Responding to anti-social use of social media and the internet

Today, it is common for people to express strong emotions in their use of social media. When their emotions are negative, people may resort to unreasonable behaviour to express their displeasure. When unreasonable complainant conduct is taken online it can have a huge impact on the people and organisations that are the targets of it. Organisations need to be mindful of this and have appropriate systems in place to support their staff.

In designing an appropriate system organisations need to consider what level of engagement they wish to have with social media before a social media presence is established. Their involvement could be:

  • Passive - listening to conversations about their organisation online,
  • Active - becoming involved in discussions and sharing information online,
  • Engaged - proactively engaging online.¹

This fact sheet provides guidance on monitoring, assessing and responding to the anti-social use of social media and the internet. This guidance should be used in conjunction with an organisation’s broader social media policy and procedures.

When does online conduct become unreasonable?

Complainants have a right to use social media and the internet to express their views. The problem arises when complaining behaviour becomes unacceptable, or even unlawful.

Examples of inappropriate and unreasonable online conduct by complainants

Rude and abusive Language Posting inappropriate content or links to disreputable websites
Inciting rage and illegal activities or crimes Creating unpleasant websites about an organisation or its staff Conducting negative or inflammatory online polls about staff
Hacking or uploading viruses that attack Posting personal information about public officials online Offensive language
Targeting minority groups Cyber-stalking or cyber-bullying Copyright and trademark infringements
Targeted, personal and obscene attacks False allegations and lies with malicious intent Creating distasteful websites with rude comments, photos or videos
Creating fake online profiles to impersonate someone Spamming Threats or defamatory statements

What can organisations and their staff do to manage online conduct?

Organisations need to have appropriate strategies in place to respond to inappropriate and unreasonable online content and behaviour. This includes strategies to assist individual staff if they are the target of inappropriate and unreasonable online content and behaviour, where such content arises out of or relates directly to their employment.

Resources

Managing online communication requires people and time. One or more staff need to be made responsible for:

  • monitoring online content relevant to the organisation,
  • identifying, evaluating and in some cases responding to inappropriate online conduct,
  • initiating online communication and content.

Authority

Staff responsible for online content and communication need to be given formal authorisation/delegation to enable them to:

  • initiate online communication and content,
  • where appropriate, moderate live discussions,
  • respond to both appropriate and inappropriate or unreasonable online content and communication.

Given the sensitivity of this role, it may often be best to allocate such responsibility to a senior member of staff.

Guidance

Social pressure is powerful. Organisations can use social media to drive key messages and establish a human side. It is important that organisations take the time and effort to adequately train their staff to use this influential tool effectively and appropriately, in their personal and professional lives.  It is particularly important that organisations develop and adopt a clear and appropriate policy to guide staff who manage online content and behaviour. This policy should be designed around the following five steps:

The policy should be designed around monitoring, evaluating, responding, follow-up and supporting

See Appendix 9, page 130, in the ‘Managing Unreasonable Complainant Conduct—Practice Manual, 2nd Edition’, downloadable from the NSW Ombudsman’s website, for a more comprehensive flowchart for responding to inappropriate online comments and content by a complainant.

Step 1 - Monitor comments about your organisation and staff

Online listening tools and alerts are available to track comments about your organisation online. If appropriate and possible, organisations might consider around the clock monitoring of social media and identify a strategy for real-time responses to damaging content and behaviour. While organisations could state their response times as 9-5 Monday to Friday, in practice peak times for social media use are outside normal business hours.

Another way organisations can monitor online content is to encourage staff to report inappropriate or questionable online content and behaviour as soon as it is discovered. Particularly where staff become aware of such content or behaviour targeting them personally, and arising out of or relating to their employment, they should immediately report the attack to their organisation.

Step 2 - Evaluate comments about your organisation and staff

Once unacceptable online content is identified it needs to be assessed to decide:

Is the content unreasonable?

  • Is it constructive criticism or is it inflammatory, offensive, misinformed or misleading?
  • Does it contain personal information about a staff member (or their family)?
  • Is it unlawful?

What is the apparent purpose or objective of the content?

  • Does it appear to be dedicated to targeting or degrading others?
  • Is it a publicity stunt?
  • Does it incite others to engage in unlawful conduct?

Is the online content highly visible and easily accessible?

  • Has it been viewed by a relatively small number of people or has it 'gone viral' thereby requiring a relatively comprehensive response?
  • Could it be viewed as credible or does the content or behaviour seem unbelievable?

What impact will the content have on your organisation?

  • Is the reputation of your organisation or a member of your staff at risk?
  • Do you have common law duty of care or legal liability to respond or act?

