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Incognito: Trolls made my life a nightmare

Cyber bullying
Series: 

This month’s Incognito blogger tells us how a new marketing strategy for her business ended in a campaign of online abuse…

‘You need to raise your profile,’ the career coach said. We were having coffee in a trendy hotel lobby and talking through ways I could become known as an expert in my field – wellness and health. ‘You are a specialist but no one knows about it.’ It was – and still is – good advice. I’d always been in the leisure industry and had recently started my own specialist travel business. I wanted to be seen as the authoritative voice in wellness travel and become synonymous with spa and retreat travel. I needed that recognition to grow my business – my customer base and my portfolio. 

I didn’t really have the funds yet to bring a PR on board but I spoke to several marketing and PR friends and they suggested that I could use social media to elevate my ‘voice’ and show my authority. I was very excited about it as I lived and breathed health and wellness – as well as it being my day job, I read every new book and article and was always trying new products. I worked hard on a strategy. I could use Instagram to showcase the health and wellness hotels and spas I visited, I would set up a YouTube channel to talk about products I liked, I’d blog when I had time and post on LinkedIn and I would use Twitter and Facebook to share all channel activity as well as interesting reports and stats on wellness and to share my opinion.
 

A SUCCESSFUL START


For the next six months I threw myself into the strategy – I was prolific and analytical. I studied when I got most engagement and who was following me. It was fantastic to see my followers grow into five figures and to start converting into sales. I was diligent and answered questions, remarked on followers’ comments – there were some regulars. I didn’t know them but it felt good having a community. And the profile-raising was working – I was asked to quote in magazine articles and spoke on a couple of panels. 

It was about nine months after I’d begun my strategy that things started to tip over into nastiness. I started getting requests from people I didn’t know to join my personal Facebook page. I keep this completely separate and just have for people I know so I just deleted them. I didn’t think anything of it at the time but suddenly nasty comments started creeping in. 

It started on YouTube. 

On my YouTube videos they accused me of being paid to say nice things about the products, which just wasn’t true – I bought every one myself or had tried the products in spa treatments. 

They went into detail about my family and my partner – he is good-looking so I got comments like ‘Has he got a sight problem?’ or ‘What’s the deal there, is he after her for her money?’. We don’t have children and they said that we ‘obviously weren’t having sex, who would want to procreate with her?’. I have had three miscarriages. 

I could delete comments off my own channels, although it was hugely distressing, but then they started talking about me in a forum – they screenshot my posts – and just character-assassinated me. The worst part was I didn’t have any control over these comments and couldn’t ask for the forum to be shut down. I felt helpless. I know I shouldn’t have read the comments but once you’ve read one you get this horrible compulsion to look at others, just to see how nasty it gets. I’ve learned now to keep my distance from all of this. I had to – for the sake of my health.

 

THE DEVASTATING IMPACT

The constant stress gave me terrible anxiety – I’d wake crippled by fear and wouldn’t be able to sleep for the rest of the night, which affected my mood – and I dreaded opening my laptop in the morning in case I’d catch sight of more abuse. I had to turn off the Google notification that told me when my name or brand had been mentioned online, which had been useful for business. It’s worrying because the public associates me with my company, and if I’m not actively and visibly out there, then the company suffers.

It’s hard to know how to tackle trolling when it’s directed at you – the internet still feels like the wild west. I blocked trolls on Twitter and you can report abuse quite easily on that platform but it can take a while for them to check the context of the abuse and determine if it’s categorised as free speech. Legally, trolling is an offence in the UK under the Malicious Communications Act, but it can be exhausting and expensive trying to track down and take legal action against anonymous abusers.

I admired the way the TV classicist Mary Beard made an effort to engage with her Twitter trolls, even sitting down with one to talk about why they sent her hateful messages, but it’s not my style. In the end, to restore my sense of self-worth, I deleted my social media accounts but kept LinkedIn for professional purposes. It’s essential to have time away from these toxic platforms – I wasn’t hooked on them, but a digital detox shows how much time you have to spend doing more meaningful things.

My life feels more balanced now, I’m much happier. I hope the social media giants bring in legislation to combat trolling more effectively. It would be too late for me but at least it would stop other people having their lives ruined.’