For those who face disruptive online trolls, or fear the day when they will, this series of posts is for you! Having managed social media projects on controversial subjects for the last few years, I have faced all kinds of intentionally disruptive online behavior while managing to keep the peace andonline trolls maintain productive exchanges for those who were interested in that kind of thing. In this post, I will be talking about another essential anchor of troll-defense strategy: A thorough and unassailable set of House Rules with which you may moderate your online spaces.

This subject comes up again and again when I counsel clients who face attacks that threaten online reputation and risk going to crisis level. As corporate social media accounts are relatively new, no one has written the book on ideal House Rules yet and each account seems to improvise its own. The ones that are tighter, however, have most often been created by those who have lived through the consequences of maintaining weak rules when under attack.

Vague Rules open the door to abuse and accusations

For the most part, companies and institutions that have activated their social media presence begin by establishing a brief and non-explicit set of House Rules. Typically,  they include some very general guidelines about respectful behavior, the banning of obscenities, refraining from personal attacks and the right to ban users and delete content, if the vaguely described principles cited prior are contravened.

The problem here is that, unless disruptive activity is spelt out clearly in the Rules, trolls will find ways to be disruptive while staying on the edge of obscenity and slander. And, believe me, there are many ways they can do so! The second risk is that, when the Moderator judges them to violate these vague Rules, their judgements to ban users and delete comments will always be contested as arbitrary by malicious users. Nothing heats up a troll like the perceived application of online censorship and this, indeed, can lead to a collective blowout on your accounts if the troll has many allies in your online community.

Spell it out!

To make your Rules stick, it is wise to spell out the many ways that trolls can disrupt your community beyond the use of obscenity, profanity or overt threats. Once disruptive practices are properly defined in your House Rules, you can use them to remove unwanted content and ban users. If you would like some ideas of what disruptive behavior looks like, here is a partial list:

  • Post bombing: Publishing identical content repeatedly to jam up the wall or newsfeed of a social network of forum
  • Link dropping: Posting a link with no introduction or attempt to provide context
  • Off topic posting: Dropping links to completely unrelated material in an attempt to disrupt the exchange
  • Personal profiling: Digging online to find personal information on other users and posting it in an attempt to make them feel exposed and vulnerable

Three strikes you’re out

Overall, it is a safe practice to give people the benefit of the doubt once or twice if they violate your rules, with a warning.  After that, feel free to ban users and justify your decision based on the Rules you display. Note that Facebook has a ‘suspend’ feature which allows you to reinstate users after a ‘cooling off’ period.

Remember to use ‘The Hall of Shame’

In a previous post on troll management, I suggested creating a gallery of deleted content to answer those who challenged the fairness of the Moderator’s decisions. This Hall of Shame also serves to display to the curious just what the Moderator has to put up with. Trolls who recognize their handiwork tend to be a little more shy when such a display is published for all to see.

Tough love works!

Finally, for those who are squeamish about getting tough with their Rules and enforcement, allow me to share my personal experience. Several times, when our networks came under heavy attack from multiple disruptors, we began to worry about every decision to remove comments or remind users to abide by the Rules. However, when we made a concerted effort to stick to our guns and banned those who deserved it, the atmosphere immediately improved and the whole community seemed grateful for our actions. Mind you, we always did this by the letter of our House Rules, which were created with care to be tough but fair and permissive of an open and even heated debate.

Two sets of House Rules you will enjoy:

BCFTP.CA: The House Rules here are in effect on a rather controversial Facebook Page: An industry-supported debate space on oil sands pipeline construction. A lot of care has been taken to foresee all possible disruptive behavior and to spell it out clearly.

Gawker.com: Gawker makes no bones about banning users it finds tiresome or even uninteresting. Their candid explanation of ‘blocking’ is worth a read, if just for a smile!