How to differentiate digital noise from online abuse: keys for civil society

Social networks have become predominant spaces for publicizing the work and ideas promoted by different organizations, as they make it possible to reproduce a message quickly and reach mass audiences at a low cost. However, this same speed can lead, in some cases, to hostility and the dissemination of harmful content. 

Although a barrage of negative criticism can set off alarm bells and lead to a reputational crisis, this in itself should not be considered an attack, as it is a legitimate - and even predictable - expression of discontent or dissent. So how do you differentiate between critical posts on social networks and an online attack? Linterna Verde puts the magnifying glass to this question.

In principle, it is important to take into account the dynamism of the digital environment, which means that there is a multiplicity of actors vying for attention on issues that are activated and deactivated depending on political junctures or particular agendas. Therefore, there is no single course of action to face such an unpredictable scenario. In this blog post we present some starting points that can help differentiate online abuse from digital noise. This distinction allows us to classify the severity, frequency and direction of adverse digital account actions to know when and how it is relevant to act. 

What is digital noise?

As much as the traffic in a city or the incessant shouting in the stands of a stadium, noise is part of the digital ecosystem, especially in social networks. In this space it is common to come across all kinds of information -contaminated, problematic, useful-, diverse opinions and debates that develop around current issues. All simultaneously. 

Digital noise is, then, a web of interactions that, although it can be harassing and overwhelming, does not necessarily mean a direct attack on an individual or organization. While digital noise can cause interference in communication processes that ultimately affects the success of the messages that civil society organizations seek to share, dealing with it is part of making one's way through the social media ecosystem. 

Digital noise makes it difficult to discern between what is part of a niche conversation, the daily hustle and bustle of social media, a legitimate criticism or an attack. While all of these phenomena can affect our interpretation of the conversation, our willingness to interact and even our mood, tuning should focus on identifying the cues that are relevant to the organization. The annoying, impertinent or offensive should not saturate the digital strategy.

What is online abuse?

Like digital noise, online abuse can manifest itself in any Internet scenario. However, the option of anonymity and the ease of viralization make social networks an optimal context for various users to exercise abusive actions without repercussions. To understand what abuse consists of, two characteristic axes must be taken into account: on the one hand, abuse implies repetition and, on the other, it is formulated with a severity that can have consequences on the reputation and physical or moral integrity of the person or group that is being abused. 

Likewise, online abuse is considered a broad category that refers to multiple types of attacks, intimidation and violence within the digital ecosystem. As mentioned above, social networks tend to be the predominant scenario and usually manifest themselves in actions such as hacking, harassment, threats, violent speech, among others. 

How to differentiate them?  

We can identify some differences between digital noise and online abuse:

  1. Purpose: while digital noise does not have a specific target, online abuse is directed at a person or organization with particular characteristics or ideas.
  2. Reiteration: while digital noise responds to discussions or junctures, online abuse is constant and repetitive. The frequency with which these aggressive expressions occur must comply with a pattern of continuity over time or respond to specific moments of tension that have already been identified.
  3. Form: while digital noise interactions may simply express nonconformity, online abuse is couched in a hurtful and harsh manner that violates its recipients. 
  4. Intent: while digital noise is part of the dynamism of debates in the digital ecosystem, online abuse seeks to exclude particular sectors and ideas from the discussion.
  5. Reaction: while digital noise can be dealt with through a solid communications strategy that allows interaction within the ecosystem in such a way that messages reach their target, as well as by making use of the tools offered by the platforms to reduce noise - blocking, muting, etc. -, online abuse requires concrete response actions such as those mentioned in our first guide on adversarial narratives and accounts. 

Despite recognizing these characteristics that can help make a clearer distinction between noise and abuse, it is not always clear to whom a hostile comment is directed or whether it was intended as an attack. While there are messages that are expressly intended to harm, insult, troll, threaten or spread hatred, those that are less direct may become much more prominent and likewise antagonize or dissuade others from further participation in the conversation. 

In these cases, it is necessary for the organization or individuals being targeted to make a risk assessment of these interactions. For example, by identifying the context in which the comment was made, either the discussion itself or the contextual situation of the conversation in the country of origin, which implies a broader analytical exercise.

To learn more about online attacks and the ways in which you can act when faced with abuse, at Linterna Verde we have developed our guide of Adversarial accounts and narratives: Tools to identify attacks in the digital debate and how to react where it is possible to learn and expand on this information.