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How to deal with social media issues

Last updated
November 21, 2020

As much as social media can be a fun way to build community and expand the reach of every article we publish, it can also be a vehicle for comments and criticism. Although we love hearing from our audience, it can be stressful to deal with vocal criticism on social media when it veers away from dialogue and toward a pile-on.

Here's a case study to demonstrate how Massive approaches social media "crises" or trolls. Again, this doesn't apply at all for constructive feedback. We're focusing on negative attention from large groups who are there only to criticize.

Case study: 

In November 2020, we accidentally drew in hundreds of upset people on Twitter. We specifically upset trans-exclusionary radical feminists by using the phrase "people who menstruate" and then posting an article about how sex isn't binary. You can read tweet 1 and tweet 2, if you're curious, but be warned that the replies are not friendly. The gist of many of the comments was that Massive, as a scientific publication, was being unscientific by affirming that women aren't the only people who menstruate, not all women menstruate, and sex isn't binary. 

This isn't new territory for us: Massive has a very clear stance on transphobia, especially when it's disguised as a "scientific" argument. What was new was the sheer volume of replies and retweets coming in. The people replying to our tweets weren't following us and hadn't interacted with us before.

Here are some options you might weigh during a storm like this.

Deleting the original tweet(s): Although deleting the original post is technically an option, there's a reason people say, "The internet is forever." Anyone can take a screenshot of your post, so it's never really gone.

If you made a significant mistake in a post, you can reply with a correction or apology, but that doesn't stop the original post from getting attention. One way around that is to screenshot the original, delete it, and write a new tweet with a correction that also includes the screenshot for full transparency.

It's important to note that critics might see deleting a post as an admission of guilt. In this example, both of our tweets were aligned with our core values, so we didn't consider deleting them.

Blocking accounts: Blocking someone makes them unable to see or comment on any of your posts. As a media organization, we want everyone to have access to our articles and posts, so we rarely block anyone. Plus, all our accounts are public, so it doesn't actually stop them from seeing anything. But it might make people even angrier. 

For a personal account, however, you get to define your tolerance for what gets someone blocked. You can also choose to "soft block" any account, which means that you block them to make them unfollow you, then immediately unblock them so they don't know it happened. In our case, none of the commenters were following us, so that wasn't necessary.

Reporting the comments: Unfortunately, many social media platforms will not remove hate speech unless it is actively violent. In this situation, even though the tweets were transphobic and/or full of insults, almost none of them were against Twitter's rules. Reporting them would have been a waste of time. (More coming on this topic soon!)

Although there is an option to delete or hide replies on Facebook and Instagram, that doesn't exist on Twitter. Once the replies started coming in, there was no way to stop them.

Completely ignore the situation: It's always possible to unplug and stop checking social media. But in the middle of a big troll attack, that might not be the best option. If you just refuse to check social media during a crisis, you might miss notifications about other topics, you wouldn't know if the replies were escalating to a reportable level, and you would lose the opportunity to positively engage with the rest of your social media community. If you say nothing at all in the face of hate speech, you might even seem like you are agreeing with the comments.

Responding to the critics: You could choose to reply to every comment or to post a general reply, but sometimes, trolls are attempting to make you angry. Replying might just add fuel to the flames, regardless of the actual content of the reply. Again, in this situation, our tweets were aligned with our stance, so we didn't consider apologizing, despite some replies suggesting we should. 

Muting the thread: Muting means that you no longer get notifications about a specific tweet (or set of tweets). It's a method that allows you to continue using your social media platforms without drowning in notifications from angry people. When you mute a thread, you can still come back to it periodically to read through the responses. 

What we did:

We chose to use a combination of strategies to respond to this particular incident.

You might have heard the phrase, "don't feed the trolls," meaning that you shouldn't give any attention to the harassers. This article from The Verge has a sharp response to that:

"What the troll, the stalker, and the abuser really want out of the situation is to feel powerful and in control. And they will not stop until they feel it. Therein lies the most horrible aspect of the “don’t feed” mantra: rather than doing anything to address the trolls, the more tangible effect is to silence the victim and the reality of their abuse, or worse, to blame them for it. For far too many who promoted this idea, the true goal was silence, to avoid facing what is happening and the impossible responsibility of it."

With these ideas in mind, when the replies started coming to our "people who menstruate" tweet, we decided to make it clear that we don't agree with transphobia by posting a slightly sarcastic follow-up as a separate tweet, not as a reply. The second tweet included a link to our article (written by a biologist) about how sex is not binary. That way, our existing audience could see that we were standing by our values.

Making a completely separate tweet was a deliberate choice - it meant that anyone who was mad about the first tweet would have to go to our profile to see the follow-up, rather than seeing it immediately under the first one. This approach only sort of worked, because the follow-up tweet ended up getting even more attention than the first one.

After letting both tweets sit for a few hours (full disclosure: it was after midnight and we went to bed) we could see that the commenters were very passionate about this topic. Studies show that facts don't make people change their minds, so we decided it would not be productive to reply. We muted both tweets and carried on with our typical social media activities, going back to the threads to check on what people were saying as needed. 

It took multiple days for the storm to end, but the replies and retweets eventually stopped. When this happens again (when, not if, because we know this isn't the last time), we'll be more prepared, in part because we had this experience.