The unsocial web: why you should feed trolls

“Don’t feed the trolls”, the advice that tells people to ignore online insults, is rarely the best policy for maintaining a positive and engaging social media platform.

Shopkeepers and restaurant managers have always known that, faced with an angry customer, the best response isn’t simply to chuck them out, lock the door and ignore them. A small number of extreme cases may call for such a reaction, but most of the time the way to respond to an angry customer starts with patience, listening and not turning your back on them.

In your personal life, ignoring rude people has much to commend it. The same goes for celebrities on the receiving end of random public criticism (although even for them, responding can work). But once you’re directly in need of public support or you’re representing an organisation, then a different rule should kick in for all but the personally vile messages – always try being polite back at least once.

Indeed, there is an irony in the fact that the angrier people are, the lower their expectations will be that their grievance will be addressed. And that makes it easier to win them over because it is easier to exceed their expectations with a polite and constructive dialogue.

Responding politely is all the more useful where the forum is a shared one, be that a discussion forum, a Facebook page or the comments thread on a blog post. In these cases, it is not just about the person you are responding to, it is also about the tone that is being set for other readers.

Broken windows theory

Handling and minimising anti-social behaviour online has some similarities with doing so offline, and these similarities make the ‘broken windows theory’ of criminologists a useful starting point for planning your online approach.

In the offline world, there is good evidence that allowing apparently low-level problems such as graffiti and the broken windows to fester in a community ends up encouraging more and worse criminal behaviour. Tackling the low-level problems, by contrast, helps to prevent more serious problems developing, whereas seeing the fruits of other people’s bad behaviour encourages
more of it.

The other way is to have sensible moderation policies where the discussions are happening on your own digital turf, and to enforce them, politely and consistently. That means documenting them, and a good starting point for creating such policies is the BBC’s own house rules which – although a little lengthy – are helpfully comprehensive in covering the issues to think about.

Finally, remember that those who choose to comment on your own social media platform do so partly as a matter of their own personal choice, but also as a result of the efforts you have put into cultivating your own audience. Build up a positive, engaged audience and a good-quality discussion will follow.

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