Feed the trolls, say social media vets at SXSW

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Honest conversation beats out timid silence or defensive posturing any day.

Sometimes a troll just wants a little attention.

Conventional wisdom says to ignore bad behavior, and it’s natural for brands to want to ignore angry or mischievous social media followers for fear of triggering a full-blown public blowout. 

But organizations that truly want to deal with online trolls should consider confronting them head on, according to a group of social media reps that have successfully handled some of the most vitriolic online feedback.

San Francisco mass transit customers complain constantly about the service, and the Bay Area Rapid Transit Twitter account responds to each one, no matter how snarky, mean or lewd.

"Why are we so afraid to give real answers?" said Alicia Trost, communications manager and chief spokesperson for BART, speaking at the "Trolls: To Feed Or Not To Feed" panel at the SXSW Conference on Saturday. "If I’m going to give information to the media in a sound bite or interview, why can’t I tell it to a BART customer or the public?" she said. "Have a direct and honest conversation with them."

A year ago, BART began implementing a new social media policy. Before, they had used the traditional "don’t feed the trolls philosophy. The 2016 update redefined social media as a tool for conversation. It encouraged employees to engage with complaints, as long as they were able to back up their statements and defused the situation. 

The refreshingly frank results raked in earned media, but it also earned accolades from riders, even those who had previously been complaining. 

Social media managers confronted with trolls have four options, said Sunni Thompson, executive director of content and social at J. Walter Thompson: "Respond, ignore, hide or ban." Social media accounts are operated seven days a week, so they typically employ multiple people in shifts. That makes it important to agree ahead of time what kind of message gets what kind of response.

It’s better to respond "if the brand can provide value or resolution," said Caitlin McDaniel, associate director of social media at GSD&M. But consistency is crucial. "Don’t cherry pick which complaints get responses," she said. Followers will see through that and just respond with more force.

Sometimes, however, there are trolls who can’t be reasoned with or de-escalated, no matter how many facts or how much empathy they’re met with. "There will be people who must be blocked," said Jeffrey Marty, a trial lawyer and the creator of the @RepStevenSmith parody account. Purporting to be the mouthpiece of a Republican representative from Georgia, the account uses over-the-top, right-wing commentary to lampoon politicians and the political process on both sides of the aisle.

Marty often deals with people who are angry at being fooled by his account. While other fans often defend him, one troll began making rape threats toward female followers. Rather than confront him in a public forum, Marty used his legal training to find the man’s personal information, then sent it to him privately. 

"I doxxed him, but only to him," Marty said, using the term for outing someone’s personal identity online. "At that point, he knew that I knew, and he stopped."