When is a troll not a troll and who decides?

When is a troll not a troll and who decides?

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:


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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?

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  1. Hi Victoria, thanks for taking the time to write this post and provide a space to have this conversation, an incredibly necessary one. As ‘Campaign Manager’ of JusticeforLB (that title is a little tongue in cheek given we are a social media collective and my role comes with no salary, expert advice, trade union, holidays or support from an exec board) I feel a very personal interest in this blog post. Having read Sara’s tweets this morning I alternated between feeling outright rage and at best labelled, at worst bullied!

    I don’t think we need to discuss the detailed intricacies of JusticeforLB here, as you say there are other places for that conversation, but I think it’s very disingenuous of an NHS Foundation Trust to label engagement as trolling; anyone who cares to visit the JusticeforLB twitter stream of the last two months can see the repeated and explicit attempts to share learning with Southern Health, their actions (blocking our campaign account and many of our supporters), the ‘alleged’ hacking that never resulted in any tweets being sent, and their refusal to engage with Sara through social media, the method through which she has so eloquently, honestly and authentically communicated.

    We started the #107days campaign with the explicit intention of harnessing the energy, positive and negative, that had been generated on social media around the time that the report into LB’s preventable death was published http://107daysofaction.wordpress.com/. We are not even half way through the campaign (Day 52 today) and yet the learning, reflection, pain, optimism and energy shared by a wide range of supporters is quite remarkable. If such an outpouring of solidarity and action to improve things for people with learning disabilities can be interpreted as trolling and intimidation then you have to ask whether those victims are existing in a different reality to the rest of us.

    ‘Discussions conducted through twitter can be relatively sterile, unproductive and lacking in context’, maybe that is the case, but the evidence of the JusticeforLB campaign demonstrates the exact opposite. So, to return to the issue of trolling, if people offer an alternative reality, or disagree with you, and you naively think that they need to be ‘controlled’, the most crude measure is to block their accounts and complain to twitter (fingers in ears stuff) and if that doesn’t stop them then you can always resort to caricaturing them as trolls. I think it demonstrates your own ignorance though and I’d hope that most people would follow @digitalastair advice, in fact to be honest if you work in social media comms and you don’t know that I’d question your fit for your role! I really hope in-between the mud slinging, in a quiet moment, people sit back and reflect on whether people are trolling, or whether they are just offering an alternative perspective. Sorry this is such a long comment, but felt useful to provide (hope you agree) – if not just mark me down as a troll, I’ll not be offended.

    • Thank you very much for your comment George. All the comments on the blog and on Twitter support the view that the label ‘trolling’ appears to be used regularly when people/organisations do not agree with the views being expressed. There are of course people behind corporate accounts and I know from experience that it can be difficult and even upsetting to receive negative or challenging interactions but it is always important to see beyond the behaviour and to seek to understand what motivates and to try and respond to that. I know we haven’t always got it right in the past but that is the right compass to orientate from.

  2. This is a great post Victoria. The use of “troll” has almost become a proxy for “anyone who disagrees with what I’m saying”.

    I think the central point here is your line “communications in a social age need to be less about protection and control and more about conversation”.

    This is where organisations struggle on social media. Mark Brown (@markoneinfour) recently made the point that having a conversation – as we might at work or in a pub – can mean exchanging views and even disagreeing with each other.

    But many of our organisations are just not set up for this kind of conversation and don’t know how to react when there is public disagreement. That can often lead to defensiveness. If organisations default position was conversation rather than campaign and broadcast things might be very different.

  3. I think it’s a sneaky trick by the Trust really. Smearing our campaign and trying to discredit me. If there’s no evidence I was responsible for the alleged actions, then why even mention me? It’s similar to their line that I was a single mother unhinged with grief and unable to ‘move on’. Nasty, petty little actions that speak to their general rubbishness. Hope Monitor read it with the contempt it deserves really. Good/important set of recommendations for how to engage openly Victoria.

    • Thank you for the feedback Sara and really appreciate @digitalastair sharing his tips which are born from experience of managing social media channels for an NHS Trust over the last few years.

