Lessons from a Troll Campaign

[Editor’s note: When we put out a call for readers to share their experiences with trolls and other online attacks we got some incredible stories back! This true tale from Gerald Baron really caught our attention because it not only featured trolls but also a full-bore troll campaign. Read on…]

Internet trolls, like their creatures they are named after, are ugly lurkers, frequently annoying and sometimes downright dangerous. While most organizations may encounter them, the more the organization deals with issues of social justice or with the extremes of political partisanship, the more likely they are to be forced to deal with trolls and troll campaigns. This was our experience when trying to build bridges between dairy farmers and the younger urban residents who increasingly control their future, at least in the Left Coast state of Washington.

Farming should not be one of those extreme partisan or social justice issues that attract trolls and troll campaigns. But it is increasingly becoming that for a few reasons. Environmental organizations are forced to uncover new targets for their activism in order to expand and invigorate their donor base. “Big Ag” or “factory farming” has become that for many small local environmental groups as well as major national and global organizations like Robert F. Kennedy Jr’s Waterkeeper Alliance and the prototype of all extreme environmental activists groups – Greenpeace. This group has had a major impact on government actions against dairy farms in New Zealand, for example. The increasing interest shown by the more extreme environmental leaders is noted by legislators and the litigation industry resulting in an increase in farm-related legislation, regulations and litigation. Another factor is the ease with which passionate believers in virtually any cause can quickly create networks of the like-minded and build momentum online. In this case, the cause was of militant veganism and the effort anti-animal agriculture “true believers.”

We discovered this when we launched a series of Facebook Live sessions aimed at bridging the troubling urban-rural divide in Washington state. Dairy farmers are the focus of anti-farm activism in our state, ostensibly aimed at “big ag” but ignoring the fact that all but two of the remaining 375 dairy farmers are owned and run by families. Dairy farm critics almost always use very outdated information and science studies, ignoring the fact that farming has changed dramatically and that new technologies and new awareness of farmers about the past negative impact of farming on the environment has resulted in much improved environmental performance. We envisioned this series, with promotional support by the Dairy Farmers of Washington, to enable those unfamiliar with dairy farmers and current farming practices to have their questions answered. These questions included how farmers protect water quality, what they do about potential methane emissions, how they care for their animals, how they ensure a safe and healthy food product, how they protect their employees. Facebook Live would allow us to reach our target audience and help bridge the gap.

The four Live sessions were promoted on Facebook in advance. Our host was an attractive young Seattle food blogger and cookbook author with a large online following. The dairy farmers selected were known to be passionate and articulate spokespersons not just for their farm and farming methods, but fully capable of addressing the potentially aggressive questions of our intended audience. We fully expected the occasional troll or passionate anti-farm activist. What we did not anticipate was a concerted effort by a small group of passionate individuals to disrupt our attempt at building bridges and use our efforts to further their own cause. In other words, trolls were not so much our concern as a troll campaign.

The trolls in this case were passionate anti-animal agriculture activists mostly from the UK. This was relatively easily determined by looking at their pages and posts even though for the most part they worked hard to hide their identities. To facilitate questions, we had one person monitor Facebook for the questions that would come in and pass those to the host who would pose the questions to the farmer. Specific topics such as animal care, environmental stewardship, and employee protections were assigned to farmers best suited to answer them.

It quite quickly became evident that a few participants were not there to learn or engage but to dominate and disrupt. They showed no interest in the topics we were focusing on. Instead, they asked questions such as “Why do you rape your cows?” or “How do feel when you murder a calf?” or “Have you thought about how the mother cow feels when its baby is jerked away from it right after being born?”

We soon found, intentional or not, the aggressive and abusive questions were getting “liked” and shared. Emojis were used to communicate the emotions of those who liked the nasty questions and comments and when the farmers provided reasonable and compassionate answers they emojied their disgust. Then, the trolls turned into vegan/anti-animal campaigners by not just treating the farmers and host abusively, but by providing links and videos to their own content. The anti-animal documentary “Cowspiracy” was a particular favorite.

The most serious problem emerged when farm supporters spoke up and they were also viciously attacked. Farmers were called all kinds of names, “rapists” and “murderers” being the most common. They were also accused of horrible behavior against the the cows that the activists saw as fully anthropomorphized. But when those commenting on the Live session in support of these farmers were attacked, even threatened violence against their children, it became clear that a line needed to drawn.

Before becoming the executive director of the farm advocacy group conducting the Live sessions, I had spent a number of years advising clients in government, non-profits and corporations on crisis communications and reputation management. This increasingly involved providing plans and guidance on dealing with the negative aspects of social media engagement. So I approached the Live sessions with my own advice ringing in my ears: transparency is of utmost importance, therefore you allow all comments and comers and respond non-emotionally and positively in a way that wins over those who are uncertain who to trust or believe. But this reasonable sounding advice ran against the reality of true brutish nastiness, threats of physical violence, and a coordinated effort to leverage our audience for the extreme agenda of the activists. A soft answer was not turning away the wrath of these “true believers,” and nothing we could say or do would alter their efforts.

Consulting with our team, including the social media experts at the Dairy Farmers of Washington, we highlighted the social media policy of the organization. This was appropriate as it was their Facebook page that was the primary base for the Live sessions, with our organization’s multiple Facebook pages supporting it. The policy focused on maintaining civil discourse and banning foul and abusive language. We began by issuing general warnings using the existing policy. When that had little to no effect, we responded to individual commenters warning them that they would be blocked if they continued to violate the policies. That did have some impact, but some continued. When we did block someone, which only happened perhaps two or three times, we made note that they were blocked for violating the policies. We certainly blocked the woman from UK who had threatened a commenter who dared spoke out in support of farmers.

What was more difficult was dealing with those who may not have been abusive or threatening, but who were posting links to vegan activist and anti-animal agriculture sites and content. It was also difficult to deal with the growing reality that the intention was not just to use our channel to promote their cause but to stifle negative response and to control the discussion. Some trolls clearly had hours to spend on this and provided a near continuous stream of posts. Even though it was not in the policy, we commented that in the interests of engaging with those genuinely interested in learning more about farming, we would block those who insisted on promoting their agenda and hijack our discussion. That had an effect, particularly after following through and blocking one or two.

Admittedly, we came late to these conclusions. Consequently, we were quite severely criticized by a few in the farming community for allowing the anti-farm activists to disrupt our efforts. Overall, the team felt that despite the surprising troll campaign we had largely accomplished our goals. We could see in some of the comments that the extreme and ugly nature of the attacks were counterproductive. Few, even if they were questioning or inclined to adopt an anti-animal agriculture position, would want to be associated with the level of extremism and brutishness displayed by a few. While a few activists on the extreme edge follow the Saul Alinsky advice that the ends they pursue justifies the means they use, most agree that that approach is morally and ethically troubled.

An important lesson learned is to continue to keep in mind the “saveables.” Dividing your audience into “saints” (those needing no further convincing), “sinners” (the unconvinceables) and “saveables” is extremely helpful. There was no question that the “sinners” in this story did not want us to succeed with the saveables. However, their boorishness proved to assist us with the saveables, even while our perhaps too much tolerance of their activities caused us some minor problems with the saints. But the overall lesson remains: in an age of transparency, it is still possible to have too much of a good thing.

Gerald Baron is a crisis communications expert as well as the founder and creator of PIER Systems. You can learn more about the folks involved with this case by clicking here.

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