Zoe Amar: How to deal with online trolls

Charity leaders must have a plan for how to approach trolling in an increasingly polarised social media landscape

Zoe Amar
Zoe Amar

In an increasingly polarised social media landscape, charities and their chief executives can be subjected to vicious trolling. They need to be equipped to deal with it. 

I’m a huge advocate for social media and believe charity leaders need to have a presence on these platforms to champion their charity’s causes, campaign and fundraise.

Yet we must acknowledge that social media has changed, with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s recent Online Harms white paper showing there is an urgent need to keep online users safe. The threat of regulation hangs over social media companies.

At the Acevo conference last year I spoke to a group of charity leaders who had been trolled, antagonised by other social media users who deliberately targeted them with inflammatory, irrelevant or offensive comments or other disruptive or abusive content.

Since then, I’ve listened to more stories like theirs and have experienced racist trolling myself. While researching this piece I heard from one charity chief executive who had become suicidal after their charity experienced a vicious episode of trolling.

The charity leaders body Acevo and Social CEOs, an awards scheme that I co-founded to celebrate charity leaders who demonstrate excellent use of social media, are working together on a survey to find out about the trolling female charity chief executives have experienced and what support they need. You can take the survey here.

We've decided to focus on female leaders at this stage because our initial research suggests this group has experienced particularly distressing trolling. 

But I know that trolling affects all leaders regardless of gender.

I asked four chief executives how to tackle it. They said: 

- Have a plan: trolling can feel like being caught in the eye of a storm. The best way to deal with this is to take a deep breath before responding – if you respond at all. David Barker, chief executive of Youth Talk and founder of Thrive Consulting, advises against giving trolls attention.

Based on his experience of being trolled by someone who he suspects was a disgruntled member of staff, Barker counsels: "If it is getting significant traction and affecting the work of your organisation, consider drafting a simple, brief statement that you direct people to with the actual facts of the matter."

- Delegate: charity leaders should get help from their teams. Sarah Hughes, chief executive of the Centre for Mental Health, says: "I have a great team who will alert me to anything negative but will also handle it and do not expect me to get too involved. This is so important."

She adds: "Of course, boards must also understand this and pay attention to risk, and it needs to be thought about as part of digital strategy." Review your charity’s crisis comms plan and include how to handle the potential reputational damage that can come with trolling.

- Look after your team: getting support from your team is essential, but take care when potentially exposing staff to disturbing content. Andy Knott, chief executive of the League Against Cruel Sports, led his charity through a period when staff dealt with a huge amount of trolling through social media, email and the phone. Knott himself had a death threat that was so serious the police advised he vary his route to work and have security cameras fitted in his house. He took a deliberate stand against the trolls, which led to a decrease in trolling. Staff retention improved as a result.

- Be prepared to walk away: ideally, if someone can be reasoned with, you could try talking to them offline. I’ve met charity leaders who have had success with this. In the current climate, though, social media can be a polarising, occasionally toxic place and it might not always be right for your charity to engage. Frustratingly, you might have to accept that there are debates you won’t win. Protecting your mental health is important. 

Harvey Gallagher, chief executive of not-for-profit Nationwide Association of Fostering Providers, reflects that leaders should look after themselves and their colleagues by "believing in what you do, the evidence base for it, the impact it makes.

"Keep communicating this calmly and sensitively," he says. "Be open to challenge. It's okay to have to explain and persuade, but when someone consistently oversteps the mark into trolling, it's okay to back away."

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to trolling. Charity leaders will need to manage it differently depending on their organisational goals, the issues involved and how resilient they are feeling. I hope our survey starts the conversation about how we tackle trolling as a sector.

Take the Acevo and Social CEOs trolling survey for female CEOs here. Please submit your responses by midnight on Tuesday 17 September. Zoe Amar is the founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar

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