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Battling trolls online

Advice for dealing with online attacks to your business reputation and how to minimize the long-term damage

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

March 2018

Before they were nasty lurkers in online forums, trolls were cute little dolls with upcombed fluorescent hair. 

Before that, they were the stuff of terrifying Scandinavian fairytales, hiding under bridges and bullying billy goats.

In their digital iteration, trolls are back to their barbarous nature … concealed by cute monikers and hell-bent on causing grief. Especially for business owners.

Drew Mueske learned this the hard way over the Christmas holiday. His company, Oshkosh screen printer Offbeat Press, found itself the target of what started as a single comment and snowballed into scrolls of snark and untruths.

The troll posted a close-up on Facebook of a giant rip in a shirt he claimed was an example of Offbeat Press’s poor quality. Mueske knew it wasn’t. He told the troll he didn’t find his name in Offbeat’s records and asked for more information. He also expressed dismay that someone who hadn’t actually patronized him would try to ruin a small business.

It only made the troll roar louder.

By then, a Saturday, the final hours were counting down to Christmas Eve – and while Mueske didn’t check Facebook every minute, he checked frequently enough for a holiday weekend. The troll bashed him for not responding immediately. “He said, ‘See? Four hours later and no response – terrible customer service,’” Mueske reported of the troll’s post.

It spiraled from there. “He (the troll) tagged 92 others, most of whom appeared to be friends from high school,” Mueske said. Many of them proceeded to give Offbeat poor (one-star) reviews, with some spouting insults like ‘thief,’ ‘dirtbag’ and ‘scam artist.’ One claimed to have placed a $2,000 order that Offbeat failed to deliver.

“That didn’t happen in any facet,” Mueske said.

Within half a day, Facebook analytics of the troll’s posts reached some 6,500 viewers.

Naturally it alarmed Mueske. He’d worked nine years to achieve an excellent rating.

“In 12 hours, we went from 4.9 stars to 3.1 – mediocrity, essentially,” he said. “As a small business, your (Facebook) rating is pretty important, and you see how vulnerable it is when something like that can happen so suddenly and with somebody we don’t even consider to be a client.”

Can I sue?

It’s natural to feel upset and angry when your business is being treated unfairly and to panic when you can’t stop the verbal vandalism.

Even if you block the instigator, there’s no guessing how many of his troll mafia are hiding around the corner, waiting to gang up on you.

Words like defamation, libel and slander spring to mind, and those victimized no doubt want to call police or an attorney: Can’t something be done? Can I sue the troll? Can I get a legal injunction or have my lawyer write a cease-and-desist letter?

Not so fast, says one lawyer.

“You don’t always get the quickest, fastest or even best resolution by going to the courts,” said attorney Nathan Olson of Olson Legal Group in Oshkosh.

Even if it’s against the law, legal routes take time and aren’t guaranteed to yield results.

“If it’s someone’s opinion, that’s protected. Or if it’s the truth – say maybe I did have a bad experience with you and your business; I didn’t get the intended product, and it is your fault – then I do have every right to go online and give that review.”

If the comments are threatening, not based in fact, clearly malicious, and you can prove your business suffered damaged, legal routes may stand a better chance.

But taking action isn’t simple, Olson noted. You have to find out who the troll is, get papers served, and figure out what the damages are. Often damages are unclear, hard to prove or haven’t manifested themselves, yet. If a customer canceled a $25,000 order because of lies the troll wrote about your brand, then the monetary damages are more straightforward, according to Olson.

“We can say, yes, I would’ve got that contract were it not for these horrible statements. We can say to the court it’s defamatory and sue for damages,” Olson said.

But while they’re comparatively easy to start, lawsuits and judgments aren’t as likely to satisfy the damage done to the business.

“You can sue practically anyone you want for practically anything you want,” he said. “And a judgment is really just a piece of paper. It doesn’t force anyone to pay you.”

Many times, trolls don’t have any assets anyway, so that adds to the frustration.

Take a deep breath.

So what’s a beleaguered business to do? Olson encourages the client to ask: “How did it happen? How can we prevent it from happening again? Who is the person who attacked our business – a customer or just a nasty person who had a bad day  and is looking to harm somebody?”

Many times it’ll blow over, he said.

Be aware of how you’re reacting. Could you be overreacting?

“It’s important not to engage them, because it’s an unwinnable kind of argument,” Olson said. “That’s what they want, that’s what they feed on.”

Sometimes a client insists the attorney write a cease-and-desist letter. “If you do that, the letter needs to be done the right way,” Olson said. “If not, the troll will just upload the letter to Facebook, and that keeps it all going.”

Most business owners don’t want to sit back and do nothing, although arguably choosing to not react takes more strength than lashing out. If you choose to respond, think of who may end up reading what you write: Your employees. Your mom. Your present and future customers. Your future self. Will they respect you in the morning? Your audience isn’t solely the troll and his little troll friends, but everyone. So, behave.

“It’s really a PR thing at this point,” Olson said.

Instead of pounding out an obscene-laden retort or getting colorfully defensive, take some deep breaths and view it from an altitude.

