Q&A: Allison Munro Takes on Trolls

Jan 31, 2018

Article ImageTrolls. If you spend any time at all on the internet, you've encountered one. If you're a journalist on the web--especially a female journalist--trolls are part of your daily life. If you're a publisher or brand, battling the trolls who make the comments section on your site an unbearable minefield of vitriol and personal attacks, is a nearly full-time job. Meanwhile, battling trolls while trying to develop audience engagement is a tough balancing act. EContent talked to Allison Munro, Head of Sales & Marketing at Viafoura, an audience development platform, about how to walk the fine line between encouraging engagement and discussion and letting trolls run rampant on your site.   

Q: You say some media companies, in an attempt to battle trolls, have employed tactics that may result in losing the audience engagement war, the war that drives KPIs for their advertisers. Can you tell us about some of those tactics?

A: In an attempt to battle trolls, some media companies have taken to going to extremes and eliminating the comment section completely, which can be a costly mistake. When media companies eliminate the comment section, audiences lose the ability to engage and interact with the brand, content, and authors. This can lead to a decrease in the media brand’s relationship with their audience, and it also reduces the incentive the audience has to return, register, and subscribe to the content. Without a place for user-generated content, like the comments section, and without registered users who need to create an account to engage, brands lose the valuable user, behavior, and interest data that is crucial to content creation, audience acquisition, and growing revenue through direct and indirect channels.

Another tactic media companies employ that may result in losing the audience engagement war is depending on Facebook or other third party social platforms to drive engagement. When audiences comment directly on Facebook or using Facebook’s plugin on a brand’s site, media companies are further enriching Facebook's data and building their own community on rented land. This means that although the media company has created compelling content that drives their audiences to participate in the conversation, Facebook ends up being the party that benefits from collecting audience data. Instead, media companies should have control over the data they create through the quality conversations they initiate by using commenting platforms that seamlessly integrate into their site and customer experience.

Q: With that in mind, can you tell us a bit about why encouraging engagement is so important for media companies?

A: Establishing a direct relationship with your audience is important in so many ways. Being the source your audience turns to for information is a fight that the wrong teams are winning, especially as we look at the emergence of fake news. We are also seeing Facebook and other platforms monopolize media companies’ content and their valuable audiences and data. Media companies are expected now to create the social, immersive, two-way experience audiences expect across the web. By encouraging engagement and forgoing the use of Facebook or other free data mining solutions to solely drive that engagement, media companies are able to own and leverage the resulting data, creating an improved experience specific to their audience and their needs.

In addition, by becoming the source your audience turns to, you avoid the issues created by relying on Facebook and Google to distribute your content. If your audience turns to your site initially, instead of discovering you through these platforms, you will be less likely to have your bottom line impacted by changes to either platform’s algorithms—an issue that is far too common. Those who are engaged with and have built a relationship with your content, your writers, and your community will be part of an audience base that will be completely unaffected by announced algorithm changes.

Q: What are some of the alternatives to deleting comments, and blocking individuals?

A: Establishing clear, robust community standards is a first step to creating a community that respects these guidelines, lessening the need to even consider deleting comments and blocking users. Being able to uphold these guidelines in real-time, as to not task journalists and content creators with the thankless chore of weeding through the comments, not only increases the quality of conversations unfolding on your site but encourages participation on both sides. This participation ultimately fosters a direct relationship between your audience and your writers/journalists, which encourages them to return to your site to continue the conversation. This strengthened relationship with your brand also increases revenue, as advertisers look for KPIs that are increased by quality engagement on your site. Enforcing these standards can also be done through timed user bans, which are more effective than blocking to change behavior, as they allow the offender to learn from their mistakes, return to the site, and participate in a way that abides by community guidelines.

Q: How can AI and humans work together to better battle trolls?

A: AI can eliminate redundancies and make eliminating spam and hurtful, unproductive comments faster and smarter. It also makes the process more consistent and unbiased in how rules are enforced, helping to mitigate community concerns about unfairly applied guidelines. AI-powered moderation also encourages engagement and discourse that is in line with your community guidelines by site or even at a section level.

The human component comes in with the recognition that AI is not always perfect, nor does it always comprehend the nuances and intricacies of human language. Incorporating human moderation in addition to AI covers all of your bases. The AI component does most of the heavy lifting, bringing only the comments outside its algorithm (5-8%) to the attention of a human moderator while improving the quality of discourse unfolding on your site.

Q: Can you give publishers a few quick tips on how to win the war on trolls?

A: Consider all the ways users can abuse your community. Beyond the comment section, trolls are often identified in their profiles—whether it's through an inappropriate profile picture or through their username or profile description. If you use a tool in which users can report each other, look for patterns that show a “serial flagger.” While not posting trolling comments on their own, they may report other users they intend to abuse as inappropriate when the content clearly stands with your community guidelines.

It can seem obvious, but laying the groundwork for what content is unacceptable within your community is a crucial first step. You would be surprised how many brands do not have community guidelines available and published. Writing a clear, unassailable description in your community guidelines can help prevent initial violations and give your moderators—AI or human—a reference point to point violators to that defines unacceptable content.

When battling trolls, it’s important not to lose sight of the engagement war. The ultimate goal is to create an environment where members of your community and content writers want to engage with each other, thus improving the level of conversation associated with your brand. It’s not just about weeding through the trash but allowing your community to focus on cultivating quality discourse to encourage engagement.


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