The Fear Series: trolling and negative comments

I'm bursting into 2016 with a new lease on my KHub life! I am going to be blogging all week about some insights and lessons I've learned over the years. Today’s post is the first in a series of five I’m publishing this week in what I'm calling The Fear Series (cue scary maniacal laugh.) I’ll highlight some of the most common fears I have come across working with public service providers to improve their use of web and social media for around 10 years. These fears and anxieties are often used as barriers to better online presences and engagement and they come up so frequently I want to pick them apart and offer up some suggestions to help you face your web and social media fears in 2016. Let’s DO this!

‘What if someone says something bad about us?’ I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked this and I usually answer along the lines of, ‘What better place to address negativity than in an open forum?’ The pressure from inside organisations and the expectations from outside to be more available online increases the likelihood of people hurling negative comments your way but it also increases the likelihood of positive comments coming your way. The Internet amplifies voices and perhaps the voices you are not hearing in physical spaces. If you are not feeling confident about how you will respond to negativity (or not respond as the case may be), here are some thoughts and ideas to help you along.

Look around. What are other people and organisations doing to respond to people who seem upset or on the attack? If the public sector is to be more accessible and visible online it needs to risk assess and plan for sharp comments or persistent abuse, not avoid online engagement. Which leads nicely to…

 There's nowt so queer as folk. There seems to be some confusion between what might be considered trolling- persistent threatening attacks- and what might just be an individual expressing their opinion. I think it’s a little dangerous to confuse one for the other as it could either prevent engagement on your end or be seen as silencing citizen voices through extreme moderation.

 Be human. Public services are traditionally very defensive or opaque in their responses to criticism in public spaces and defensiveness isn’t fitting to online engagement. Online you need to be clear, concise and helpful, not just to the person you’re addressing but to the multitudes who will be watching your exchange. Own your space, your message and have conversation with a human voice.

 People might already be talking sauce about you. Avoiding the Internet won’t make people’s opinions or conversations go away. I strongly advocate for social listening so things like misinformation can be headed off at the pass, so that attitudes and sentiments can be somewhat determined and so that ideas or concerns from citizens and communities can be addressed.

What you can do now. If you are so worried about being abused online that it is creating a barrier to you becoming more accessible and active, here are a few things to think about and do:

Risk assess and plan through practical workshops or interactive sessions. It’s likely you have emails, notes of exchanges from face to face events, news articles or online comments that are critical of your business or maybe you have a good hunch on what people might dislike about your work. Spend some time with colleagues to creatively and openly draft up responses that would be suitable for web and social media. How do you respond helpfully, clearly and concisely? Then start thinking a bit deeper. Do you have web pages or content online you can link people to for further information? Which email addresses will be used if things need to be taken to a one to one level? How will you take critical comments back into your business or policy development work? And importantly, try to determine at what point someone is actually trolling and bullying you, what you will do about that and what comments or conversations you just won’t engage with.

Set house rules. If you’re using your own website or social media to communicate and invite conversation, make sure you’ve got a light moderation policy in place and published. But don’t go overboard. It’s a bit extreme to have a link from your Twitter bio to a scrolling web page of rules that has been co-written with your lawyers (yes this exists). Start from a place of trust; don’t assume people will be abusive before they demonstrate they are. Have a look at partner websites and social media profiles to see what other people do and find something to emulate.

Find the line between negative commentary and trolling. If you don't feel confident you know the difference between the two or your anxieties are exacerbated by the media ('cybernat' anyone?) do some desktop research, learn from workshopping as above and maybe have a listen to the story of Lindy West who has been trolled online for years. Do you think it is realistic you might suffer the same kind of abuse as Lindy? 

Research online. Spend time looking at Patient Opinion Scotland to find health boards that are doing a great job responding to people who are feeling upset or who have used a service they think could be improved. Check out Isle of Scilly Police on Facebook as a starter for ten in how empathy and humour are being used proactively by public servants for incredible levels of online engagement. Also have a look at this case study by Professor Craig White (Clinical Lead, Quality and Planning, Scottish Government) on how empathetic responding not only strengthens relationships between service user and provider but also fosters job satisfaction for staff.

JFDI. At some point you have to just jump in and do it. Try to anticipate what might happen, map responses as best as you can and listen to people regardless of you not liking what they are saying. Face your fears. It is unlikely you will get the negativity you think you will so don’t let it become a barrier to you having good, transparent online engagement that will ultimately boost trust in what you do.

Need help with all this? Get in touch to talk about how we might be able to work together.

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Jason Fahy 5 Years Ago
Thanks for sharing Leah and I look forward to reading your blogs across the week. Welcome back!