Charity Digital convened a roundtable on the issue of trolling or online harassment endemic within the realm of charity social media on the 10th of February. The purpose of this event was to provide a safe space for digital charity leaders to get together and share their experiences with trolling, and the lessons that sprung from combatting it.
The event comes in the wake of a joint report by Social CEOs and Acevo that revealed the mental health challenges faced by charity bosses targeted by online trolls. While this report focused primarily on this experiences of female charity CEOS, this event was designed to widen the scope of discussion to share experiences across the whole spectrum of the charity sector.
Attendees discussed the definition of trolling (and whether or not this was an appropriate term to use), how they have been affected by it, and next steps for charities of all sizes to support their people and combat online hate.
What is trolling?
The day’s discussions began with attendees working together to define the issue of trolling. Trolling can take many forms, which can make it hard to define. One delegate raised the issue that, as charity professionals, we are used to doing controversial work around highly-emotive issues. Therefore, we may be so used to responding to legitimate criticism and dealing with well-meaning people in an emotional state that it can sometimes be hard to distinguish trolling from fair criticism. This can lead charity professionals to second-guess themselves, and not report or appropriately deal with incidents of trolling.
The roundtable settled on the idea that what sets trolling apart is an intention to cause harm - as well as a desire to engage in hostile behaviour and bullying rather than a meaningful and productive discussion. This often takes the form of the agitator making a statement rather than asking a question, whilst offering little, if any, chance to offer a response.
“At the Center for Countering Digital Hate, we’ve found that people troll for one of two reasons: there are organised networks of hate actors seeking to silence points of view or groups of people they disagree with; while others simply enjoy seeing other people hurt.”
- Imran Ahmed, CEO - Center for Countering Digital Hate
There was also debate around the term ‘trolling’ itself, and whether or not this term delegitimises the severity of the harassment being suffered. Delegates voiced fears that avoidance of terms like ‘harassment’ and ‘abuse’ fed into a lack of acknowledgement of how harmful trolling can be: feeding into a hand-waving attitude of ‘it’s not real, it’s only social media’.
How does trolling affect charities and their people?
The roundtable found that trolling can have insidious effects on both charities and their employees. Being trolled by your own supporters and those whose values seemingly align with yours can be hugely anxiety-inducing and can shake confidence in your work and your mission. This can in turn harm morale and productivity.
Many charity professionals already do difficult and sometimes upsetting work in challenging situations. Experiencing trolling only creates more obstacles. Even if the harasser is not a supporter of your charity, seeing them mixing with the community of your supporters can be a source of worry and anxiety.
Experiencing trolling can be very detrimental to a person’s mental health, and concerns were raised over whether charities were offering adequate and up to date resources to help staff deal with this, as well as a belief that charities could offer a more 360-degree programme of support by pooling their resources.
This is part of a wider issue: a lot of charities surveyed felt that they were the only ones affected. The roundtable advocated for greater solidarity between charities affected by this issue.
There was a consensus that there isn’t a centralised toolkit for charities, and that if there was, then it didn’t have enough visibility. The work of Glitch UK was offered as an example of resources available, and charities were encouraged to look into offering their people a toolkit of support.
The discussion also explored the intersectionality of the issues at play, and which groups were disproportionately-targeted. Women are statistically far more likely than men to targeted by trolls, with this disparity becoming even more drastic when it comes to women of colour. Some of the next steps discussed focused on how charity professionals can show up more visibly for women in the sector who are affected by trolling and may be less likely to receive support from colleagues than men, as well as promoting the importance of digital self-care and citizenship and online bystander intervention.
The possibility of established frameworks and social media policies was also broached, as well as specialised coaching and training for charity leaders on how they can support their people in the face of online harassment.
The discussion around next steps also offered practical advice for dealing with trolls when they first confront you. One charity gave clear-cut reasons for blocking any users, pursuant to their contravening a pre-established code of conduct, and provided screenshots of any offending tweets or messages to support their case. They found that when trolls tried to use this evidence like a badge of honour among their online communities they received less support than others who were banned without explanation.
“Our guide for victims of trolling, Don’t Feed The Trolls, which draws on the best available research and evidence, advocates that victims don’t directly engage with trolls. Instead, they should block or mute abusive accounts and, as the public face of their organisations, CEOs in particular should put in place protections for their own self-care and to ensure that abuse doesn’t divert them from their important work and mission.“
- Imran Ahmed, CEO - Center for Countering Digital Hate
Dealing with trolls can be particularly difficult for the smaller charities that make up the majority of the sector. If a charity is a one-person band, then how do you set appropriate boundaries? If your personal brand is this close to the charity brand it can be hard to extricate them. For these reasons, small charities may especially benefit from a charity social media code of conduct.
The day’s discussion was productive and enlightening. The most important thing for charity professionals experiencing trolling and harassment to remember is that they are not alone. Many of us within the sector have had experience with this issue. It doesn’t make it OK. But it does mean that there are ways in which we can work through it together.
Charity Digital intends to continue to raise the profile of trolling as an issue in the charity sector and provide practical guidance. We’d love to hear your experience of trolling and what worked for you in addressing it. We understand that this is a sensitive issue and have set up a form (on the link below) so that you can contribute anonymously if you would be more comfortable with that.