  4. I fail to see how genuine anger and incredulity can be labelled trolling. Like most new-ish words,the meaning shifts – I thought it meant annoying for the fun of it. Using it to signify ” comments we don’t like and can’t defend” is a bit rich.Large organisations have the power and the resources – and they don’t use them to right wrongs, but to bury them.

    • Thank you for your comment and particularly flagging up the issue of relative power between institutions and individuals – this is an important factor.

  5. Staff at Swindon Library publicly branded my tweets “trolling behaviour”, and blocked me, after I politely queried whether their promotional messages encouraging a recent balloon release (which litters, and can harm wildlife; and which the RSPCA, RSPB and others ask people not to do) was in compliance with their organisation’s own environmental polices. Having since obtained copies of those polices, it was not.

    • Thank you for sharing your example – really interesting to see another situation in which an individual has been blocked by an organisation. At my Trust we’ve taken a decision never to block someone unless it is clearly a spam account.

  6. Victoria, does your Trust have a stated position on anti-oppressive practice? its Twitter policy suggests that even if it does not, it is operating in accordance with at least some of the principles of anti-oppressive practice.

    The behaviour of some other organisations leads one to suspect that not only have they failed to incorporate anti-oppressive principles into their practice, but that if anti-oppressive practice has ever come up on their radar, they’ve gone, “Sod that for a game of soldiers, we’ll do the diametrically opposed thing.”

    It’s not just Dr. Ryan. Look at the Neary family’s battle with their local authority and neighbourhood ATU (http://www.mentalhealthlaw.co.uk/Re_Steven_Neary;_LB_Hillingdon_v_Steven_Neary_(2011)_EWHC_1377_(COP)). Go into any gathering of parents of children with Statements or EHCPs, and you hear woeful tales of the foot-dragging, obfuscation and downright, ahem, inaccuracies to which they have been treated. Listen to tales from patients who, having been admitted for specific acute conditions, have had their chronic co-morbidities ignored or mismanaged so that they come out of hospital with their general health in a significantly worse state than it was when they went in.

    In the case of Connor Sparrowhawk and his family, Southern Health (if they don’t like the – nevertheless highly appropriate – Sloven) have been acting very much as though they had read the manual and then decided to go the other way.

    The only admissible response from SH would have been along the lines of,

    “We have messed up, big-time. We are not quite sure how we did it, but we acknowledge that we must have got things wrong at every level for such an appalling end-point to have been reached. We realise that no apology can be sufficient, but nevertheless we are sorry. We will find out what happened, we will take action to prevent it happening again, and we will make our findings and our actions public.
    This is how we will go about finding out….. This is what we will do in the meantime to keep the other people in the same unit and similar units safe…. We will keep you informed as we go along of what we are doing, by….. If you would prefer us to communicate differently, please tell us and we will do as you ask. Is there anything you think we should be doing differently, or anything else we haven’t mentioned that you think we should be doing right now?”

    How different do you think SH’s area of the Twittersphere would have looked, had they responded and acted along those lines?

    It’s worth considering that if STATT, SH, the commissioners and Oxfordshire Social Services had been practising anti-oppressively, Connor might never have died:

    “From the point of view of service users, practitioners are often in positions of considerable power, particularly where decisions are being made about the delivery of services and around intervention in people’s lives. To practise empowerment, workers will need to focus on working with service users to engage them in the problem-solving process.

    Empowerment is linked with anti-oppressive practice, in that the worker can work with service users to enable them to overcome barriers to solving problems – whether located in the attitudes and practices of professionals and social institutions (for example, health and education authorities) or in the beliefs of the service user. The worker’s knowledge of service provision and the law can be critical in empowering service users.

    Anti-oppressive practice is ‘about a process of change which leads (service users) from feeling powerless to powerful’ (Dalrymple and Burke, 1995).”

    Instead, Connor was warehoused, disempowered, manipulated and ignored, and his family (who, as Connor’s carers. were also service users entitled to support) have marginalised, discounted, excluded and lied to.

    So who’s the troll? I spy ogres….



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