A few things have caught my attention in recent weeks about the labelling of unwanted behaviours on Twitter as trolling by people who don’t like those behaviours. But when does challenge or disagreement become trolling? and who decides?
So first of all let’s define the verb to troll which is described in the Urban Dictionary as:
The art of deliberately, cleverly, and secretly pissing people off, usually via the internet, using dialogue. Trolling does not mean just making rude remarks: shouting swear words at someone doesn’t count as trolling; it’s just flaming, and isn’t funny. Spam isn’t trolling either; it pisses people off, but it’s lame. The most essential part of trolling is convincing your victim that either a) truly believe in what you are saying, no matter how outrageous, or b) give your victim malicious instructions, under the guise of help.Trolling requires deceiving; any trolling that doesn’t involve deceiving someone isn’t trolling at all; it’s just stupid. As such, your victim must not know that you are trolling; if he does, you are an unsuccessful troll.
The online Cambridge Dictionary has a somewhat more measured definition: ‘to leave an insulting message on the internet in order to annoy someone’ and the online Oxford Dictionary definition is not dissimilar: ‘make a deliberately offensive or provocative online posting with the aim of upsetting someone or eliciting an angry response from them’.
So now we get in to trickiness – my tweet that I believe to be fair and justified might be perceived to be antagonistic and offensive by the recipient. The definitions above suggest that intent to annoy is what characterises trolling behaviour, so maybe that should be our compass.
A few bizarre trolling accusations
When Anna-Marie Crampton was recently suspended from UKIP because of her anti-Semitic comments on a blog, she claimed she had been trolled. I’m not at all clear what she meant by this but presumably trolling in this case equates to being found out and held to account… Even more bizarrely, train operator, East Anglia got lampooned extensively on Twitter, and in the press, for accusing a follower of trolling them. Their social media usage policy (still live on their website) defines trolling as: ‘routinely contacting other users who are not your own followers via our feed’- I’m not even going to start trying to unpick that one, but suffice to say not many people would agree with that definition and it certain does not accord with the ones above.
When is a troll not a troll in the NHS?
So what about when things go wrong in the NHS? What if the absolute worst thing happens and someone you love dies as a result of poor care? What if you take to social media channels to vent your anger and what if others join you?
It’s impossible for me even to imagine what it feels like to lose a child. But what I do know is that I’d go all out to get justice and the more publically the better – one of the affordances of social media is to hold institutions to account in a public arena rather than through the back-channels of written complaints and reports.
When the worst thing imaginable happened to Sara, mother of Connor, she took to Twitter and began campaigning for justice. She has been joined by many other people supporting her #JusticeforLB cause. Now it appears that behaviours related to this campaign have been labelled as trolling by the NHS Trust concerned:
Now I am not going to reflect on the intricacies of the case – you can easily do that yourself on the web. But I have been thinking a lot about how campaigning and other practices in social media spaces challenge institutions and how are institutions responding – this is at the core of my PhD research and I’ve blogged about this topic many times before – here’s one such example.
The thing that makes this particular event so raw is that it relates to the death of a child – my very worst parental nightmare, and Sara’s devastation shouts loud and clear in her blogs and in her tweets. She wants justice and she wants to hold the NHS Trust to account. And I’d argue that any of us would want the same thing, and if we were articulate and conversant with social media, we might also use those channels to galvanise support and raise awareness of our situation.
#JusticeforLB campaigners are trying to provoke a reaction and often do this through provocative tweets. As such their behaviours could be labelled as trolling. But I’m not sure it is helpful or savvy for an institution to label their behaviours in this way. I’d like to suggest that these campaigners are not provoking out of malicious intent or to annoy but are rather provoking to get a response and because they are unhappy with the response they have had so far.
Institutions need to think very carefully about labelling behaviours and making judgements about motivations of people who they have let down. Responding in a way which is fair and avoids blame takes skill and courage and compassion. I wonder if a more pragmatic approach is to try and harness the energy of your detractors, rather than attempt to repel or ignore whilst hoping they will go away. Being ignored just tends to make us shout louder, particularly if we find support and encouragement through our (social) networks. My sense is that communications in a social age need to be less about protection and control and more about conversation – and that takes a brave Board and a brave communications team. What would your advice be to a Board of Directors or a communications team in this instance?
Footnote: I’m slightly nervous as I press the ‘publish’ button as I am aware of the irony that I could get labelled a troll for sharing my thoughts. So just for the record, this post is about reflecting on the complexities of working in the NHS in a social time not about annoying anyone for the sake of it…
And finally… some brilliant insights from @Digitalastair about how communications might want to respond to similar circumstances from an NHS Trust point of view:
- Do put regular updates on your website to point people to.
- If you have one, get a director who’s on social media to answer sensible posts in a human way. Not every post, just a few will be shared enough to send a message. Occasionally saying “I can’t respond to everything, so am picking out the ideas and questions that will best help us improve after this tragic incident” would be fine.
- Don’t block people.
Don’t tell other people how to use social media.
Don’t go on the offensive.
- Don’t be defensive.
- Do be confident about openly recognising the limitations that social media has to discuss something of this nature.
- Do put a named individual on the account each day. Do make that person someone who is very comfortable with social media.
- Do regularly assure people that although you can’t respond to everyone, you acknowledge the strength of feeling in the online community and their tweets are being seen at the highest level. And make sure they are.
- Do monitor your analytics so you can inform your board just how large the conversation is.
- Don’t ignore it! Don’t abandon your usual stuff, but equally don’t make the crisis the focus of the account.
- Do regularly offer people an email address to send thoughts to.
- Don’t make this about social media, it’s not.
- Do remember that these people are better at social media than you as an NHS Trust are, so don’t ever try and control the conversation (my favourite point. VB)
- Don’t take it personally if you’re the comms person receiving all these tweets. It’s not about you. Equally, never forget precisely *why* people are so angry and upset.
What do you think?