By Sarah Goldfarb, Managing Director of Social Media & Digital Content
As higher ed social media managers, we’ve all had that morning when we wake up to see our institutional account mentions blowing up and that sinking feeling that follows when you realize you’re going viral—but not in the way you dreamed.
The incredible amount of mentions is typically a deluge of negativity, usually from social media users who have no connection to the institution yet band together to overwhelm us. Because many institutions are subjects of similar attacks, here is a list of common issues to help you be aware and prepare as much as possible:
- Anti-vaxxers swarm an institution after a student's death. Regardless of the cause of death, these trolls claim the student died due to a vaccine and demand that the institution is held responsible for its mandates. This attack feels especially horrific given students, families and the rest of the campus are often grieving from a death in their community.
- Attacks on scholars. We are seeing an uptick regarding faculty who are attacked for their research findings and areas of study. These are professionally disruptive and personally difficult and often involve more action, from providing support to the professor to issuing a statement on the institution’s commitment to academic freedom and support of the research.
- We are seeing a coordinated movement to bash institutions’ diversity, equity and inclusion efforts. This often comes in the form of social media attacks following the hiring of a diversity leader at an institution, an announcement about changes to campus spaces, programs or any other DEI-related news.
- Student-organized clubs and gatherings. A troll catches wind of an event through a student group’s social media posting or someone on the campus posts a picture of a poster on a billboard, and in what feels like an instant, the institution is receiving thousands of comments with satirical memes or demanding the event be canceled. Often - even if it’s a good cause and aligns with the institution’s mission of inclusivity - the event is canceled out of concern for organizers’ and attendees’ wellbeing.
These situations are often paralyzing and leave us with questions on how to proceed. Every scenario comes with its nuances, but here are some tips:
- Make relevant leadership and coworkers aware of the situation. Provide them with background information and regular updates throughout the day and/or week, depending on the length of the attack.
- If the nature of the comments and posts directly mention a specific scholar and their research, that is usually a sign that not only do you need to alert them and academic leadership, but likely also law enforcement. Do what you need to do to ensure the faculty member’s personal or contact information isn’t out there on institution-owned websites.
- Once you have a handle on the scope of the attack, sometimes it is best to hit pause on your regularly scheduled content. This is especially true if the trolls are commenting on recent posts of yours.
- Rarely is it beneficial to engage or respond to these attacks, because of the vitriol and lack of connection the trolls have to your community. There is a different course of action if engaged members of your community (students, alumni, parents, faculty/staff) do raise concerns on social media about something specific happening at your institution, in which case a response may be warranted.
- If you are still feeling overwhelmed or if the problem persists, you may want to seek outside expertise from an issues management firm such as RW Jones, as we can support you and tailor a path forward specific to your situation and institution.