“Address it not by engaging the person but responding more generally — more for everyone else out there,” Olson said. “They’re thinking, ‘How is this business owner going to respond? Are they going to get as nasty and sink to the level of the troll? Or are they going to use some tact and in a way that everyone else knows this guy’s just a troll?”

Is it a troll, or not?

There’s a difference between somebody who is a troll and somebody who has a bad brand experience, and it’s important to differentiate between the two, said Derek Blaszak, director of digital marketing for De Pere-based agency Element.

“Somebody who’s had a bad brand experience will still resonate a little bit of truth and include some factual things, and they’ll be in your customer database,” Blaszak said.

A troll is just out to purposely start a fight or create controversy at the expense of others, he said. “I don’t know if it’s a form of entertainment for a group of people, but there doesn’t seem to be a foundation of truth to a troll’s statements, or it’s heavily based on opinion rather than fact.”

Anywhere people can comment, review or post about your business is where you’re vulnerable to trolls and where you should be monitoring. That includes all of your online channels, including local listings, Google reviews and even Google map, Blaszak said.

He suggests businesses have an online comment policy in place before any fur starts flying.

“State it across all your social channels or link to your website,” Blaszak said. “Lay the groundwork for the rules of engagement, such as whether you’ll comment or respond, what’s not accepted – swear words, untruthful statements – and the protocol for violations.”

Will you delete, block, hide the comment, ignore – or none of the above?

The New York Times website’s online commenting policy includes this paragraph:

“A few things we won’t tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence and SHOUTING.”

The Harvard Crimson’s policy at reads:

“A comment may be removed, without notice to the commenter, 

if any of its content meets one or more of the following criteria: 

Comments that are excessively long, irrelevant, or off-topic. Examples include, but are not limited to, spam, advertisements, and gibberish.

Excessive or unnecessary profanity, obscenity, or words that are racist, sexist, homophobic, or hateful in some other way.

Threats or encouragement of violence and/or other illegal behavior.

Disclosure of personal and private information about any individual ….

The comment is written under the name or username of an individual other than the author of the comment.

It goes on to state that repeat violators may be banned from making further comments and concludes:

The application of this policy, including decisions to delete comments, close commenting, or ban commenters, is at the discretion of the moderator.

The Harvard Crimson,

Thank you very little, Facebook

Mueske used every tool he could think of. He tried politeness. He tried reasoning with some of the troll’s groupies via direct messaging.

“Most of them came back with aggressive and rude responses,” he said. “They all were convinced their friend was ripped off and taken advantage of, so it didn’t matter if they made up lies.”

He contacted Facebook – to no avail. “Facebook has a pretty robust bullying policy for personal  pages, but for business, there really seems to be no oversight and no protection as such,” Mueske said. “There are things we can do as a business, though, such as eliminate your business’s ability to do reviews and ratings, and there are some people who’ve done that after getting some poor reviews.”

But after working nine years for top ratings, did it make sense to off them?

“Of course not,” Mueske said. “We hear all the time, people say they came to us because of our good ratings on Facebook.”

Eventually he wrote a personal post about the trolling experience and shared it with his clients and contacts. The response overwhelmed him. “Pretty much every business I tagged and many others we’ve worked with gave us great reviews, so we ended up with like 220 five-star reviews in response to what happened,” Mueske said. “So our rating is back up to where it was before, and every single one-star review is from somebody we’ve never worked with.”

But he noted the one-star reviews remain on the Facebook page.

Many business owners have complained to Facebook about troll sabotage and poor reviews by non-customers. They say it’s difficult or impossible to get rid of them, and reporting trolls to Facebook seldom remedies quickly, if at all. In its help pages, Facebook indicates troll comments on business pages can be hidden from users but not deleted. It doesn’t recommend hiding troll comments from everyone lest it spur the troll to trash your business on another forum where you have even less control.

Blaszak said removing comments can fuel the fire, and he usually doesn’t recommend it. “Certainly if it’s defamatory, hurtful, grotesque, or inappropriate from a sexual standpoint, then of course those would be the appropriate actions,” he said. “Trolls just want attention and are trying to stir the pot.”

Friends to the rescue

Defusing troll comments or taking them offline may work, Blaszak said. Those with the resources and enough online activity to make it worthwhile might get a customer-service line dedicated to social or online resources.

“You can say something like ‘I’m sorry, we don’t see you in our database; please call XYZ,’” he said. “You’re letting the community know this guy isn’t for real and not to take this post into consideration when you’re forming an opinion of us.”

One tip offered is to hide troll comments from everyone but the troll. That way, he doesn’t realize you’ve disappeared him.

Olson says red tape takes too long. That’s where friends pay off.

“A lot of times what we have to do is (reach out to) other people … and when other people see that this is happening to you, they don’t want that to happen to them, so they’ll start flooding your site with good reviews, overcompensating those bad reviews,” he said.

That’s not to say trolls can’t harm your business. “But there’s a silver lining to it, where you can sit back and see all the good customers, clients or friends that you have step in and say some really nice things and give more relevant and good reviews.”

Lee Marie Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.