Legal advice on how to protect you and your livelihood.

By Amanda Hamilton, Chief Executive of the National Association of Licensed Paralegals (NALP)

The word ‘troll’ has a completely different connotation to the way we used it a decade ago. It used to be a phrase to express ‘the seeking out of’ e.g. ‘I’m trolling for jobs’. Now it is used in a negative way and more often than not, to denote an individual posting online to provoke a particular group or community towards an emotional response, to encourage aggression and to taint and manipulate other people’s perceptions of such a group, individuals or businesses.

The fact is it is so easy to do. We have any number of social media outlets which create the perfect platform for this. It can be a totally unprovoked attack but can emotionally affect the recipient or destroy a business. So, if you personally are on the receiving end of a troll, what can you do?

Tackle your troll
The first and most important tip is, do not ignore it! You should respond swiftly, in a calm and reasonable way, as soon as possible.

Trolling is like bullying. The troller is confident enough to do it knowing that there will be a few ‘sheep’ like individuals who will join in and back him/her up. So, in the same way as confronting a bully head-on, you do the same thing online to try to diffuse the situation.

Suggestions such as: ‘You are entitled, of course, to your opinion, but I would invite you to meet me, or have a face-to-face Zoom with me to discuss this in person’. Or, ‘I am afraid you are wrong in your assumptions for the following reasons…’ or ‘Let me put you right on a few inaccuracies in your comments…’

Of course, what you don’t want to do is to get embroiled in whole batch of further comments, so you need to think very carefully about how to approach the response and make it as ‘closed’ as possible i.e. do not leave it open for further comment. And think hard before you reply to the reply, if you receive one.

Diffusing a trolling situation
I had a friend who was an extremely balanced person and non-aggressive. She was asked to do something for an acquaintance free of charge that would enhance that person’s business. It involved a performance in front of a large audience which my friend had never done before. She felt aggrieved since the acquaintance was an experienced performer and never offered any support on the night.

After the event and a glass too many of red wine, my friend posted something on the Facebook group page that she later regretted. It was not aggressive, but it was perceived by the acquaintance to be an insult and degrading in the eyes of her fellow group members. However, the acquaintance promptly sent a private message to my friend saying that it would be better to discuss this face to face. Within a few minutes of their meeting, my friend apologised and posted a retraction and apology on the group page. She has never posted anything derogatory since. She learned her lesson and realised how easy it is to say something you later regret, but only when it’s too late to prevent the posting.

However, it may be a different kettle of fish for a business.

Take the sting out of the bad comments by responding in a very positive way

When your business gets trolled
If someone is bad-mouthing your company or your professionalism, it may affect your business or career quite severely. For example, online reviews. People tend to leave a bad review if they feel they have been treated badly by the business, or something has arrived later than promised, or it can even be something quite trivial. The common thread is that they feel aggrieved.

A friend runs a business selling online courses. A learner enrolled and paid for the course and then two months later, changed her mind and wanted a refund. The terms and conditions of the business clearly state that there is a time stipulation on getting a refund and she was out of time. She then promptly left an aggressive message on social media making allegations that the content was outdated and not to go near this training company. My friend contacted her immediately to discuss this, and she eventually retracted her statement and accepted the outcome.

Once again, the most important thing to do is to take the sting out of the bad comments by responding in a very positive way, for example: ‘We are sorry you feel this way about your experience. Perhaps we can contact you and get your personal feedback to help us improve our service in the future’. Making the reviewer feel important and one of your valued customers is the best way to tackle such a situation, if you can.

As a business owner, if you receive a bad review you need to assess whether it is warranted

Negative online reviews
Checking online reviews is the way most of us decide whether to buy something, rent holiday accommodation or try a new restaurant. However, have you noticed that for every 10 x 5-star reviews there is always a 1-star? As a business owner, if you receive a bad review you need to assess whether it is warranted or not. If not, then a simple response apologising that the reviewer had a bad experience indicates that the business cares. If it is more serious, then perhaps a more detailed response is necessary.

The question to ask yourself as the potential customer is, has this 1-star reviewer been contacted by the business? If they have, then I would suggest that this is a business that listens to its customers. Therefore, as a business, the key is to ensure you can be seen to deal with negative comments and concerns and not just ignore them.

Tackling grievances
Previously, when social media and emails didn’t exist, making a complaint involved having to put a lot of thought and planning into writing a letter and sending it through the post. There was no such thing as a throw-away comment which could instantaneously be posted, without much thought or effort.

It may not always be possible to diffuse a situation, but generally, the worst thing you can do, is to ignore it. On occasion, however, depending on the nature of the review, it may be self-evident that the review should not warrant a reply. This is a choice that the business has to make. If the post is made on Facebook, then possibly a complaint can be made (if the comments are questionable). Some review sites do contact the trader/service provider to ascertain whether this is a genuine customer and grievance.

If you attempt to diffuse the situation without success, you may have to turn to legal methods. A ‘Cease and Desist’ letter could be sent (if you know the troller’s postal or email address). This informs the person to cease what they are doing under threat of legal action. If that fails to work, a claim for compensation based on harassment could be made through the courts.

If financial loss can be proved, then it may be worth taking legal action

Proving defamation has occurred
One final tip: people often refer to ‘defamation’. This is a legal term that describes someone making a false verbal (slander) or written (libel) statement about an individual or business which damages their reputation, resulting in financial loss. However, the burden lies with the person making such an allegation of loss that financial loss has been suffered as a direct result of such defamation.

If financial loss can be proved, then it may be worth taking legal action. But beware! It is a costly process and there is no funding to assist you. All of the above actions, of course, may be negated by the fact that the reviewer or ‘troller’ may be anonymous, but if you are aware of who they are, then mediation could be considered in order to settle any issues without recourse to litigation through the courts.

If you need legal advice or assistance, you can always approach a paralegal who will offer you access to justice at a more reasonable cost than a solicitor. To find a qualified paralegal visit the National Paralegal Register.

Amanda Hamilton is Chief Executive of the National Association of Licenced Paralegals (NALP), a non-profit membership body and the only paralegal body that is recognised as an awarding organisation by Ofqual (the regulator of qualifications in England). Through its Centres around the country, accredited and recognised professional paralegal qualifications are offered for those looking for a career as a paralegal professional.

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