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Dealing with Trolling

October 8, 2019

This past year (2018-19), a few members of the MIT community experienced some fairly serious trolling on social media. The online harassment was not directed at any DLC in particular, and did not take place on a DLC-owned social media channel. Rather, they were instances where a staff member or student experienced trolling related to personal opinions they expressed on their own digital platforms or social media channels.

Trolling, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, is to “antagonize (others) online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive content.”

Because the recent incidents were personal online attacks, I will not share details in this blog post. But I do want to take this opportunity to reiterate some best practices for the MIT community related to personal social media use.

Respect your audience, MIT, and your coworkers.

When posting on your own social media, be clear that the views and opinions expressed are personal, and do not represent the official stance or policy of MIT. But even when you are clear, understand that your audience may still attribute your comments to MIT, so be mindful of how they will reflect on the Institute and its reputation. Here are MIT’s policies on personal conductracism, and harassment for your reference.

Be the first to respond to your own mistakes.

If you make an error, be up front about your mistake and correct it quickly. If you modify an earlier post, make it clear that you have done so. If someone accuses you of posting something improper, such as their copyrighted material or a defamatory comment about them, deal with it quickly. It’s better to remove posts immediately to reduce the possibility of a legal action than to let things linger.

Most social sites have their own rules, policies, and procedures, and you will likely be required to accept their terms of service before you can begin to use them. It’s always good to familiarize yourself with these rules so that you can be sure you are able to comply with them. For instance, Twitter has clear policies on what it deems to be violent threats, abuse, and hateful conduct, along with many other rules and guidelines.

Follow MIT’s policies and procedures.

MIT’s Policies and Procedures provide advice to MIT staff, faculty, and students who use social media to promote an MIT event, initiative, or academic program. If the trolling extends to any type of in-person contact on campus, it should be reported. It is MIT’s policy to protect the rights of all individuals and to safeguard the welfare of everyone in the MIT community.

There is no clear policy on how DLCs should respond if a staff member or student is being trolled online. It is possible that if a DLC gets involved or comments publicly in any way, that could further incite or motivate the harasser. I do not recommend DLCs engage or intervene in any way on a public platform.

One step DLCs have taken in the past is to remove the person’s contact information from the DLC website upon the request of the targeted person. Any steps taken should be done in consultation with the person being trolled.

These things are never cut and dry. Social media managers are encouraged to contact me to talk through these incidents on a case by case basis, and consult with other colleagues across the Institute as needed.

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