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Despite the fact that social media platforms have been around for a number of years now, with many of us incorporating these communication channels into our everyday lives, there are still people who either don’t understand how to use them or worse still, abuse them.

There is a real difference between the two audiences; one simply can’t get their head around why you would share information online to a potentially global audience, whereas the other takes it upon themselves to misuse the platforms to target, insult and intimidate other users with harmful or hateful comments.

Thankfully, most of us would never dream of sending a comment with the explicit intention of hurting another person’s feelings, but sadly that’s not the case for the minority. As ever with these situations, these people have now been given a name and it has been widely adopted by the social community.

Using social media for all the wrong reasons

Now, in my day, trolls featured in nursery rhymes and books. They typically lived under a bridge or in some other insalubrious environment and they would scare anyone that came near. Unfortunately, young people today now associate ‘trolls’ with individuals that intentionally target others with negative comments online.

Trolling is so prolific that there is even a programme about it. Far from being ashamed about their behaviour, some of these people actually make it a ‘hobby’ to post regular and often unnecessary comments to celebrities and those who have a larger social media following in the hope that they will incite a reaction.

The worst thing that a person can do is respond to a troll, but you can imagine how difficult it must be when your personal account is ‘under attack’ from these people as they spread malicious content online to be reviewed by a worldwide audience. It can’t be easy and it must impact on their lives.

I’ve never ‘got’ trolling and nor do I want to. In order to understand the psychology behind these people’s action would require me either to be a. a psychologist or b. someone who has some affinity or capacity to ‘understand’ the logic behind their actions – I don’t mind admitting, I’m neither.

Tackling the trolls

When I turned the TV on recently there was a programme which immediately caught my attention. Anything to do with social psychology or communication has me gripped, so this was a winner: Celeb Trolls: We’re Coming to Get You. It featured on Channel 4 and the basic idea is to find a celebrity, review their social channels – in this case twitter – and identify those that troll them most frequently.

I consider myself to be pretty thick skinned but some of the comments were aggressive, suggestive, violent and in most instances hateful, all of which was likely to cause at the least psychological distress. What’s interesting however, is these trolls often post as an alias – basically, they hide.

I’ve always said to clients, friends and family, before you post anything on any social media channels ask yourself if you would shout it out loud in a pub or coffee shop – if the answer is no, then question if you should be sharing it at all. It appears that these people could have done with the same advice.

When there’s nowhere left to hide

The producers of the programme made it their mission to find just one of the people that had been trolling the celeb, in this case it was Zahida Allen, who has appeared on a number of reality TV shows. The person that had been trolling her made a series of comments that were unnecessary and offensive – standard practice for a person trying to antagonise and in turn generate a response.

At this point, the search was on, as an investigation team started to piece together the information they could from the troll’s social media accounts. It was no surprise, but all the same a harsh reminder, to see just how easy it is to identify someone and to find out where they lived, worked and what interests they had.

It didn’t take long for the individual to be tracked down and he was sent an email to give him the chance to explain his actions to Zahida in person.   

In all fairness, the individual agreed to meet and was very apologetic. He had no excuse for his behaviour other than he felt that it was common practice and therefore ‘joined in’. Zahida wasn’t the only celeb he had trolled and he freely admitted he never thought it was cause real harm or offence.

Although somewhat ashamed, he didn’t seem as appalled by his own behaviour as he should have been but did mention that his parents had both advised him against featuring on the programme and made it clear he would be finding somewhere else to live if he ever did it again.

Lessons learnt

I really enjoyed this programme and felt that it could and should be used as a real lesson to the younger generation that are using social media channels for all the wrong reasons. It’s so easy to hide behind a screen but sooner or later your behaviour will catch up with you and that’s what people need to realise.

Social media has its benefits and when used correctly can be a very powerful communications tool. Like anything, in the wrong hands it can be dangerous and damaging.

I’d like to see more programmes like this, that provide case studies of the impact that an individual’s actions can have when they abuse the technology that should enhance our experiences and improve our engagement.

For me, I will be passing on details of the programme in the hope that more people learn these lessons and start to implement best practice. Perhaps trolling will take on a different meaning as these people are made to take responsibility for their actions and the comments they make, intended or otherwise.  

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