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Are trolls the cost of doing business in a digital world?


By Duncan Parry, Head of Digital Sales

August 3, 2012 | 5 min read

Another week, another story of somebody in the public eye suffering a public attack from a social network "troll". This week it was the turns of Tom Daley, Olympic swimmer, and Kirsty Allsop, presenter of "Location, Location, Location". Daley suffered the worst insults from a particularly odious individual who suggested he'd let his deceased father down by not winning a gold medal. Allsopp's trolls - hunting in a school girl pack - subjected her to abuse including telling her to "go squat on a Christmas tree" and instructions on how to kill herself. The Police have become involved in both cases - and quiet rightly so.

Putting aside the media-obsession with anything social media and celebrity, these cases set me thinking. Should celebrities accept trolls as part of the landscape of 21st century fame? It's been said many times in defence of paparazzi photographers that anybody putting themselves deliberately in the public eye should expect a swarm of photographers to try to catch their most private or embarrassing moments. Haters are gonna hate, as the expression goes, so shouldn't trolls just be expected and indeed, accepted, as a cost of doing business in the 21st century, just as brands have found?

The unfortunate answer is: "Yes". But this isn't a black and white situation - it's not just a case of "Yes, now shut and put up, Mr Famous Person". The reality is that there's a very important question of extent. A moan or one-off criticism is one thing. A malicious, sadistic attack that's bound to cause personal upset - like mentioning a deceased relative - or repeated attacks on the same person are something different.

This is where the headline I almost ran this post under comes in: "Is prison a proportional response to a social troll?" My answer: again, it's not clear cut. It depends. Cop-out? Maybe. But you can't lock-up every odious individual that posts on a social network (or a forum, or blog comments for that matter) - and some simply shouldn't be ignored.

How should an individual suffering a troll's unwelcome attentions - and I mean anybody, not just the famous - deal with them? My advice: don't' respond straight away. Take a breath, walk away, ask a friend their advice. Then ask yourself this: if the comment was said to you in public, would you ignore it, or was it bad enough it that you'd take the person to task?

If the latter is true - and assuming you don't react explosively to every negative comment you hear about yourself - you should consider taking action. Whether that's blocking them on social platforms, reporting them or contacting the Police, you need to ensure you've taken proportionate action you can justify to yourself and, most importantly, the abuse stops and you can move on.

There is an area any celebrity or anybody working with a brand needs to think about, and ideally, write into their social media management guidelines - before they find themselves dealing with the pressure and upset of a troll's insults. Questions to ask include: how do you judge when somebody has gone too far? What action are you prepared to take - and to what extent? Do you want to establish a "sliding-scale" from "ignore" right through to "report to Police"?

Some trolling is a cost of doing business online - but some troll's comments are, simply, beyond the pale of what's tolerable (even if never acceptable). Judging how you'd react to their behaviour face-to-face is a good place to start when deciding how to respond. Sadly, many of the trolls are exactly the sort of people who don't stop to think if they would make their comments face-to-face - and I, suspect, are the sort of people who'd be too cowardly to do so.

Right, I off to wait for the first person to troll me for calling them a coward.

By Duncan Parry, COO, STEAK


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