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How small to medium enterprises can respond to trolling and online abuse

How small to medium enterprises can respond to trolling and online abuse

Published on November 15, 2016 by Nicholas Huang and Selwyn Black

Businesses are often the target of online trolling and abuse. The importance of a strong social media and online presence to the overall success of a business means that small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs) should know of how to respond to online abuse if and when they encounter it.

What is online abuse?

Online abuse varies in severity and purpose.

Trolling is the abuse or harassment of another person or business online and usually done to gain attention or to annoy others. More serious forms of online abuse are done to seriously threaten, intimidate, harass or humiliate another person or business.

Regardless of a culprit’s intent, online abuse can harm a person emotionally and psychologically as well as damaging their business and potentially harming employees.

When businesses are targeted, the individual employees and owners of the business may be personally affected by the abuse. In addition, the goodwill and brand of a business can also be badly affected. This is particularly true for businesses which are dependant on internet sales and advertising.

How SMEs should respond to trolling and online abuse

The nature of the abuse a SME receives will guide how it should respond. Options for a SME 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 will 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 will also usually have an option to report abuse received online. The policies of the social media website and web administrators may result in permanent bans for the abuser.

How SMEs can respond legally to trolling and online abuse

  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 3 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 be hacked but later pleaded guilty. The abuser received an 8 month suspended prison sentence, was ordered to pay $2,500 and was placed on a 2 year good behaviour bond. Various state and territory legislation also criminalise online abuse.
  2. Seeking advice on whether the abuse is defamatory. If a 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. For more information on defamation, see here.

How not to respond to trolling and online abuse

A case study on how not to respond to online abuse is Amy’s Baking Company (ABC). ABC featured on an episode of Gordon Ramsey’s Kitchen Nightmares. After the show aired, the ABC Facebook page was trolled and abused based on the conduct of the owners of ABC shown on TV. Instead of responding to the abuse in the manner set out above, ABC attacked the abusers publicly on Facebook. This only led to further abuse from more trolls and abusers and brought even more negative attention on ABC.

ABC’s response proved to be disastrous for the business, and destroyed what little goodwill it had remaining. Despite hiring a public relations firm and relaunching their business, ABC ultimately shut down.

Trolling and online abuse here to stay

The ease of access to the internet globally and the relative anonymity that internet users experience means that trolling and online abuse is 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.

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