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Starving the trolls? How brands can tackle trolling – new UK-NZ research

02 March 2022

Social media platforms should hide the viewing metrics on malicious content posted by trolls as part of a more proactive approach to curbing their behaviour, according to new University of Sussex and University of Canterbury research.


Online trolls revel in the number of upvotes, likes, and shares their misbehaviour attracts which validates their actions, according to the new research from former UC doctoral researcher Dr Maja Golf-Papez, now at the University of Sussex Business School, United Kingdom, and University of Canterbury Business School Professor Ekant Veer.

The researchers also recommend demonetising trolling content by marking trolling content as ‘advertising unfriendly’ as another method of limiting the notoriety that trolls crave from their actions.

The study, published recently in the Journal of Interactive Marketing, suggests social media platforms can curb anti-social online behaviour by tackling trolls’ behaviour head-on.

Suggestions include platforms introducing troll badges that flag anti-social online users to potential targets and for brands on social media to not only increase the number of regulators they employ but also clearly indicate that a particular channel is actively monitored and that sanctions for trolling are applied swiftly. 

But the research indicates that, as trolling behaviour is difficult to manage, exclusively focusing on shutting down trolls is likely just a temporary solution. Instead, the researchers argue that managing the socio-technical networks that allow and feed trolling misbehaviours, and managing the audience and their reactions to trolling, which trolls seek out and feed off, is a more effective option of limiting its impact.

Dr Golf-Papez, now a Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Sussex Business School, says: “To break the networks within which trolling exists and thrives, online community managers and platforms should develop and employ actions that do not unintentionally support trolling by celebrating it, boosting it, facilitating it or normalising it.

“While eliminating trolling entirely might not be possible, our research is the first of its kind to suggest that some brands and online communities might strive to encourage trolling in anticipation of positive side effects such as increased traffic to their communities. The study is also unique in highlighting how mischief-making consumer behaviour such as trolling may be exacerbated by the efforts to manage them,” she says.

“Managers of online brand communities should not ignore trolling and similar misbehaviours completely, as this inaction violates the expectations of rule-abiding consumers and could impact brands adversely. However, the way some brands engage with trolls only encourages more trolls to target them. To develop effective managing strategies in how a company responds to trolling we need to understand what drives this misbehaviour.”

The study reveals how some trolls attract significant audiences to their behaviour. One study participant, who targeted other players in livestreamed multiplayer online games, gained up to 1.5million views for his trolling videos.

The research also uncovered how some trolls were making money from their actions with fans donating money after they shared their trolling content on membership platforms such as Patreon. Income also came from adverts YouTube placed within a troll’s video and from collaborations with businesses actually asking to be trolled.

UC Marketing Professor Ekant Veer says: “By revealing that misbehaviours such as trolling may be exacerbated by marketers’ efforts to manage these misbehaviours, our study adds empirical support to the idea that managing strategies for consumer misbehaviours could be counterproductive. The more we do to control trolling, the worse the problem gets.

“Our conceptual model has practical value, providing guidance to marketers on how trolling and similar mischief-making consumer misbehaviours can be stymied, or, if so wished, bolstered by managing the network of associating actors rather than trying to deter individual trolls within these networks.”

The researchers differentiate trolls from cyberbullies, who intend to inflict harm or discomfort intentionally and repeatedly to a predefined target, and consumer brand saboteurs, hostile aggressors who choose activities that will supposedly cause harm to a predefined brand. They defined trolls’ intentions as less straightforward, undirected, and fun-seeking but disruptive nonetheless to consumers, employees and brands.

The study employed actor-network theory to investigate five different cases of trolling; playful trolling; good old-fashioned trolling; shock trolling; online pranking and raiding; and fake customer-service trolling.

The research, involving 330 hours of observation of trolling and interviews with perpetrators of trolling behaviour, specifically looked at trolling in consumption-related settings. Such trolling includes impolitely replying to disappointed customers under fake customer service accounts; posting irrelevant product reviews, giving false and endangering information about products/services to other consumers and prank-calling businesses.

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