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Are Internet Trolls Winning? Only If We Let Them!

[by Thom Fladung, former managing editor, The Plain Dealer]

A recent Columbia Journalism Review story argued that the media, while denouncing the online trolls who delight in spreading hate, also support trolls by providing forums and attention.

As a 33-year newspaperman who very recently left the media, how would I plead?

Is “I really, really hope not” a valid plea?

The thought certainly occurred that I was one of the enablers, even as I read online comments on news stories that left me thinking: I need to take a shower; and, humankind is doomed.

But I have a hard time accepting the notion that stories should never be done about the worst trolling, such as the brutal attacks on Robin Williams that caused Williams’ daughter to leave social media. (Caitlin Dewey, who covers digital culture for the Washington Post, described it as “yet another demonstration of the Internet’s bottomless lows.”

Where is the evidence that ignoring such stories will make trolls go away? I hold stubbornly to the idea that we need to keep turning the lights on to make the cockroaches scurry out of view. In this digital age, digital culture is a valid news topic. How could a reporter like Dewey not cover trolling?

A more relevant question for the many – now including me – who are not in the media: What should you do if you or your business are suddenly attacked by online trolls?

  • Establish a policy or guidelines that apply to comments on your website. Be consistent in applying them. Don’t be afraid to enforce them. Here’s a clear, simple blog comment policy we liked from Cleveland’s own Content Marketing Institute:
  • Correct factual errors. If someone says something about you or your business that is factually wrong – whether on your website, on Facebook or Twitter or elsewhere online – don’t let it go unchallenged. Fight back with facts and back up those facts with hard evidence, but do so in a professional, straightforward manner.
  • If you make a mistake, admit it. Let’s say an online commenter points out something you did wrong. And, of course, doesn’t stop there but adds that you also happen to be a stupid person with a bad haircut. Admit the mistake. Tell readers what you’ve done to correct it and why it won’t happen again. And ignore the personal insults. You’ll win fans. Your critic will be disarmed. (And if you really do have a bad haircut, get that fixed, too.)
  • Engage – keep your friends close and your enemies closer. This one doesn’t always work. (In fact, none of these always work. If they did, there would be no online trolls. Or real-life bullies for that matter.) But think about whether honestly and sincerely addressing a critic’s concerns will make that person believe they’ve been heard – and turn a troll into a fan.

There are other potential strategies and tips. We liked this list from Forbes, and here are some interesting thoughts from the Social Media Examiner.

And what have you tried that worked? Tell us by sending your thoughts to Just don’t troll us, please.


Photo Credit:  Wikipedia




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