Trolls: a scientific look at a public relations problem

Trolls: a scientific look at a public relations problem


Dan Howe, an old friend and former colleague has agreed to sign-up as a regular guest contributor to Two-Way Street. Here's his first post on the science of trolls. Trolls can wreck havoc for brands but a new study presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science has examined just how damaging they can be.

Trolls post deliberately derogatory messages online to provoke emotions and generate strong reactions. They almost always operate anonymously.

The study focused on such discussions that took an uncivil route, “with offensive comments or replies impeding the democratic ideal of healthy, heated discussion."

Dominique Brossard, a science communication researcher, reported the results showing that the tone of blog comments alone can influence the perception of risks by lurkers, or people who read online discussions without participating in them.

“Blogs have been a part of the new media landscape for quite some time now, but our study is the first to look at the potential effects blog comments have on public perceptions of science,” she explained.

The study found that an emotionally charged comment will trigger your brain to act far before a logical explanation of how something works will. This has an effect on science journalism, as negative comments, regardless of their merit, can sway readers.

It’s no stretch to imagine the same result occurring from comments left on a brand’s online ephemera or media coverage.

Some trolls are obviously actively trying to harm a business and can be easily blocked, but other comments brands face might have previously been seen as distractions to the online community with no real consequence.

But this might no be the case, and those distracting quips could be harmful. The findings might also refute the myth that a little debate is a good thing in comments, as the study found that overt disagreement in posts can influence the conversation.

This all bolsters the case for thorough community management as well as monitoring for the tone of reaction on external sites and a plan to deal with negative comments swiftly.

The study reinforces that community management isn’t just a role best left to your team’s people-person to get on with, but requires a strategy and senior staff involvement. While a troll’s comment might seem inconsequential, the knock on affect can influence your brands reputation.

Image: © Creative Commons 2.0 2013 Tama Leaver.

danDan Howe is a digital marketing manager in London, UK. He works at a charity and has an interest in exploring the application of online communication to campaigning, lobbying and influence.


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