember the negative messages that were sent out and that includes people who never quite pick up on the retractions or repudiations of those negative reviews.
3. And there are always trolls – third party reviews who post derogatory, inflammatory and sometimes very factually inaccurate postings simply because they can. The trolls of legend and folklore are creatures who hide underground from the light of day and come out at night to do their mischief. Social networking trolls similarly thrive on anonymity and come out under its cloak to do their mischief.

Anonymity online can offer a great deal of positive value.

• If you are looking for a new job and are already employed but in a to-you toxic situation, you may very well need to be able to at least take your exploratory and early stage search networking steps without risking tipping off your current employer – posting resumes online that do not show your name or the name of the business you are currently working with, for example.
• Whistleblowers do a great deal of good, shining light into places of darkness that really should be illuminated and cleaned out, under the glare of a more public awareness. They often need the protection that anonymity can provide to limit the possibility of retribution.
• Political freedom fighters who succeed often do so in part by bringing word out to the world and to the larger, overall community about a need for change, and for support in achieving this. Personal safety concerns for self and family often mandate a need for anonymity here too.
• There are, of course, a wide range of other circumstances where anonymity serves a valid and even important purpose.

But at least as often as this, anonymity carries with it a darker side. Anonymity can in some people foster a sense of behavioral disinhibition and express itself as an out-flowing of harm, and simply because it can be done and without consequences.

People who feel a sense of powerlessness and frustration can become social networking trolls as a means of venting anger and frustration, and yes pain as well. And for my first numbered examples above, this same outpouring of the false can come from a toxic sense of competitiveness as well. And in a real sense businesses and other organizations are a fixed target for this type of assault. So it is very important that they develop a policy for both identifying where this is happening and for responding to it.

• A policy of this type – a Fairness in Social Media Policy should not set out to identify and challenge anything and everything that may be posted that carries a negative message. Sometimes a negative review is accurate and the best response would be to acknowledge that, work to resolve the basis for the underlying complaint, share word of that and with thanks to the people who brought this to your attention, and then you move on.

There are a number of ways to organize a Fairness in Social Media Policy and a due diligence and risk remediation program for managing the social media experience for your business. I am going to divide discussion into two broad categories as one such approach:

• Managing postings that come in through social media channels that your organization owns and controls.
• Managing postings that come in through third party and independent web sites and other interactive online channels.

I am going to focus on the first of these two general categories of online and social media channels here in this posting and will follow up on this tomorrow with a second, on third party online channels.

Malicious postings coming in through social media channels you and your business control:

• If you find egregiously inaccurate and harmful material being posted through a site or resource you control delete it but do not stop there. I am thinking of specific experiences I have had with public-facing bulletin boards and discussion groups, maintained and run through an organization’s web site, and that were venomous attacks on it.
• Delete permissions to post for individuals showing as sources of malicious postings. And where appropriate and possible, reach out to contact the sender too, to ask them why they posted as they did. Pull away the anonymity where you can do so.

I should add spam here as sometimes malicious postings fall into that category. Social media spam attacks both the sites it is posted on and the organization providing those sites, and also other users who post legitimately and read those postings.

• To limit spam, and certainly as it might come in through botnets and with automated registrations and logins, use a Turing test screening tool in setting up registrations, and require registration to post. The commonest screening tool for this is the CAPTCHA test where a registration includes a step where the registrant has to be able to read a test string embedded in an image, and type it into a form field correctly. But even with this it is probably not worth the effort in most cases to try and contact the apparent sender. And look out for repeats of the same spam coming from other apparent listed sources.
• And be prepared to reinstate someone if they do post legitimately but their email address, for example was spoofed by a spammer as can happen when someone’s computer is infected by malware.

Post your online usage policy for participating in any interactive online or social media resources that you use. State clearly that you reserve the right to delete derogatory or otherwise harmful messages, inappropriate advertizing or spam messages and that you will limit or delete permissions to post for people who violate terms of usage.

As a final thought here, monitor what is posted on your site. I find it amazing how many businesses and organizations put up interactive online and social media channels as a part of their online presence but never seem to monitor what others publically post. Think and do due diligence and have a clearly stated policy as to what is and is not appropriate for posting, and be clear as to how you will respond to inappropriate postings. Assign this to a specific employee or group of employees as a part of their job descriptions. Then follow through on this with ongoing action.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: