Later, Haters! How Social Media Management Can Defeat Internet Trolls

August 11, 2016 Krystal Overmyer

Social Media Management

Feared by brands and publishers alike, online trolls (described by Psychology Today as people who “[come] into a discussion and posts comments designed to upset or disrupt the conversation,”)have the power to hijack social conversations, fuel negativity, and derail even the most well-intentioned marketing campaigns. While conventional social media management wisdom advises “don’t feed the trolls,” brands and publishers are becoming more sophisticated in their approaches to trolls and hateful invective. Several publishers have opted to squash trolls at their source by killing comments sections on articles. On the other hand, brands that turn trolls’ negativity on its head can experience positive outcomes.

Online trolls represent a minority of internet users, but their presence online—marked by inflammatory, controversial statements, sometimes crossing into the realm of hate speech—plays an outsized role in internet interactions. That’s a problem for publishers whose content strategies encourage conversations and maintain a constructive environment.

The Psychology of Trolls

So what motivates trolls to do what they do? Research shows trolling may be driven by an individual’s underlying personality traits. In other words, trolling may be hardwired.

A study led by Erin Buckels of the University of Manitoba sought to explore the links between people who engage in trolling and the “Dark Tetrad” of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism. Researchers gave personality tests and surveys to over 1,200 people. The studies revealed that trolling correlates positively with sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism. Of those three traits, sadism—deriving pleasure from other people’s pain—showed the strongest correlation with trolling. “Thus cyber-trolling appears to be an internet manifestation of everyday sadism,” the report notes.

Trolls comprise a minority of internet users, but not as small of a group as you might suspect. Twenty-eight percent of Americans say they have engaged in “malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t know,” according to a survey from YouGov. Twenty-three percent say they have “maliciously argued over an opinion with a stranger” online. Twelve percent of users admitted to crossing the line so far that their comment was removed by a moderator. According to the study, gender and age also factor into the tendency to troll: men are more likely than women to engage in trolling behavior, and Millennials are more likely than older users to do the same.

YouGov trolling study

The impact of trolling behavior goes beyond the intended recipient of the vitriol. Even the presence of trolling comments can influence how users view a topic, research has shown. A study from researchers at the George Mason University Center for Climate Change and Communication found that participants who read an article about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology were more likely to become polarized when trolling comments accompanied the article. “In other words, it appeared that pushing people’s emotional buttons, through derogatory comments, made them double down on their preexisting beliefs,” noted Chris Mooney for Mother Jones.

This suggests that the presence of trolls could impact branded content in the same way, serving to heighten drama and polarize the debate about a variety of topics. In other words, rudeness has influence. For brands and content providers trying to stoke legitimate conversation about an issue or topic, that’s a big issue.

Beating the Trolls

Dealing with trolls is a tricky part of social media management. Ignore them, and they may redouble their efforts to hijack conversations; engage with them, and you validate their efforts. Brands and publishers are handling trolls in a few key ways: responding deliberately to them, directing or limiting conversation with them, and leveraging attention from them by flipping the script.


Even the most innocuous of businesses could find its social media marketing beset by trolls. Brands need a plan in place before the trolling gets nasty. First off, keep in mind that criticism does not equate to trolling. If a customer complaint is legitimate, brands should reach out to try and address the situation—and preferably take the discussion offline.

Any interaction should be calm, polite, and kind. (The old adage “kill them with kindness” is a good one to keep in mind.) Trying to outwit a troll with clever and forceful responses can quickly go awry and even generate more backlash. When SeaWorld hosted an #AskSeaWorld session on Twitter, it was bombarded by questions from PETA and animal rights activists. Its petulant reaction in a series of Tweets seriously underestimated negative public opinion about the brand and the legitimate concerns many had about the park.

Twitter trolls SeaWorld

If a troll doesn’t have a legitimate complaint or your attempts at resolution stall out, it’s time shift to ignoring the troll. By continuing to respond, brands give trolls what they want: attention. Social media management tools allow brands to track the number of interactions with users, helping them understand when they may be engaging in a fruitless conversation with a troll. As a last resort, brands can consider blocking or banning specific users on a specific social media platform if the conversation turns vitriolic or hateful.

Directing or Limiting

Sometimes, trying to moderate trolling comments is an unsurmountable task. Faced with limited time and resources to manage or moderate comments, several publishers have dropped comment sections in favor of “letter to the editor” features, which can be more carefully curated. Popular Science, The Daily Beast and Bloomberg are among those that have nixed comments on their sites, Wired reported. Other publishers, including CNN and Reuters, selectively disable comments on certain articles.

Turning off comments is an interesting move, since publishers are motivated to keep users on their sites as long as possible. But publishers also have compelling reasons to ditch the comment sections. As previously noted, trolls are suspected to have a powerful impact on reader perceptions when it comes to science-based articles, a fact that motivated Popular Science to dump its comment section.

“Even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader’s perception of a story,” online content director Suzanne LaBarre wrote.

Brands should take note of the trend. Like publishers, brands want to encourage interaction and commentary, but not at the cost of their content. Disabling comments on content that seems likely to generate inflammatory responses should be considered.

Flipping the Script

For some brands, the presence of trolls can actually have benefits. When trolls spew hatred about progressive content, it can fuel a backlash against the trolls defending the besmirched brand.

Cheerios, for example, experienced racist and hateful comments about its inclusion of a mixed-race family in a video ad. The resulting press about the commercial (and its detractors) ended up shifting the conversation positively, and the brand was praised for its commitment to diversity. Ultimately, the hubbub boosted exposure to the brand by 77 percent, Adweek reported.

Old Navy tweet trolls

Old Navy experienced a similar reaction when it Tweeted an ad picturing an interracial couple. A few racist trolls caught wind of the content, who replied hashtags including #whitegenocide, Slate reported. That story fueled a “backlash to the backlash” that motivated many users to Tweet pictures of their own interracial families, including John McCain’s son.

The Ghostbusters movie remake received national press when one of its stars, actress Leslie Jones, became the target of hateful and racist comments on Twitter, ultimately forcing her to abandon her account entirely. The silver lining to the vitriol was a social media marketing infusion. Users expressed their love for Jones with the hashtag #LoveForLeslieJ, and suddenly the movie was on everyone’s radar.

“It’s the greatest thing that ever happened. Are you kidding me? We’re in the national debate, thank you,” Sony’s movie chief Tim Rothman said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, when asked about the online bashing. “Can we please get some more haters to say stupid things?”

While brands shouldn’t purposefully bait trolls in this way, these examples should provide some solace to brands worried that wherever they go, the trolls will follow. One surefire way to crush the trolls is through the voices of brand fans and followers. Collectively, their positivity can drown out a few haters.

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