Internet Trolls & Social Media Etiquette

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We all understand the need to exercise caution when using social media. We've all heard the frankly horrifying stories (certainly if you're unemployed) of employers screening applicants through social media! In fact social media monitoring service Reppler has found that 91% of employers use social media channels such as TwitterFacebook and LinkedIn to screen job applicants – with 69% rejecting a candidate based on something they saw. However, in light of Twitter's shock suspension and subsequent reinstatement of British journalist Guy Adams following his criticism of NBC's London 2012 Olympics coverage and increasing police intervention targeting Internet trolls, we at Coup have devised a "social media netiquette guide" to chaperon you through the ever-confusing world of the web.

With social media being a relatively new medium the decorum has yet to be established and there are many kinds of people who are in danger of breaching accepted social media rules.

One kind of person feels that it is suitable to publicise on social media, behaviour that would seem wildly inappropriate in the public sphere. We're sure you'd find it almost surprising not to see at least one public inner meltdown per day on your personal feed, whether it be a bitter family feud or an intimate insight into somebody's love life.

Then there is another kind, the users of social media services that are inclined to publish other people’s private and confidential information - such as credit card numbers or home addresses - without express permission. The Independent's Los Angeles correspondent Guy Adams falls into this category. After publishing the corporate email address of Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics, Adams' Twitter account was suspended. It has since been reactivated after Adams argued that Zenkel's corporate email address is publicly available and that therefore he did not publish any personal contact details.The other kind of person is an altogether more malicious breed. They are the kind who believe it's appropriate to send random abuse to strangers or make racial slurs or jokes in bad taste. Many cases have hit the headlines this year, whether it be the Twitter joke trial of Paul Chambers, the jailing of Liam Stacey for posting unpleasant comments about stricken footballer Fabrice Muamba, the sending home of Olympic hopefuls Greek triple-jumper Voula Papachristou and Swiss footballer Michel Morganella or the high profile police investigation into the Twitter troll who abused Team GB diver Tom Daly, freedom of speech has been tested to its very limits.

So what are the rules and when is a social media platform at liberty to suspend a users account? Twitter’s rules state that its users must not impersonate others or infringe companies trademarks in a manner intended to mislead or deceive others. Rules 6 & 7 of Facebook's terms of use say that people will be permanently deleted if they bully, intimidate or harass any user or post content that is threatening, pornographic or incites violence. LinkedIn urges its users not to publish sensitive personal information such as email addresses, phone numbers, street addresses, or other information that is confidential in nature.

However, with nearly one billion updates posted every day over a broad social media spectrum, violations are extremely difficult to track and suspensions are notoriously unpredictable and challenging to enforce.

Etiquette specialist Debretts have responded to the increased use of social media by drafting a somewhat tongue-in-cheek social netiquette guide, advising its readers to “play it safe, and always employ your usual good manners when online, treating others with kindness and respect.

“Don't make friends with people who you don't know. It's not a competition to see how many friends you can get. Think carefully before you accept someone or remove someone as a friend. Don't annoy your friends by constant, frantic poking… Think carefully about the photos you post, both of yourself and others. Consider your friends' feelings. Would they be happy for everyone to see the unflattering picture of them after their fourth tequila shot?

“Think about what your profile picture says about you, and don't fall into the trap of turning the online universe into a fantasy world, where you are more attractive and successful than in real life...don't be an online bore: blogs that enumerate the minutiae of your day, likes, dislikes etc. in excruciating detail may exercise a horrible fascination, but won't make you popular…social networking is meant to complement and enhance your existing social life, not completely obliterate it.”

Quite possibly the most important piece of advice that Debretts imparts to its readers however is how to treat others online. “Make it a general rule that you will never say anything online that you wouldn't be able to articulate directly, face to face. Do not use the technology as a shield, masking your true feelings and personality. So always write polite emails, and never send messages that contain intemperate language or sentiments that you would never normally express in your everyday life…Don't be an online bully: threatening and haranguing people you can't see, who can't fight back."

It is also important not forget that British law clearly defines the rules regarding anyone who sends grossly threatening or intimidating messages to another person, be it delivered electronically or via your letterbox - simply put, it is illegal. If you partake in any of these activities you risk being reported to the police and rightly so.

If in doubt, use your common sense. Don't write something online if you wouldn't say it in person. Equally if you engage online, you are at risk of becoming the victims of trolling. Tightly controlling your privacy settings will go some way to protecting your online confidentiality but quite possibly 99% of the time the best piece of advice we can give is to do nothing at all. You may hear some people in online circles who say "do not feed the trolls" and this is certainly sound advice. Trolls thrive on the attention they get get and knowing that they’ve caused offence or got a similar reaction. If you can, avoid getting involved and tell your friends, family or colleagues to do the same.

Do you have any social media etiquette best practices to share? We’d love to hear them? Let us know on Facebook or comment below.

Paul Shepherd

I've worked in digital communications for around 15 years, and specialised in social media for the past three. Passionate about new technologies, media, and the impact it has on businesses bottom line, I try to bring that passion to every campaign for every brand we work with.