How police departments can neutralize internet trolls

When internet trolls harass your department, don’t take the bait

October is National Cyber Security Awareness Month. Throughout the month, PoliceOne will provide serial coverage of cyber issues that impact law enforcement.

The topic of trolls has been a hot issue recently, both on the web and in print magazines. In fact, I was interviewed for a recent edition of Time magazine on the topic. The author of the article, Joel Stein, did an incredible job of telling the story of how trolls are creating a horrible environment and experience for some people on social media.

Trolls are highly active and continue to be a problem for the majority of people using social media. In his piece, Stein succinctly details how the term "trolls" has evolved from cyber criminals who trolled the internet to find victims into individuals who engage in extreme forms of cyber harassment, bullying and intimidation.

In my experience, and in speaking with some colleagues who specialize in law enforcement social media, it appears that trolls are having an increasingly hard time being effective against police. That's partly due to an influx of people who have made it widely known they support law enforcement and agencies that are using social media for community policing, public relations and crime fighting purposes.

Trolls are highly active and continue to be a problem for the majority of people using social media.
Trolls are highly active and continue to be a problem for the majority of people using social media.

When online trolls first started hitting law enforcement hard, there was little done to combat their comments and activities. Most agencies were just getting started on social media, so the playing field was wide open for trolls. This was compounded by most departments using the traditional “no comment” response to everything, and as a result, trolls were negatively impacting the law enforcement profession.

As a proponent of law enforcement’s use of social media, I still encounter departments that are hesitant to use social media because of the potential for people bad mouthing the department in public.

However, there is no better advocate for your department than your department. On social media, you can tell your department’s story on your terms and put your professionalism on display for all to see in how you handle trolls. While there are some departments hesitant to use social media, many are embracing it and winning the war on trolls.

Power in numbers
With the increase in law enforcement agencies using social media and posting positive stories, photos and videos, the trolls can’t compete or rally support behind their cause. I know it sounds contradictory, but trolls have been overrun by the abundance of law enforcement agencies on social media and the plethora of positive law enforcement stories, photos and videos.

The force multiplied when the individual officers charged with managing their department’s social media accounts, as well as friends, families and businesses supporting law enforcement, started creating an echo chamber for LE’s online voice.

Just as we see in many parts of our profession, there is power in numbers.

Embrace the trolls
When you have trolls coming onto your agency's platforms, it is your opportunity to make your agency look stellar. This is your moment in the spotlight to look beautiful in the response you give the trolls.

Make sure that you respond to the troll in a professional, empathetic and caring tone. Thank them for taking the time to stay connected to your presence on social media.

Let the troll know you’ve read their comment and that you would be happy to address any concerns or comments through a private message. Tell the troll you value what they have to say and you look forward to their message.

By taking the high road, you look like a consummate professional, and you leave the ball in their court. If your fans haven’t already stepped up to the plate to tell the troll to get lost, you may or may not get a response from the troll.

I rarely see a response, and it will pretty much be a cold day in hell before one of them sends me a private message. I suspect trolls fear that further communication will result in big brother knowing their identity.

Trolls seek attention. If you take them offline, like directing them to a private message area, you just took their steam away.

If they try to make a typical nasty troll comment to your very warm and personable comment, their effect weakens, and they know it. They know they won’t be able to get you engaged in poor behavior, and they become bored.

All law enforcement social media platforms should have a terms of service or terms of use. In the event an individual platform does not have an area for uploading or specifying a terms of service, you should have one on your department’s website to redirect people to view. Your terms of service should clearly outline what qualifies for a comment deletion or outright ban from your page.

Keep in mind you may be able to hide a troll’s comment depending on what your terms of service specify, and you’re not violating someone’s right to free speech.

Be prepared for the set-up
One popular method I’ve seen the haters and trolls use is to make a comment or ask a question that they know will lead to debate, with the intention of making the police look bad. For example, you might get a question like, "Can you explain why I see police cars traveling over the speed limit in the carpool lanes every day at 5 pm?"

When this happens to you, remember these simple rules:

•    Be transparent and honest. 
•    Address the issue on the same platform. If it is posted on Facebook, reply to it on Facebook.
•    Limit your interaction to two replies. On your second response, include a way for them to discuss the issue further offline, such as in person, on the phone, email or private message.

In the grand scheme of things, when you look at your social media platform's performance and standing among the community, the troll comments you’ll receive are so minuscule they won't have an impact on your agency’s overall positive image.

Who are the trolls?
Trolls can be anyone. From your neighbor to school kids to the unemployed, anyone could be a troll. We’ve seen cop haters, Second Amendment radicals and individuals who obtained their law degree via the internet all troll on law enforcement sites.

People who only want to spew the anger or frustration that’s built up inside of them over one issue or another can now voice that concern under the veil of anonymity on social media.

As my mother always used to say, “Kill ‘em with kindness.” 

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