Trolls can be beneficial if you know how to use them

By Joe Coffey | The Fifth Estate

If you want your company’s online platforms to be engaging, you need good content and user interaction. Let people comment and ask questions. Respond to them. Let people rate and review your products and services. Let them know you read them. Make it more of a conversation and less of a news-anchor-to-silent-audience situation.

Also – you need the occasional troll. Deal with them, don’t just delete them. How you handle them can galvanize a positive relationship with your wider audience of users.

For a lesson on this, let’s turn to local media.

Commenting 1.0

Remember the prevalence of trolls in the internet’s adolescent days? In the early 2000s, trolls trounced all over the comment sections of chatrooms, forums and local news websites. It was as if no one had taught them how to behave in public. Instead of respectful dialogue, they just blasted negativity all over the place. They would instantly kill an otherwise engaging conversation because no one wanted to tangle with them.

Local news managers were flummoxed. What to do? The comments sections of local news stories could attract quite a bit of user interaction. TV news viewers and print news readers could weigh in on local topics as much as they wanted to, they just had to go online. For a brief moment it seemed as if this internet thing could help media organizations bring communities together.

The trolls ruined the party, though. News organizations didn’t want to censor or ban anyone but they didn’t want their good-natured users to be run off by these nasty commentators, either. They certainly didn’t want to dedicate too much employee power to refereeing comment sections.

Ultimately, most local media organizations eliminated them. Today you cannot directly comment on local Corridor news stories unless they’re on the CBJ or Press-Citizen websites.

Commenting 2.0

We don’t really go to chatrooms, forums or local news websites anymore. Sure, we go to local online media to check the weather, scores and maybe scan headlines for breaking news, but it’s not like the old days. Back in the day, we’d go to a local media website with the intention to swim around in content, maybe check out the story comments a bit and basically use those websites to experience our own communities.

These days we have social media for that. Local media organizations are part of the experience, sure, but they’re in a different role now, vying for our attention in a newsfeed full of clutter. Giving away the gist of a story, even without a click-through to the news site, just to get a like or a comment, is basically a victory for a news organization’s social media page these days.

The trolls are back, too – trouncing all over news organizations’ social media content.

At least the media is better prepared now. Instead of eliminating dialogue all together, each organization has at least one lucky employee that monitors social media comments. They confront commenters spouting hate, referee spats and often defend the accuracy or merit of the content being presented.

A recent exchange on KCRG’s Facebook page is very telling. A follower left some snide comments and a “Why is this news?” barb in a post about the new James Bond film being delayed for seven months due to concerns about the coronavirus. Some other followers tussled with the troll before KCRG eventually posted a comment thanking the troll for her feedback. The comment defended the newsworthiness of the story and wished the troll a good night.

What have we learned?

The first lesson is that it was a mistake for local news websites to eliminate comment functionality some years back. What seemed like a no-win vortex of troll management was, after all, an opportunity for engagement on every news story that appeared on a news organization’s own website. Turning off the commenting just delayed the inevitable. The same problem – err, opportunity – now happens on other platforms used in a desperate attempt to get people back to the news organization’s own website.

The second lesson is that doing the troll tango involves an intention to preserve the health of the troll. Think of it as something akin to aikido – the Japanese martial art that aims to preserve the health of the person attacking you. Times have changed. People are not as smart as they think they are. We simply cannot embarrass and/or eliminate each person who spouts slightly ignorant comments or even pure nonsense. Not at first, anyway.

With a deft touch and a dedication to preserve engagement, online conversations about a brand’s content can indeed thrive.

Joe Coffey has 20 years of experience as a journalist, educator and marketer in the Corridor.