What are the circumstances surrounding the online posting?

  • Does the complainant have a legitimate issue that needs to be addressed? If yes, then you may have to act and act quickly.

What are the terms of use?

  • Organisations should include mechanisms to deal with unacceptable behaviour in their terms of use policy including if and when content will be removed.

Refer to pages 110-111 of the ‘Managing Unreasonable Complainant Conduct—Practice Manual, 2nd Edition’, downloadable from the NSW Ombudsman’s website, for more detail on each point.

Step 3 - Respond to comments about your organisation and staff

The first question to ask is whether a response is required or would a response reinforce bad behaviour?

Is the response required and how should this be done?

  • If the identified online content appears intended to embarrass and humiliate, no response may be the best solution.
  • Don't feed trolls! This is never useful and in fact reinforces bad behaviour and gives the response the trolls are looking for.
  • Organisations, individual staff, could request the site to remove and/or block content.

Organisations should only respond to negative or inappropriate online content if not responding could harm your organisation or staff. As a general principle, organisations would be justified in ignoring negative or inappropriate online content if a response would make matters worse, create controversy, ‘feed a troll’ or invite unwarranted media interest.

If a response is required, it should be done within hours if not minutes of the online content being identified. A timely response can be pivotal to whether or not you can resolve a situation and whether the content is picked up by others and spreads out of control. You may also need to decide whether to notify police about the online content and/or seek legal advice about the content.

Depending on the circumstances of the case and the characteristics of the person or people involved (if they are in fact able to be identified) responses can be:

  • public, private, or both, taking the form of a comment, a rebuttal or rejection, or a statement agreeing that there was a problem (and what steps will be taken to fix the problem);
  • by email, telephone call, face-to-face interview or in a letter sent by post.

Who should respond?

Organisations have a moral, if not legal, responsibility to assist, protect and counsel staff on any issue arising out of the performance of their duties. Depending on the situation, it may be appropriate for the organisation to respond on behalf of its staff.

If there is to be a response, it must always be respectful, no matter what the provocation. Disrespect achieves nothing positive, and you have to assume that your response could be made public or widely distributed.

Image showing key elements of the four types of response which are Public response, Private response, Public and private response or a Legal response

A public response

It is important for public responses to be unemotional, restrained and never include personal attacks or involve ‘he said/she said’ debates. Be brief, fair, informative and friendly. If appropriate, acknowledge that people have a right to different views and educate the commenter where the content is clearly incorrect or misleading. If your organisation or staff have done something wrong apologise to those affected and offer to correct things. You may then decide to shift to a private response for problem-solving and maintaining confidentiality. Refer to the ‘Apologies’ guideline, downloadable from the NSW Ombudsman’s website.

A private response

If the online content is essentially private, then a private response by e-mail, letter or telephone may be appropriate and adequate. A private response can be used to clarify things, to apologise when your organisation or staff have done something wrong, or to give the complainant an opportunity to remove the online content before more decisive action is taken.

Where an identifiable author has breached the provider’s terms of service, we recommend sending a strongly worded letter or email asking for the content to be removed before taking action to have their service terminated.

Both public and private responses

If the online content appears to be credible, has taken on a life of its own and spread virally across the internet or through social media, targets specific member(s) of your organisation, or is unlawful, then a more comprehensive response strategy may be required. This response strategy could include elements of both a public and private response including press and/or media releases and interviews, proactive outreach to relevant complainants, corrective messaging in social media and/or on your website or blog, or responses in any other relevant publications produced by your organisation.

A legal response

As a general rule, organisations are responsible for information that appears on their site. Organisations are also responsible if they choose to do nothing about inappropriate online content, though this may be an appropriate management decision in some cases. Posts that appear on your site can be viewed as being endorsed by your organisation, especially where it can be proved that your organisation had actual knowledge of the offending post.

If inappropriate online content about your organisation has been posted on an external site, view the terms of service, rules or community guidelines provided by the service hosting the inappropriate online content or behaviour. Communicate with the service provider to request the removal of the inappropriate content citing the appropriate reference in their user guidance. Once a site has been notified about a negative post and has been asked to remove the post, that site becomes responsible for the post.

Currently:

  • YouTube has zero tolerance for predatory behaviour, stalking, threats, harassment, invading privacy or posting personal information.
  • Twitter does not actively monitor or censor content but sets limitations on impersonation, privacy, violence, threats and unlawful use.
  • Facebook cannot guarantee safety, but expects users to commit to respectful use of their service by not bullying, intimidating or harassing users; by not posting content that is violent, hateful or pornographic; or by using Facebook for something illegal, misleading, malicious or discriminatory.

