ONLINE NOISE: How to deal with comment, criticism and abuse on social media

Back in the early days of social media evangelists like Clay Shirky would say how transformational it would all be.

The emphasis was on the positive and it was a compelling picture. Of course, then came people like Donald Trump came along who turned rage into a money and power machine.

To quote Shirky, we are not good at thinking fast but we are good at feeling fast.

A proud boast, I created one of the first 100 government Twitter accounts anywhere in the world in 2008. When I first posted it the first replies were how cool it was that the council was on Twitter.

For three years I was the council online and was so wrapped up in making it a success I once insisted we paused serving the family Christmas dinner so I could tell people we were out gritting. I can still remember their shiny faces of disbelief.

Press fast forward, and the landscape is different. There is a lot of anger. We are frustrated, stressed, angry and frightened about the pandemic but we can’t control it. What we can control is telling the council how fucking angry we are about their fucking potholes.

When I was drawing up the Essential Comms Skills Booster programme (advertisement: they’re here and very good) I was clear in my mind that one of the five sessions needed to be about dealing with the incoming messages. For me, they divide into comment, criticism and abuse. There’s a big difference between all three.


Comment is when people do exactly that, they comment. ‘Good job,’ ‘the trees in the Arboretum are great,’ ‘does anyone know when the recycling centre is open?’ or ‘can I recycle pizza boxes?’

That’s fine.

Well-run accounts reply because they know that the algorithm in places like Facebook, Instagram or Twitter rewards them for doing so. They also know its polite and good customer service.


Here’s a thing if you’re in the public sector, criticism is fine. The world doesn’t smell of fresh paint and this, basically, is what you signed up for.

Not every decision is the right one. Not every right decision is well communicated.

It’s the job of the public sector social media admin to reflect back the feedback from people to the decision makers.

‘So, the new traffic lights on the roundabout don’t work,’ is fine. Flag it up with someone.

How about this?

‘The new traffic lights on the roundabout don’t work because the people in charge of the council make bad policy decisions.’

That’s fine too. It’s someone objecting to a policy decision.

I’ve sometime heard of pressure to remove comment critical of the policy or the party that made it.

I’m deeply uneasy about that.

In answer to that, I’m going to point you to the Code of Recommended Practice on Local Government Publicity issued by UK Government. This is the Pole Star when it comes to navigating tricky decisions. It covers England. There is a very similar publicity code one for Wales and also for Scotland.

What does that say?

Publicity by local authorities should:-
• be lawful
• be cost effective
• be objective
• be even-handed
• be appropriate
• have regard to equality and diversity
• be issued with care during periods of heightened sensitivity

I’m going to say that the guidelines say its not objective, even-handed or appropriate to delete comments critical of a policy decision or even the party that made them and keep the ones that praise them.

In addition, the code adds:

19. Where local authority publicity addresses matters of political controversy it should seek to present the different positions in relation to the issue in question in a fair manner.

Now, in matters of law its always useful to get the formal views of a legal expert in your organisation if you need to. But for me, the position is pretty clear.

There’s a whole process about dealing with snark and sarcasm that I won’t go into here.


Woah, Neddy!

The line gets drawn when its abuse.

So, when someone posts: “The new traffic lights on the roundabout don’t work because the council’s highways department are all fucking idiots,” that’s not cool.

Imagine what happens when you ring up or go into your bank and start swearing. If you think the fast-track VIP lane will open up you are very much mistaken. Quite right, too.

I have spoken to far too many public sector people ground down by the abuse they suffer without protection.

Social media house rules

So, how can you make a decision on what action to take?

It all points once again to having an effective set of social media house rules to help the account admins know when and how to respond. It also helps elected members, officers and the public know, too.

My new favourite set are Glasgow City Council’s set which you can find here.

They’re as good as any I’ve seen in the past decade.

Comment? Reply.

Criticism? Listen, moniotor and reply if you can.

Abuse? Don’t tolerate it.

You can find out more about the ESSENTIAL COMMS SKILLS BOOSTER programme here.

Picture credit: Documerica / Flickr

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