When Online Communities Attack: How to Handle User Backlash

Internet backlash has been around as long as the Internet has. As far back as the late 1980s, Usenet participants were using the term ”troll” to describe those who disrupted discussions with the purpose of shaking things up and ruffling feathers. It took a couple of decades for trolls to claim the title for themselves, whether they were doing it as a prank, or to deliberately try to harm people.

Online attacks range from annoying to very dangerous.
Online attacks range from annoying to very dangerous.

The anonymity afforded by the Internet tends to wipe away inhibitions, and without face-to-face interactions, trolls have an easy time thinking of others online as mere ”targets” rather than actual humans.

The Effects of Online Attacks

A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin had over 1,000 people read a blog post about a type of technology. Half of the participants read civilized comment threads on the post, while the other half read comment threads full of screeds and insults. Not only did the uncivilized comments cause more polarization among readers, they actually changed participants’ interpretations of the original blog post. Online attacks are more than just an annoyance; they can inhibit the flow of information and sometimes make journalists fear for their safety. Following are three examples of online backlash and what we can learn from these cases.

The Campaign to Put Jane Austen on £10 Notes in the UK

UK activist Caroline Criado-Perez successfully petitioned the Bank of England to use an image of early 19th century author Jane Austen on its new £10 notes. After the announcement of the new banknotes was made, Criado-Perez became the victim of vicious internet attacks on Twitter, receiving threats of physical violence and death. Twitter could no longer avoid the issue of abusive posts, perhaps due to the hazy legal status of the company’s liability for the actions of its users. Ultimately, Twitter added a ”report abuse” button to every tweet and changed its user policy to make targeted abuse, harassment, and threats of violence an explicit violation. Criado-Perez pursued the incidents with police, and ultimately two men were arrested in connection with the case.

CNET’s TV Program ”Rumor Has It”

Karyne Levy, assistant managing editor at CNET is a tech writer and host of CNET TV’s program ”Rumor Has It.” While Levy believes in the positive potential of online discussions, she has been regularly attacked by people who don’t like the idea of women in the tech industry, and those who criticize her androgynous appearance. Levy’s program is carried on YouTube, which has a reputation for especially harsh comments, and eventually the show’s team elected to turn off comments on the YouTube channel because they were taking away from the value of the content. Ultimately, however, Levy and her co-workers hope that Google’s new enhanced moderation tools for YouTube commenting will discourage trolling and allow comments to be turned back on again.

Anonymity emboldens people who would otherwise shy away from confrontation.
Anonymity emboldens people who would otherwise shy away from confrontation.

Popular Science Shuts Off Commenting

Large, general interest sites are not immune to online attacks. In September of this year, PopularScience.com chose to shut off comments for their online articles. ”It wasn’t a decision we made lightly. As the news arm of a 141-year-old science and technology magazine, we are as committed to fostering lively, intellectual debate as we are to spreading the word of science far and wide. The problem is when trolls and spambots overwhelm the former, diminishing our ability to do the latter,” writes Popular Science‘s online content director Suzanne LaBarre. Citing the University of Wisconsin study mentioned above, LaBarre voiced worries that online backlash could ultimately shape public policy and funding of research. However, she reassured readers that they are still welcome to communicate through other online methods, and that selected articles will be opened to comments on a case-by-case basis.

What You Can Do

The conventional wisdom of ”don’t feed the trolls” is unsatisfactory to many online journalists, because attacks through comments or social media can poison an otherwise constructive discussion. Some journalists, like David Aaronovitch of The Times of London say the best way to address the problem is to address the ”anonymity that emboldens trolls.” Comment moderation, required registration, and lack of anonymity, he believes, will curb the more abusive online attacks. Other suggestions for minimizing the impact of online attacks include:

  • Avoiding trying to reason with trolls
  • Not changing your normal respectful communication style
  • Considering moving the discussion in a different direction to regain the upper hand
  • Taking action early to prevent attackers from organizing against you
  • Thanking the regular audience for their support during an attack

Having a plan ready and putting it into action after an attack shows your organization handles pressure well, and can ultimately be good for your brand. And remember, if none of the above steps works, you still have the option of blocking the worst offenders.

RealMatch offers recruitment advertising solutions for digital publishers and online media companies, and has a powerful revenue sharing program that can help your online news site develop a healthy revenue stream with a targeted job board.

Photo Credits: Michel Marcol / freedigitalphotos.net, chanpipat / freedigitalphotos.net

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