How to Spot the Angry Citizens in a Troll Storm


When mean tweets start pouring in, federal social media managers need to be able to tell the difference.

The advent of social media has enabled agencies to interact with citizens with an immediacy and scale that was never possible before. And while many are finding value engaging with fellow Americans online, the trolls are always lurking.

But when your social media presence takes on a customer support role—as it does for many agencies—it can be hard to differential between angry citizens seeking answers and trolls who just want to get your ire up.

“Sometimes, as a social media manager, you feel a little bit like a punching bag,” Lori Lawson, digital engagement specialist for the State Department Bureau of Consular Affairs, said during the Jan. 31 Digital Citizen Summit hosted by Government Executive. “Folks come to you either when they’re really, really happy or really, really angry. There’s not a whole lot in the middle.”

That’s not unusual for people in customer support, but federal agencies can become a target for people with no legitimate grievance to address. Especially when the agency is in the spotlight.

“When you’re tied in to news stories that are hot-button issues, then you get the trolls,” Lawson said. But that doesn’t mean every angry tweet is coming from a troll.

“Some people have actual, legitimate questions,” Lawson said. “I think it’s important to look at whether or not there’s an opportunity to educate someone about a process or legitimately help them. Is there an actual question there?”

“It’s perfectly valid to find our process frustrating,” she continued. “It’s perfectly valid to be angry that something is not working the way you think it should. Understanding that those feelings are valid and that’s actual valuable feedback for us as the managers of these processes, then separating out the trolls that are just saying rude comments and there’s no real question or real opportunity to educate about a process.”

Carol Crawford, chief of the Digital Media Branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Division of Public Affairs, agreed, adding that your social community can help make the differentiation.

“We’re lucky on a lot of our channels that we have a lot of public health professionals or people who are interested in public health that often step in before we even have a chance and things tend to calm down,” she said. “People have their right to believe what they want and state what they want and we try to allow that as much as possible and engage where it just makes the most sense.”

“There’s an adage on the internet: Don’t feed the trolls,” said Raymond Piper, social and mobile team lead for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. “That’s, honestly, sometimes the best way to do it.”

That said, a lot of social media engagement with FEMA occurs in the wake of a disaster, when tensions are understandably high.

“It’s a very stressful time for somebody during a disaster. A lot of times if they’re trolling you, it’s because somewhere in the process they became legitimately angry at you. That’s what we see a lot of the time—minus the conspiracy theories,” Piper said.

“Look at the opportunity that any one of those comments could present. Educate, show them how the process works, try to point them in the right direction,” he said. “They may not want to hear it at that point in time, but they may come back. Sometimes the community is self-correcting. If someone is putting out bad information, you have to have faith that people who are followers of your account have a healthy interest in it and want to make sure the right information is getting out there, as well.”