The best way to take on cyberbullies? Be reasonable

The way you handle social media can make a big difference. (Rolf Vennenbrend / EPA)
The way you handle social media can make a big difference. (Rolf Vennenbrend / EPA)

It’s no secret that social media has changed the way we interact with others. For the most part it’s been a good thing, enabling us to keep in contact with far-flung friends and happenings.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their like are now the preferred means of sharing pictures of precious moments (or precocious pets) and posting links to favoured web destinations.

But social media has also become a forum for people to vent their spleens, often betraying their ignorance and bigotry in the process. We read almost daily how online bullying ruins people’s reputations and destroys lives.

It’s not just individuals who are targeted. Trolling is also a problem for corporations who use social media to promote their products by creating a conversation with their customers.

In Australia, the telecommunications company Optus had to cope with a barrage of online abuse after it put up signs written in Arabic in one of its stores. The criticism ranged in tone but centred on the belief that all advertising should be in English.

In the face of this, an online hero has emerged in the person of an Optus social-media specialist named Dan, whose speciality has become answering often-unreasonable comments in very reasoned terms. His calm manner and use of facts to take down racist trolls has endeared him to the greater online community.

When one commenter claimed that Australians speak English, Dan pointed to pre-colonial history, noting that “Australia is a nation full of languages, some 200 plus of them are native to Australia, but English is not one of those native languages”.

He went on to praise the contributions made to Australia by people from other cultures, including Greeks, Italians and Vietnamese.

And he promised that, although Optus had taken down the “offending” Arabic signs, it was because of threats made to its staff, not a change in policy. He promised: “We’ll be advertising on more flyers, in more languages, that we have staff who can welcome you in your own language.”

He answered a question about whether he was Muslim with: “I have no religious ties. but it would be an easy assumption to make since I openly display love and compassion, which are among the values of the Islamic faith.”

There has been some debate in Australia as to whether Dan is a real person or his responses are only the work of a particularly adept social-media team. One newspaper was told he wasn’t available for an interview, but nevertheless claims to have tracked him down – via Facebook.

Regardless of his identity, Dan offers a lesson in how companies should use social media.

More and more people use social accounts to praise companies who provide good service and to criticise those who don’t.

Some companies are grateful for your comments, and will like them or send a friendly reply. Others either don’t monitor what’s being said about them online, or can’t be bothered to respond.

As a customer, I feel slighted when I get no answer, and that affects my perception of the company and its brands.

All companies – except, perhaps, those who deal with elite clientele or who operate in a small geographic area – need a web presence; and most of them have to be available on social media too. But that can be fraught.

Thanking people for their praise, or handling their legitimate complaints about your product or service, is the easy part. The trick is to know how to deal with the inevitable trolls without losing your cool or damaging your brand. The general rule of online engagement is that if somebody is outright abusive, you deal with them at your own peril.

Some individuals choose to fight back, giving as good as they get – but that’s not very practical or advisable if you’re tweeting or posting on behalf of a business.

The best way to do it may be to realise that most people online are reasonable and will usually side with the reasonable, rational person over the troll.

It has certainly worked for Dan, who’s becoming something of a celebrity in his home country. There are even calls for him to be named Australian of the Year.

bdebritz@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @debritz

Published: January 13, 2016 04:00 AM

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