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Trolls and the Toll on the Social Media Bridge of Communications

Posted By Brandi Bates Whitehurst, Santa Rosa County (Florida) Public Information Office, Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Social media is fast, cheap, easy, engaging, measurable, effective and highly interactive. When it goes well, public information officers followers can significantly help with dissemination of a message by sharing posts with their friends and in groups, but this benefit is not without some risk.Social media may serve well as a bridge of communications between agencies and the public they serve, but predators can lurk under that bridge in the form of trolls. 


Trolls are identified as those who exhibit antisocial behavior using aggression and deception in an online forum to cause conflict and disruption.  I was intrigued by the reasons some find pleasure in trolling after personally being targeted on social media. Following the submission of my paper “Trolls and Their Toll on the Social Media Bridge of Communications,” several of the social media accounts I managed garnered strong negative feedback after a controversial local issue was placed on the ballot. I found the research I conducted months before to be very helpful in balancing the citizens’ First Amendment rights to public comment with my responsibility to keep our social media platforms a safe place. This work attempts to give a better understanding of the troll, as well as share tactics utilized by public information officers (PIOs) to mitigate against them.   


Trolls are not just anyone who disagrees with you on social media. Trolls are users who enjoy confusing a message and take pleasure in provoking individuals and/or agencies online. Could anyone have the potential to be a troll? And, if so, what brings out the troll in a person? The “online disinhibition effect” popularized by psychologist John Suler details how social media can expose different sides of people. On the positive side, the effect can give the introverted the courage to share thoughtful feedback in a public forum. Conversely, it can encourage outrageous opinions one would never say in person. Most social media managers have witnessed how quickly a seemingly innocuous post can go down in flames under the attack of a troll. The research literature I reviewed indicated trolls think they are funny, often feel they are smarter than others, and sometimes troll simply because they are bored.  


Why does this matter? Why not let haters hate? Well, simply because you need to protect your public. What you permit, you promote. Your own social media platforms can become breeding grounds for trolls if not mitigated. The prevalence of negative posts sets the stage for more negative posts, and sites that develop a reputation of being routinely trolled are more inclined to stay that way. A hostile environment will turn off a large percentage of your public and, thus, you will lose all the great benefits of fast, cheap, interactive message delivery that social media offers. 


How do you best mitigate against trolls? 

  1. As Aristotle said, "the antidote for fifty enemies is one friend.” Having loyal fan base  that can come to the support of your agency when negative comments are posted is a great way to shut down trolls and put your social media platform back on a more positive trackMany posts that attract negative comments will self-moderate and supportive followers will speak out against those who post disruptive, off-topic or offensive comments.

  2.  Get a third-party social media archiving service. While most PIOs have a social media policy stating what they permit and do not permit in their posts, remarkably, more than half of the PIOs surveyed did not have a professional social media archiving service which is just as (if not more) important. Several responded as using screenshots for archiving, however, screenshots will miss comments to posts that are deleted by the poster. In Florida, which has one of the country’s most stringent public records laws, anything posted to the site is subject to public records request including comments by others. As public sector agencies are obligated to maintain transparency, with exception of posts that are there isno luxury of deleting posts or comments despite how inappropriate they may be. Considering followers canedit or delete their comments within seconds of submitting them, an automatic archiving system offers a valuable service in retaining those records even if they are deleted before the moderator is alerted they were posted.

  3.  Make a social media monitoring planwith your team to prevent burnout. In my survey of 150 public information officers, I asked how many team member managedthe respondent’s social media accounts, but more importantly would have been a question as to how many hours each PIO worked on his or her accounts outside traditional work hours. In my experience, monitoring social media is a task completed first thing upon wakening and the last thing before sleep, every single day, with many quick checks throughout the day. Helping leadership appreciate the time and energy required for monitoring and moderating a platform that never sleeps is an important step in improving working conditions for the social media manager. As a manager of support staff, I have seen the toll constant checking of social media – especially during a contentious time – can take your team. Setting a monitoring schedule with ample downtime is critical for your well-being.


Social media is constantly evolving. Developing a definitive set of legal guidelines for the management of negative posts would not be easily done, but would offer better protection for those who make the determinations on how to mitigate the damage of trolls, while still being mindful of the citizens’ First Amendment rights. Additionally, a better understanding of social media in general would be helpful for elected officials, policy makers, and leadership. Despite the risks of troll attacks, social media is still an invaluable tool for disseminating public information. The social media manager of a public agency must endeavor to stay abreast of the latest tools and best practices for using this communications bridge, all while maintaining a watchful eye for the trolls who lurk beneath. 



Brandi Bates is an experienced local government public information officer with a demonstrated history of working in crisis communications as well as non-profit and the private sector. Skilled in social media, web content management, community and media relations, marketing, public involvement, design and photography/videography, Brandi oversees Santa Rosa County’s public information office, promoting the plans, programs and policies of the board of county commissioners.  


During large scale disasters, Brandi deploys with the Northwest Florida All-Hazards Incident Management Team as their public information officer. She served in Pasco, Clay and Collier counties during the impact and aftermath of Hurricane Irma, and Washington and Bay counties in 2018 following Hurricane Michael. She is also a FEMA Incident Command System (ICS) instructor, training responders and support personnel in public information and basic ICS courses.  


Brandi graduated from FEMA's Master Public Information Officer Program in September and was recently recognized as the Florida Public Relations Association Pensacola Area Chapter’s Communicator of the Year for 2019. 

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