Talking to your boss about trolls

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As labour communicators, we’re not strangers to online harassment and abuse. Those of us who engage with social media several hours per day have a good sense of the invisible forces that marshal hate in whichever direction they choose – and that sometimes even the gentlest post puts us at risk of days of intense trolling. The gendered and racialized impact of how this trolling happens means that some of us are more likely than others to bear the brunt of the quantum of online hate.

Understanding these risks is key to surviving the social media swamp. Many labour communicators run personal accounts, their union’s social media accounts and leadership accounts for the officers of the organization they work for.

Do these officers understand what we see on a daily basis? Are they troll-literate? Or, is it time for you to have The Talk with your president about the Internet outrage machine?

Communications staff need to be sure that their superiors understand the risks that accompany being online, and how oftentimes, it’s impossible to mitigate those risks. That, if suddenly there is a swarm of accounts sending vile, racist, sexist, ableist, violent or otherwise offensive materials your way, it’s critical to understand how much of the swarm is real (i.e. real life humans who either live in your region, or who are members of your union) or fake (i.e. possibly fake humans, located globally who have nothing to do with your IRL goings on) before you develop your action plan.

Knowing this difference is important, and understanding the characteristics of each in advance of a crisis or troll-induced shitstorm is even more critical.

When I worked for the Canadian Federation of Students-Ontario, I managed my first troll-induced shitstorm. I was the director of communications and government relations. I coordinated all social media accounts, including of course, my own personal ones. I never shied away from being provocative on Twitter, and that has earned me a fair amount of heat, but it was nothing compared to what happened when a swarm targeted one of our officers.

At the time, students at the University of Toronto were speaking out against so-called men’s rights associations. One of those activists also held a low-profile position on the CFS-O executive.

In her position, she had done a few interviews with local television stations. These videos were among our dozens of videos at our YouTube account. With very little notice, and literally overnight, a swarm had identified these videos and flooded our channel with vile and violent comments. It was clear that the comments were being made in reaction to the situation unfolding at U of T, and had nothing at all to do with the content of these videos. As an organization, we had the responsibility to do what we could to protect and defend her, while also limit the damage that the swarm could inflict.

Knowing that these commentators were mostly not real and motivated by violent misogyny, helped us to figure out our best course of action: closing the comment section, deleting every comment there, calling her to have a conversation about what was happening and how we could support her, and identifying and pre-emptively shutting down other videos or articles where she was featured. We removed her name from searchable fields. All of these measures were intended to be temporary, as we knew that the swarm would be over soon enough and move on. We didn’t want the officer to lose the archive of her work, just because she was at the centre of troll crosshairs for a moment.

Witnessing something like this is very shocking. To see hundreds and hundreds of comments left at a location where normally, you’re lucky to have as many as three can be overwhelming. For a union’s elected leadership, especially if they aren’t online as often, it can cause tension, influence how and where you comment on line and, at worse, it could convince them that the union should take a more conservative approach to avoid these kinds of events.

The reality is that it’s impossible to avoid being swarmed by faceless, likely even bodyless, entities. If your union or your union’s officers express progressive ideals online, you must be ready for this type of swarm.

When you’re caught up in a swarm, it means that somewhere on the Internet, on some chatboard or space that you’re unlikely going to be able to locate, your message, post, video or the name of one of your officers has been posted. A hive of trolls awaits their next target, and there you are.

Sometimes, it’s less organized, and individuals are connected through Facebook such that it doesn’t take much sleuthing to find the link. That’s what happened to Andrea Harden-Donahue, a campaigner who found herself the target of dozens of Facebook messages on en event page that her organization made. She wrote about the experience for the National Observer and details how it came to be that dozens of strangers flooded an event page that she had created, calling her names, ridiculing her and making violent comments.

The swarm that attacked Andrea was a moderate swarm: dozens of messages seemingly out of nowhere, of individuals who used personal profiles linked to real-life people. You could see whether or not Darrel had kids or Josh loved the Habs. Swarms like this are usually possible to identify: your response can be tailored based on the kinds of individuals who have swarmed.

When your union receives a flood of angry reactions from members, or members of your community, your reaction needs to be different. That should be guided by a general social media policy that informs how concerns are addressed, how to request that oppressive material not be posted and how your social media accounts should interact with your members.

Being social media literate means knowing how to spot a swarm, and how to understand how a barrage of annoying or inappropriate comments from people within your community should be dealt with differently than an internationally-coordinated swarm. Anyone who makes decisions about social media policy or practice must understand the difference, especially if their likeness or their personal account is co-managed by other people.

You should be prepared to turn off all commenting boards where the swarm may be attacking. You should screencap the material that the swarm has attacked and evaluate whether or not it should be removed. You might also want to screencap the replies, within reason. While a social media policy will determine what is and isn’t acceptable or appropriate from a union account, determining to remove a post, even if it’s just temporary, may have nothing to do with what the post is about. Sometimes, just pulling the post down will remove what the swarm has chosen to attack.

But, sometimes, removing a post makes things worse. On some platforms, removing the post means deleting it forever. Determining whether or not removing a post would make things worse is a collective conversation that you should have in your department. Most times, closing comments (or muting comments if it’s on Twitter) is enough. CALM members can always call CALM staff if you’re looking for someone to bounce strategy ideas off of.

Ensuring that your union’s officers, or active members, understand what is happening during a twitter swarm will reduce the stress that everyone will likely be feeling. It will make your response more clear (often, there is no one to respond to) and you can issue a response that is appropriate and that doesn’t bow to the pressure that these swarms place on your organization.