Published: 8 November 2019

We need to talk about trolling

I’m a big fan of social media. For the last seven years we’ve worked alongside Platypus Digital as co-founders of the Social CEOs awards, recognising good digital leadership across the sector. And more than anything I’m still excited about how social media can democratise communications for charities, helping them communicate, fundraise and influence at scale.

Yet social media has changed.

On one hand social media offers excellent opportunities to find like minded people who will support your charity, and champion your cause. On a good day we see the best in human nature, like donors coming forward to give to the RNLI after it was criticised in the Daily Mail a few weeks ago, leading to an increase in online donations. But on a bad day, we see the worst in people. Jesy Nelson of Little Mix has described the death threats she received online, whilst MPs such as Jess Phillips and Luciana Berger have talked about the impact that trolling has had on their lives.

The pervading culture on social media now means that trolling is happening in many sectors. Last year I was running a session at the ACEVO conference where a group of female CEOs told me that they had been trolled. I was very concerned about what I heard, and more CEOs have since come forward to share their stories with me. I’ve also experienced racist trolling myself.

Having heard these first hand accounts Matt from Platypus Digital and I were spurred into action to take some initial soundings from the sector. We partnered with ACEVO on a survey to find out what female CEOs have experienced, and the support that they need and this resulted in 27 female CEOs coming forward to share their experiences with us. Whilst this is a small sample size, what they had to say is disturbing. Since the survey we have compiled the responses into a free to access report (put link here) and we hope that by shining a light on this issue more CEOs will come forward to talk about what they have experienced.

Here is a snapshot of what we learned from the research:

  • Trolling is a broad spectrum
    We’d define trolling as antagonising others online by deliberately posting inflammatory, irrelevant, or offensive comments or other disruptive or abusive content. This covers a wide range of situations. Our respondents shared examples which covered everything from comments about the organisation and its leaders, to inappropriate behaviour and personal, targeted attacks. 

    What unites all of these stories is the personal and aggressive nature of the comments. One woman told us:

    “An anonymous person started sending frequent and abusive tweets to me and a few other people blaming us, particularly me, for child deaths. This was tangentially related to a job I left over a year ago. Other anonymous accounts joined in but I suspect they were the same person. When it started to make me feel scared I blocked them. But (I) didn’t want to as I felt I should be aware of what was being said.”

    Another described the impact on their mental health:

  • “Trolling was instigated by a well known personality who should have known better, and led to personal abuse and death threats. It was a tiny organisation without the resources or experience to cope with this. It left me (as CEO) feeling suicidal, as the only way to end it.”

    It’s awful that CEOs who are simply trying to do their jobs need to deal with trolling on top of all the other challenges. If you or one of your colleagues have experienced trolling, it’s vital to start talking about and discussing where people may need support and guidance.

    That also includes the team who support the CEO. I have spoken to CEOs who no longer looks at their replies and mentions on Twitter, but as one told me that means disturbing content still needs to be read if it is to be reported. The colleagues who do this may need support with their mental health.

    Trolling affects charities of all sizes
    We heard from CEOs of both large and small charities in through our research. What this says to me is that charities of all sizes need to be prepared to deal with this issue, as part of crisis comms planning.

    The effects of trolling are wide ranging
    CEOs described how dealing with trolling required time, energy and resources from their team, and affected their mental health. Others were concerned about reputational risk, with one telling us, “I think the comments on the news articles must undermine our reputation and impact membership and funding. It makes us too controversial for local businesses to support.”

So where do we go from here? Trolling is a sensitive and difficult area and we want to hear from any other CEOs who have been affected, whichever gender they identify with. We recognise that trolling is an issue that affects everyone.

If you are interested in finding out more you can read our full report here.

Charity Digital Trust have also offered to help organise a roundtable to look at what support CEOs need, and to review what can be done to solve the problem, including campaigning. If you’d like to attend the roundtable please contact Jonathan.Chevallier@charitydigital.org.uk

Our people deserve to feel safe online, and we hope that our research helps get this conversation started in the sector.

Zoe will also be talking more about the report at our Wellbeing in charity communications seminar.


Zoe Amar, director, Zoe Amar Digital

Zoe Amar is founder and director of Zoe Amar Digital, a charity marketing and digital communications consultancy who've worked with Action Aid, CAF, Crimestoppers and many other great charities. She also blogs for The Guardian. Zoe shares charity marketing resources over at www.zoeamar.com and @zoeamar