While social media allows you to connect with current and prospective customers, sadly there are also a a few who use it less positively. For your own sake and that of your business, knowing how to deal with online abuse and trolling is crucial.
What are online abuse and trolling?
Online abuse varies in severity and purpose, and trolling is the abuse or harassment of another person or a business online, usually done to gain attention or to annoy others. More serious forms of online abuse threaten, intimidate, harass or humiliate another person or a business.
Regardless of the culprit’s intent, online abuse can harm the target emotionally and psychologically, and also has the potential to damage a business' brand and its standing with its customers. This is particularly true for businesses that depend on internet sales and advertising.
How SMEs should respond to online abuse and trolling
The nature of the abuse an SME receives will guide how it should respond. Options for SMEs include:
1. Collecting evidence of the abuse. Evidence may include abusive emails, messages or online posts. Saving these emails and collecting screenshots of posts and messages will help ensure claims of abuse are taken seriously.
2. Ignoring the abuse. Many trolls and online abusers will stop if they do not receive the attention that they seek. Responding may only give them what they want and encourage them to continue.
3. Blocking the abuser. Social media and web administrators often provide businesses with the option to block users from being able to contact or interact with the business.
4. Reporting the abuse. Social media and web administrators usually have an option to report abuse received online. The policies of the social media website and web administrators may result in a permanent ban for the abuser.
How can SMEs respond legally to online abuse and trolling?
1. Reporting serious instances of abuse to the police
It is a federal criminal offence to abuse someone online in a manner (having regard to how the abuse was carried out and the content of the abuse) that is menacing, harassing or offensive.
The maximum penalty for this offence is three years’ imprisonment.
A prominent recent example of this offence was the racial abuse of former Australian senator Nova Peris on Facebook. The abuser was charged by police.
The abuser claimed to have been hacked but later pleaded guilty, received an eight-month suspended prison sentence, was ordered to pay $2,500 and was placed on a two-year good behaviour bond.
Various state and territory laws also criminalise online abuse.
2. Seeking advice on whether the abuse is defamatory
If an SME has been defamed, it may in some circumstances be able to take direct action against the culprit and, among other things, recover losses that have resulted from the defamation.
How not to respond to online abuse and trolling
A case study on how not to respond to online abuse is Amy’s Baking Company (Amy’s). Amy’s featured on an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.
After the show aired, the Amy’s Facebook page was trolled and abused based on the conduct of the owners shown on TV. Instead of responding to the abuse in the manner set out above, Amy’s attacked the abusers publicly on Facebook. This only led to further abuse from more trolls and abusers, and brought even more negative attention to the business.
This response proved to be disastrous for Amy’s, and destroyed what little goodwill it had remaining. Despite hiring a public relations firm and relaunching the business, Amy’s ultimately shut down.
Online abuse and trolling are here to stay
The ease of access to the internet globally and the relative anonymity that internet users experience mean that online abuse and trolling are likely here to stay.
How businesses strategically react when trolled or abused online can significantly impact the performance of the business and the mental health of the individuals behind the business.
Selwyn Black (pictured left) is a partner and Nicholas Huang (pictured right) is a solicitor at Carroll & O'Dea Lawyers.