Why aren’t employers offering their staff social media self-defense training?


Ginger Gorman

For most people, social media is where much of the venting takes place.

For most people, social media is where much of the venting takes place. Photo: Stocksy

Online trolling and "doxxing" is a hot topic at the moment. It seems not a day goes by when there's yet another story about some high-profile public figure or school-age child who has been viciously trolled or cyberbullied.

A trolling story is one we can't look away from. It's got shock factor and is almost impossible to understand. Why would a person send a complete stranger threats of unthinkable harm via the Internet?

This may be the question we ask ourselves as we read these stories in the media day after day. However, there's a less emotive – but no less important – question that has not yet hit the public discourse. Many trolling victims are online as part of their professional work. What are employers doing to protect their employees from harm online?

Before answering that question, take a step back into the shoes of the victim.


Just to come clean, I myself have been trolled as a direct result of my work as a journalist and it was terrifying.

UTS journalism academic and co-founder of Destroy the Joint, Jenna Price, has received online threats that are arguably worse. These have included rape and death threats against her and her daughters.

"Every day, some fool will tell me that I am a liar or I'm stupid. And once a week, some thug will suggest that what will fix my feminist mindset is a good raping," she says.

In the wake of continual trolling, she simply refuses to be "beaten" and thankfully her workplace has been incredibly supportive. But don't mistake Ms Price's bravery for inconsequence.

"There is nothing more terrifying than opening your email to pictures of beheaded women, or women being beaten and sexually assaulted. I had sleepless nights," she says.

According to cyberbullying expert Professor Marilyn Campbell from QUT, a large body of research shows that if you are the victim of online bullying, it can cause you significant psychological trauma. At worst, you may even have suicidal thoughts because of it.

"We know that employers such as media and universities are encouraging their staff to enter the online world, using blogs, wikis, online commentaries and social networking sites. They are required, quite rightly, to follow their organisation's code of conduct in these spaces.

"However, there seems not to be any recognition that these employees are therefore exposed to potential trolling and cyberbullying because of their work," Professor Campbell says.

Over the last two years a number of ABC staff have been and continue to be viciously trolled. Rod McGuinness is the person who oversees the strategy and policies for ABC Radio's use of social media.

On most days, he says, social media is managed "competently" without adverse effect.

"However, there are other days or instances where comments or messages are highly vexatious, threatening, with graphic images or details, and these can cause great distress and trauma," he continues.

Following the increase of internet abuse and death threats towards specific individuals at the ABC, Rod McGuinness kick-started the Social Media Self Defense Training course.

The course starts out by defining online trolling and then goes on to look at motivations for this behavior and how anonymity can play into it. Participants are given practical and mental tips to deal with trolls and an overview of the Australian laws online bullies may be breaking.

It's early days yet but he hopes to one day roll the course out to all staff at the broadcaster.

In today's media environment, it's normal for employers to expect and encourage their employees to have an online presence. Some companies even explicitly state this in their social media policy. In this context, Rod McGuinness says employers have "a duty of care to ensure staff are safe and supported."

"Employers need to equip their staff with knowledge that empowers them to recognise the different types of trolling, how to respond – or not respond – and the steps to enable them to continue using social media effectively without exposure to sustained abuse and longer term distress," he says.

What then, are organisations across the country doing to give their employees social media resilience training and protect them from online abuse?

Not much, it seems. I've contacted seven social media experts in academia, law and business and asked each of them which Australian workplaces are providing the kind of resilience training described above. With the exception of Rod McGuinness' fledging program, the answer was: none that they were aware of.

Rod McGuinness says there is a widespread misperception that, "'People online can be horrible and if you put yourself out there, you just have to cop it'.

"We don't see much discussion of people being abused or threatened online who are simply doing their job," he says.

Alastair MacGibbon, Director of the Centre for Internet Safety at the University of Canberra, describes this issue as both "a sleeping giant in terms of negative social impact" and "an important OH&S issue."

"Employers are – rightly – increasingly sensitive to issues that affect the welfare of their staff. Many may not have considered the impact of online bullying and harassment, but the threats are real," he says.

And apart from staff well-being, there's another real-world implication of employers ignoring the pending threat of Internet trolls to their staff. Roger Blow, Principal at Cove Legal in Perth, says there are significant potential legal implications.

"I can imagine an employee claim [against their employer] succeeding in the future where the person has been damaged by online abuse in the absence of any preventative measures or training being introduced by the employer," he says.

If you are doing work to train staff in social media resilience, please get in contact with me via Daily Life. I'd love to hear about it.

Ginger Gorman is a multi-award winning print and radio journalist, and a 2006 World Press Institute Fellow. Follow her on twitter at @freshchilli