As a small business owner, you know how important your online brand is to your business. A positive customer perception of your brand can lead to conversion, sales and bookings. But what do you do when a provocative comment makes its way to your website or social media feeds? Do you delete the comment? Argue back? Turn off comments altogether? Or block them?
You’ve just been trolled—and you shouldn’t wait to see what will happen next, as it can lead to the internet becoming an unwelcoming and unsafe place. Thankfully Talya Adler, Wix’s online brand management expert, is here to help you develop a plan for dealing with online haters.
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What are internet trolls?
Before we dive in, let’s get on the same page about what we’re calling a troll. A “troll,” in internet slang, is someone who posts intentionally inflammatory and upsetting statements in online communities, such as social media, comments sections on a website, forums and chat rooms, to provoke unwary victims and delight in their anguish. They borrow their name from the original trolls of Scandinavian folklore.
According to Jennifer Beckett, a lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne, trolling is “a specific act: throwing bait into the internet water in the form of deliberately provocative statements (not personal attacks, that’s ‘flaming’) and waiting for someone to bite.”
Why are there internet trolls (and what impact do they have)?
Trolling exploded after the advent of the social internet. While the internet doesn’t create trolls, it does give people predisposed to aggressive and unpleasant behavior a place to amplify and make visible their hostility, found an Aarhus University study published in the American Political Science Review. One of the study’s authors, Alexander Bor, tweeted: “...The people hateful on Twitter offend others in face-to-face conversation too.” The researchers, who polled over 8,000 American and Danish people, also identified being a status seeker as another strong characteristic among trolls.
Businesses are often plagued with trolls on their social media feeds. For example, in 2019, Coconut-water brand Vita Coco playfully threatened to send urine to a man who trolled them on Twitter for their product's divisive taste. Vita Coco “won” the battle, according to the critic Tony Posnanski.
And what started as individuals annoying people and businesses on the internet has turned into a strategic form of digital warfare over the past decade. Coordinated troll armies have played a large role in high-profile harassment cases, ranging from 2014's Gamergate, the 2016 American presidential election, and 2022's Johnny Depp v Amber Heard trial. The Philippines even has a government-sponsored troll army.
How to deal with internet trolls
While you hopefully never have to deal with a troll problem, it's a small business myth that there's nothing you can do about it. There is a strategic response that can help minimize how it affects your business. In the words of Wix: “Don’t panic. Don’t answer impulsively. Don’t apologize.”
While every internet troll case is unique, this workflow can help you figure out your next steps:
Online communication comes without body language, facial expressions and a tone of voice. Make sure you fully understand what is being said to avoid any misinterpretation. It may be helpful to ask someone else to read the content for a gut check before moving forward.
It’s good to check the timing of the posts—especially for small and medium-sized businesses. Perhaps you’re launching a new product/service or hosting a conference. While these seem like normal processes in business, they could become an open call for status-seeking trolls to attack your brand. For example if you’re streaming a live event, you’ll want to monitor in real time the comments coming in.
An internet troll could also be fishing you into a spat about a topic far bigger than your business alone, whether it’s for political, cultural or religious reasons. Adler recommends avoiding these types of engagement altogether. Inform yourself about what’s going on in the world and be in tune with discourses taking place around you.
“You don’t want to become the next internet meme,” says Adler.
After rereading the content, investigate the account and their history. You may find that your internet troll’s account has roped in other customer care accounts into online battles. If that’s the case, Adler says to keep your distance and don’t feed the troll. You could also discover that it’s a bot that simply needs to be blocked and reported.
However, if a cursory check seems like there’s more to the story, use social network analysis to investigate further into the internet troll. Search their social media accounts to find how big their following is and how extensive it goes across platforms. Are they getting shared or retweeted? Do their posts get commented on and by who?
Your next step will depend on how “influential” your troll is and how much damage they can bring to your business.
Mega-influencers. These are celebrities with hundreds of millions of followers across the biggest platforms.
Macro-influencers. These are influencers that have garnered between 100,000 and 1 million followers.
Micro-influencers. These are influencers with a following between 1,000 and 100,000 people. Despite their size, Adler says, these micro influencers are among the most engaged with their audience. Thus their potential impact is higher than a macro-influencer, she adds.
Nano-influencers. These are influencers who have fewer than 1,000 followers, but are highly trusted by their audience.
Non-influencers. These are regular people who have fewer than 1,000 followers, but don’t have any regular engagement or trust built with their audience.
If you’re dealing with a legitimate customer, Adler recommends taking the conversation privately. Ask them for additional information (proof like screenshots) to better understand their case. You’ll want to better understand their grievances in order to solve their issues.
If you’re dealing with an influencer trolling you, it may make sense to consult with a PR or brand expert to help you get your response messaging right. And if your business is being accused of misdealings, you may need to go on the defensive. Depending on the severity of the case, you might want to bring in a lawyer to sue.
Preventing trolls in the first place
At the center of troll prevention is a thorough content moderation strategy. While you could hire someone to monitor content and delete comments as they arise, you can also just choose a website platform that lets you manage which site visitors can comment on your posts in the first place.