Are your employee ambassadors equipped to deal with trolls?

Shel Holtz's picture

Employee Ambassadors vs. Internet Trolls

Trolls are not a new problem, but their impact has soared in recent months. Much of the increase in troll activity corresponds to the normalization of the alt-right (aka racist/nationalist) movement that paralleled Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.

Reddit is feeling the heat. The collaborative news site heralded as “the front page of the Internet” and a bastion of “authentic conversations” has been overrun by nationalist trolls, according to high-ranking volunteer moderators interviewed by Gizmodo. Mashable called Reddit “a free speech-smashing, garbage-churning hell pit.”

Twitter has been working to muzzle racist trolls, suspending accounts and launching tools users can use to mute, report, and fight back, a response to the surge in hate-fueled tweets.

The emboldening of alt-right trolls is happening at the same time companies are asking employees to advocate for them in their social media communities. Employee ambassador programs are on the rise for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact (corroborated annually by the Edelman Trust Barometer) that front-line employees are among the most credible spokespeople within a company. A report from the Altimeter Group found that 90% of brands are pursuing some form of employee advocacy—a doubling of the number from only a year earlier.

The normalizing of employee ambassador programs parallels another trend: the growing number of companies staking out positions on social issues. Multiple studies point to the growing number of stakeholders who prefer to do business with companies that go beyond traditional CSR and commit resources to making the world a better place.

These three trends—trolls, employee ambassador programs, and socially-active companies—are on a collision course. In one of his weekly reports on my podcast, For Immediate Release, Internet Society Senior Content Strategist Dan York explained that it had already happened at his employer. The Society supported the handoff of the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) to a global multistakeholder community following the expiration of the contract between the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).

As Dan explained it, NTIA’s role was to confirm ICANN’s technical instructions that root DNS operator Verisign would use to connect a new top-level domain (TLD) to the domain name registry with which ICANN contracted to operate the domain. “NTIA would look at (the instructions) and say, ‘Yep, ICANN followed all its processes; yep, everything’s all set here; yep, good to go. Make it happen, Verisign.’ And Verisign would then do it and (the new TLD) would then be published and all would be good. That’s it. That’s all that was being argued here.”

Forces on the political right, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, believed otherwise, arguing that the U.S. was ceding control of the Internet (which is patently untrue and demonstrates an all-too-familiar lack of understanding among politicians of how technology works). In launching an attempt to prevent the handover, right-wing trolls began attacking anyone who supported or even tried to explain what was happening.

That included Internet Society employees who had unwittingly taken to their own communities to promote their employer’s support for the handoff. “When you take a position,” Dan said, “you, of course, have opposition very often if it’s a strong position. We at the Internet Society came out very strongly in support of (the handoff). When Sen Ted Cruz and others were there whipping up the alt-right and others, we were out there, and I was personally out there, saying, ‘We need to say yes to IANA; we need to make this happen.’”

Supporters of the alt-right were robust in their attacks on supporters of the handoff, according to Dan. “They were calling us liars. They were calling us traitors…I was told I’m a terrorist.”

Because of his long experience online, Dan knew how to handle these kinds of uninformed, partisan attacks. “But some of our other employees also went and retweeted some of our tweets…and were surprised by the incredible dumping they got from those who were trolling them and those who were attacking anybody who was remotely positive (about the handoff) because we were ‘an enemy of the state.’ And they didn’t know how to really respond and, in fairness, we hadn’t fully prepared them.”

(You can hear Dan’s full report on episode 55 of For Immediate Release. It begins at the 1:12:36 mark.)

If the Internet Society’s employees were unprepared for troll attacks, it’s not unreasonable to assume employee ambassador companies with more commercial B2B and B2C companies are equally ill-equipped to address the kind of vile, crude, and often violent blowback they could get for helping their company articulate its point of view.

Even limiting one’s posts on behalf of an employer to product-related material could incite a hateful response if the company has taken a position contrary to a trolls’ perspective. For example, retailer Target has taken a strong position supporting transgender rights. An internal ambassador touting the company’s Black Friday deals might have been trolled just because she was a Target employee.

Given the fact that so many trolls now feel validated by Trump’s victory, the trolling is bound to get worse long before it gets better, despite Trump’s tepid call for an end to such behavior and despite the efforts of social media companies to minimize the trolling. These trolls are far worse than one who is unsatisfied with your company’s products. One victim said he saw images of his daughter’s face photoshopped into a gas chamber “with a smiling Trump in a Nazi uniform preparing to press a button and kill her.”

The guidelines for dealing with these kinds of trolls should be clear and distinct from the way employees might handle unhappy customers or angry ex-employees who troll the company.

How should companies help employee ambassadors prepare?

  • Most importantly, make sure employees know the risk. Odds are most employees retweeting feel-good product tweets or sharing Facebook coupon codes won’t attract trolls, but the surge of trolling means that it’s not impossible. For companies that have taken strong positions on social issues, the odds increase. Employees who post in support of those positions could be painting targets on their backs. They should know what they’re taking on.
  • Employees should also know that they are not required to post on every topic presented to the ambassador group. Members of the group should fee comfortable opting not to share content they think might provoke the trolls.
  • Include approaches to dealing with trolls in your companywide social media policy and in your ambassador training.
  • For those employees who want to support the company’s efforts despite the trolls, resources and training should be available to help them figure out what to do should they become the target of an attack. Among the key lessons: Don’t feed the trolls. Responding to a troll’s message encourages further attacks. Completely ignoring a troll is usually the best way to make it go away. You should also provide advice on how to correct inaccuracies and misinformation without sparking retaliation, on the potential for your community to rise to your defense, and on how to report the attack to the appropriate people in the company.

Has your company addressed trolls with employee ambassadors? Leave a comment and let me know what you’ve done and how it’s working.



Feedback Form