Debra Allcock Tyler: If you can't turn the troll, you can go after the follower

Should we ignore online trolls? Recent experience tells our columnist that we should fight back, politely but firmly

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

Our wonderful policy officer, Ciaran Price, recently left us for the Migrants Resource Centre. His passion is migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, so even though we were gutted to lose him we couldn’t blame him for grabbing the opportunity when it came up. On his last day he wrote a wonderful farewell email to all of our team at the Directory of Social Change, which inspired and moved us so much that I thought it would be worth sharing through my various social media platforms.

Folk loved it, but as with anything on line there is always at least one person: a chap left a comment on LinkedIn saying "Ciaran Price is a foul-mouthed, opportunistic moron".

Ciaran, being the cool chap he is, would have just laughed. But when I read it I felt a deep visceral response, the red mist – real anger that someone could be so nasty about someone I care about. I could feel myself being dragged inexorably into exactly the sort of thoughtless vile response that had set me off in the first place. My fingers were poised to type angrily: "What special kind of stupid is it to be so foul about someone you don’t know, especially on LinkedIn. Not exactly going to help you get a job, love, is it!?’" I’m proud to say my better angels won and I did respond, but with warmth and, I hope, good manners.

Of course, the usual advice is to ignore trolls. Folk who are nasty on line are pretty much never going to change their minds because you wrote something in defence of whoever they were attacking. But I now wonder if that’s the best response? For instance, I highly doubt that there are many people in the world who could write, say or tweet anything that would cause Donald Trump to change his mind or his behaviour. However, saying nothing allows lies, fake news, unevidenced accusations and false narratives to gain traction when there is no one to offer the counter-narrative. And folk then start to believe the crap because no one is saying anything different loudly enough.

In our own sector this is also prevalent. For example, the blatant "alternative facts" about Olive Cooke diminish the truth about a woman whose story was probably more about the tragic lack of funding and support for mental health and ageing. Did enough of us challenge the narrative? Only this week a less than subtle attack on JustGiving went largely unremarked by those of us who can speak out. And the result of all this silent quiescence? Real people suffer: breakdowns, stress, regulation that doesn’t help, backstabbing and bickering within our own sector breaking down important relationships when we should be spending our time, resources and energy fighting for our beneficiaries.

So when people are out of line online, is the best tactic to starve them of oxygen by ignoring them? No. I no longer think it is. We should be brave, honest and outspoken, perhaps humorous but above all polite (unless we can achieve the legendary comeback quips of JK Rowling and James Blunt, in which case that’s way better!). We must fight back. Let’s stand up for each other. Publicly. If we can’t turn the troll, we can go after the follower.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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