When we think of cyberbullying, we usually think about the middle school kid being hounded by other middle school kids at their YouTube account. Then one day you check your website and find a message like, “You morons don’t know anything about vaccination. How much does Big Pharma pay you to push this !@#$ onto the gullible idiots who read this?”
You’ve met a cyberbully.
In general, we at Haden Interactive don’t believe in removing negative comments. Handling an angry former employee or a disappointed customer well online makes your organization look good. Allowing a free interchange of ideas at your blog or Facebook page can be useful to the community. The comments of trolls, however, have a negative effect on other visitors to your web page, and they should be removed.
So what’s the best way to handle bullying comments?
Understand the motivation.
Someone who wants a meaningful dialogue on vaccination may leave an impassioned comment. Someone who is really angry with your billing department may be rude. But they will focus on the issue they’re concerned about. Personal abuse — and especially an ongoing pattern of personal abuse of the site owner and other commenters — is something else. People who behave this way, often called trolls in the online community, are bullies.
People who focus on abuse rather than on an issue are interested in the reactions they get, not in the issue itself. I’m not a psychologist and I don’t plan to try to describe the state of mind that’s behind this. But we do know that it’s about getting attention and stirring up negative feelings, not about the issues.
Don’t take it personally.
The first time you encounter this kind of behavior, you may be shocked or hurt. Forget it. Someone who is angry at you may leave you a negative review out of anger, just as they may shout at your receptionist or have a temper tantrum in your office. Abusive commenting isn’t about you. Trolls seek a wider audience. They don’t gain satisfaction from shouting at one person.
The flip side is, don’t ignore this behavior just because it doesn’t bother you personally. Some of the abusive language we’ve seen at clients’ sites is downright comical. But we don’t want our clients or our website visitors to have to see it. Just like the comments offering cheap Ugg boots, bullying comments make your website a less healthy environment.
Get rid of it.
If you’re not sure whether you’re dealing with a bully or just an uncivilized commenter, you can reach out. We often start with an email saying something like, “We appreciate your thoughtful comment. However, we do not publish profanity. May we edit your comment to remove the obscenities?” or, “We cannot accept comments that insult other commenters. May we remove that part of your comment?”. Someone who sincerely wants to join the conversation will agree. Those who don’t will understand why their comment is being removed.
If you have a troll visiting your website, you can block or hide that individual’s comments. When it’s a more widespread issue or you’re thinking about prevention, it can be more effective to block specific words. If you use WordPress, you probably know about Akismet, a plugin which uses an algorithm to block spam comments. There are plugins like Stop Comment Spam and Spam Protection by Cleantalk that go a step further. These plugins block obscenities and can also be set up to block racial epithets, insulting terms, and any other issues you’ve seen at your website.
Some plugins of this type will automatically blacklist individuals who trigger the removal of a comment or an email. We’re thankful for these plugins — just a year or two ago our best option was to require manual approval of comments. This is still an option if your volume of comments is small. Manual approval of comments allows you to distinguish between valuable but salty comments and cyberbullying. It can also help you catch situations that call for customer care.
Schoolyard bullies can be very hard to stop, but cyberbullies aren’t lying in wait for you on the playground. You can use simple technology to clean your website of their presence.