Why the TTC can’t wish the trolls away

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The better way?

A Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) union recently tried to shut down the @TTCHelps customer service Twitter account. The union is upset over “the barrage of hateful tweets directed at particular employees” on Twitter, including “photos of TTC workers taken by disgruntled riders,” alleging the TTC is not doing enough to protect workers from online harassment.

I have no idea what’s in these pictures or what constitutes “hateful tweets directed at particular employees.” Outrage over TTC employees allegedly sleeping on the job, recent fraud investigations and TTC security staff issuing bogus tickets has been front-page news over the years, and (surprise) relies on social media as its main outlet.

However, the tweets the union took issue with appear to be crude and hateful. calling employees “bitchy,” “fat—,” “a—–e,” “another f—–g f—–t in a not in service bus,” and a “racist f— that needs to get laid.”

Nobody deserves to be denigrated or called names, online or off. The arbitrator ultimately sided with the union, while acknowledging that “there was little to prevent the customers from posting offensive messages about TTC employees.” The Toronto Star paraphrased the arbitrator, saying “employees are entitled to a workplace free from harassment and discrimination, and that social media sites operated by the TTC should be considered part of the workplace.”

Where this logic breaks down is how complaints surface online. As the arbitrator acknowledges, people are going to sound off on social media about everything they don’t like. The question becomes whether an organization wants to know about those issues or pretend they don’t exist. Even though the union is trying to protect its workers from harassment, shutting customer service channels would do nothing to make the offensive behaviour disappear: it would just means the TTC would have a harder time learning about customer concerns, acknowledging and fixing the legitimate ones, and shutting down the offensive ones.

Getting rid of @TTCHelps wouldn’t make any trolls go away. In fact, it would make them proliferate: without an official voice to focus, triage and ultimately police these complaints and behaviours, they would be free to roam the wild, vile portion of the internet, where they’d grow and become worse in the rage-based echo chamber of social media. Nobody is going to restrain themselves from hitting “tweet” just because they can’t put “@TTCHelps” in front of their 140 characters.

The ruling doesn’t shut down @TTCHelps. Instead, the arbitrator “…directed the TTC to create a social media policy to govern its use of the account, and for the two parties to work together to determine next steps.” This is good news, because everyone needs a social media policy (does the TTC not already have one?) and nobody is going to stop acting pissed off at TTC staff simply because a customer service channel isn’t there to hurl anger at. More importantly, the TTC couldn’t turn its back on the 21st century even if it wanted to: customer service happens online and on social. Wishing it away will do nothing.

What an organization like the TTC can do in this situation is post acceptable use guidelines (or a policy, as noted by the arbitrator above) and enforce them. If someone harasses a staff member, they’re warned. If the offense is egregious or repeated, they’re banned. If the behaviour is particularly defamatory or threatening, the police are involved. In that sense, the expectation is no different from in-house customer service.

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