Where it is reasonably believed that online content is a criminal matter, seek legal advice and, where appropriate, refer the matter to the police. Online communications that harass or intimidate can be criminal offences, for example using telecommunications services to make threats, menace, harass or cause offence. Where it is reasonably believed that online content is, for example, defamatory, this is a civil matter and organisations could adopt policies to provide legal advice to staff about their legal options in appropriate circumstances.

In our view, legal mechanisms should be used with the greatest reluctance and only in situations of apprehended or actual violence, threats, intimidation, stalking, online defamation or other unlawful conduct by complainants. They should never be used as an option for dealing with a complainant whose behaviour your organisation or its staff find difficult to manage.

In practice, legal action in defamation may be viewed as impractical due to the costs and the difficulties often involved in identifying the author.

Step 4 - Follow up and follow through

Once the online content has been responded to—either directly or indirectly—continue to monitor the internet and maintain an awareness of conversations that are occurring. In cases where your organisation or staff have done something wrong, follow up with the complainant to make sure that you have satisfactorily addressed their concerns. Acknowledge your human side, correct any inaccuracies and refer to your policy for guidance. By keeping in touch you convey a sense of approachability and increase the likelihood that they will contact your organisation in the first instance next time around—before turning to the internet or social media.

Step 5 - Supporting affected staff members

Organisations are responsible for providing their staff with a safe and healthy workplace and for providing them with support and assistance at all times.

What communication strategies should be considered?

  • Any response should be unemotional and address the key issues.
  • Be brief, informative, fair and friendly

If the online content poses a significant risk of psychological or reputational harm to staff, it may also be important to consider providing the affected staff with a message of support. This could be in-house or as part of any public response. The message of support will be important in discrediting and rejecting the complainant’s remarks and making staff feel that they and their work are valued and supported by the organisation. Appropriate steps could also be taken to ensure that staff receive appropriate counselling and support services like debriefing, where this is warranted.

Final advice

For more detail, refer to Chapter 21 ‘Dealing with the misuse of electronic communications, the internet and social media’ and Appendix 9 ‘Flowchart for responding to inappropriate online comments/content by a complainant’ in the ‘Managing Unreasonable Complainant Conduct—Practice Manual, 2nd Edition’, downloadable from the NSW Ombudsman’s website.²

For information on making an apology, refer to the ‘Apologies’ guideline, downloadable from the NSW Ombudsman’s website.³

For advice on engaging with the community through social media, refer to the ‘NSW Government Social Media Policy and Guidelines’.4

For practical steps to deal with internet trolls, see the Australian Communications and Media Authority’s ‘Protect yourself against trolling’ webpage.5

For resources and helpful advice about cybersafety matters recommended by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, see the ‘Cyber[smart]’ website or contact 1800 880176.6

For strategies designed to calm a hostile conversation, see the BIFF Response designed by Bill Eddy at the High Conflict Institute.7

For strategies recommended by an Australian social media industry expert, see Laurel Papworth @SilkCharm.8 Laurel was named in the 2012 Top 50 Social Media Influencers globally by Forbes magazine, and named ‘Head of Industry, Social Media’ for Australia’s Marketing Magazine.

2 Australasian Parliamentary Ombudsman, ‘Managing Unreasonable Complainant Conduct, Practice Manual, 2nd Edition’, viewed 20 September 2012,

3 NSW Ombudsman, ‘Apologies’, viewed 20 September 2012,

4 NSW Government ‘Social Media Policy and Guidelines’, viewed 11 July 2013,

5 ACMA, ‘Protect yourself against trolling’, viewed 21 September 2012,

6 ACMA’s Cybersafety Contact Centre, ‘Cybersafety Help’, viewed 21 September 2012,

7 Eddy, Bill, ‘Coaching for BIFF Responses’, viewed 20 September 2012,

8 Papworth, Laurel, ‘8 Ways to Deal with Negative Comments in Online Communities’, viewed 20 September 2012,

Contact us for more information

Level 24,
580 George Street
Sydney NSW 2000
Toll free (outside Sydney metro) 1800 451 524 
Email nswombo@ombo.nsw.gov.au
Web www.ombo.nsw.gov.au

National Relay Service 133 677
Telephone Interpreter Service (TIS)
131 450
We can arrange an interpreter through TIS or you can contact TIS yourself before speaking to us.

© Crown Copyright, NSW Ombudsman, July 2013
This publication is released under a Creative Commons license CC BY 4.0.

Publication metadata

ISBN 978-1-925061-05-5
Category Fact sheets
Publication Date 31 July 2013