In standing up to the trolls, she made me realise I’ve seen a lot of this recently, with people taking breaks from platforms for a few weeks or by calling out online bullies.
So I did an experiment. I looked at the Instagram pages of three people I follow – all women, but I have seen this on male accounts – to see what kind of negativity was happening on random posts over the past few weeks. I chose Instagram as, from a brand point of view, it is typically our most-used platform.
What I saw, across about 800 comments, was misogyny, sexism, criticism of an influencer’s partner, sexualisation, one post connecting someone to knife crime culture, and a comment that had been deleted by the instagrammer but commented on by the community for its outrageousness. And this is a random, non-data-backed investigation with no knowledge of how these comments made these women feel, how they affect their self-esteem, and whether trolls have any impact on whether the influencer censored themselves in future posts.
We are putting brands into the heart of this and the trolls are screwing with our metrics. That’s a big issue. Plentiful comments may, at first glance, spell high engagement; but what if some of those comments are bullying, inflammatory, hurtful? And language algorithms will pick up on sentiment and drive up negative scores.
But far more important than numbers on a chart is what a brand’s duty of care is to individuals.
The cynic may say that social influencers who put their life out in the open for criticism should suck up the hate in exchange for cheques and freebies. But that attitude is part of the problem.
Trolling is a symptom of a toxic culture and a reflection of our social values. Nothing has revealed that to us more clearly in recent weeks than Caroline Flack’s tragic death. It is crucial that change happens so that, as users, we can all enjoy what is brilliant about the internet and social platforms – places to have conversations, form communities and create content that reflects our personalities. And yes, places for healthy disagreement and discussion, too.
The internet platforms are latterly taking steps to ‘clean up’, but as brand guardians we hold a powerful hand – we can use our financial heft to petition platforms to make safe spaces for brands and individuals, we can offer visible and vocal support to influencers we work with who face trolling, and we can work with influencer-management agencies to back their demands of the platforms, too.
The worst thing we can do is ignore the problem, delete comments we don’t like and pretend it never happened.
Inaction will eventually drive brands and influencers off platforms for good; it will sanitise posts, removing the authenticity we all connect with, and comment functions will be disabled, halting the formation of community. That’s not what anyone wants.
So let us 'be kind' as individuals and as brand guardians, before trolls do more than just kill platforms.
Lucy Hart is head of influence and advocacy at Engine Mischief