Zelda Williams pushed off Twitter: How to deal with online trolls

Essay: A former social media ghost writer discusses the effects of online trolls as Zelda Williams says goodbye to Twitter. 

Eric Thayer/Reuters/File
A portrait of the Twitter logo in Ventura, California in this photo taken December 21, 2013.

Robin Williams’s daughter Zelda, driven off social media by hateful messages following her famous father’s suicide, may return to her accounts, but it’s likely her tone will be forever altered.

Almost immediately after her father’s suicide, the sympathy messages that made her social media a safe space full of support were invaded by the ugly influence of trolls – those who post cruel messages for the sake of generating unrest online.

In the video game world, we call players who emotionally feed off of the mindless upset they generate in game play “griefers.”

Maybe that term fits the people who intruded on Ms. Williams grief with demands for more photos of her dead father and altered images of their own.

“I’m sorry,” she tweeted Thursday. “I should’ve risen above. Deleting this from my devices for a good long time, maybe forever. Time will tell. Goodbye.”

While blogging and reporting are my main sources of income, I was also recruited by a colleague a few years ago to work for an East Coast agency that supplies ghost writers to celebrities who want some emotional distance from their social media feeds.

I see it happen a lot when a star comes under fire in the media and trolls begin to hop on their social media feeds, inciting unrest.

Being a ghost writer means you have a certain perspective on social media, which becomes a bit less opaque to those working both sides of it.

Williams has just experienced the pain of betrayal by social media.

A reasonable prediction to make is that if Williams returns to her accounts it will be with some filters (both emotional and possibly external, in the form of someone filtering her stream before she sees it) for protection.

Because Williams ran her own feeds and was not a celebrity target, but the secondary target as the child of a star, trolls probably left her alone to a large degree.

When her famous father died, she was deluged with a flood of followers and with them came the followers who seem to emotionally feed on the grief of others.

In effect, her placid social media stream became a raging river in no time flat and she had no coping mechanisms or emotional safeties in place to handle that kind of event.

In many ways, a social media account dump is like a relationship breakup.

Williams tweeted that she “deleted” the Twitter app from her device. That’s a telltale sign that, for her, leaving social media is going to be like a bad breakup.

In a bad breakup, people tend to delete photos from their social media accounts and real world spaces in an effort to get away from the pain caused by the other person.

In this case, the app was deleted.

However, unless you are going to spend your life in a monastic cell with no Wi-Fi, social media often creeps back into people’s lives.

It’s likely Williams will at some point revisit social media and when she does, I hope she will remember this advice: Think of trolls as the Pied Pipers of the Internet’s sinkholes trying to lure you onto unstable ground.

The solution is to take the high ground. The uglier they get, the more you should ignore them and post only positivity and thanks to supporters.

If all else fails, use the Oscar Wilde method, “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much.”

I bet Robin Williams would have liked that method of troll control.

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