Many brands have embraced a lesson of the social media age: It's counterproductive to delete most criticism from blogs and Facebook pages.
You look thin-skinned, and you risk enflaming your critics, as Nestlé learned when it threatened to ban those who posted an altered version of its logo during a Greenpeace campaign against the chocolate maker.
But companies and individual bloggers often cut comments that are profane, racist, or otherwise offensive. So how to draw the line between what's intolerable and what one must grin and bear?
The most cowardly commenters are those who hurl invective anonymously, but using a pseudonym alone isn't cause for deleting remarks from most comment pages.
Kyle Lacy, a social media and digital marketing consultant, recently blogged about his decision to cut remarks that are disparaging and off topic. He did this after removing comments that he found malicious and personal, although (unsurprisingly) he declined in an interview to specify what they said.
A stated policy
He leaves critical remarks on the page if the commenter makes an argument he can engage in, even when commenters hide behind pseudonyms.
He explains: "I came to a point where I said, 'This is just not something I'm going to deal with, because I don't have time. I don't have patience. And if you can't add to the conversation, I don't really care about you.'"
At Southwest Airlines, the company's Nuts about Southwest blog includes an "about us" statement that explains its comments policy, says Christi McNeill, emerging media specialist. The company insists that comments be of general interest, and it warns that "profanity, racial and ethnic slurs, and rude behavior like disparaging personal remarks won't be published."
In its Facebook pages, Southwest notes that the social media platform requires users to promise not to post hateful, threatening, or pornographic content, nor to bully or intimidate other users, McNeill notes.
"If we are questioned by a fan about removing a comment from our Facebook page this statement of rights and responsibility will back up our decision, and we will explain that decision to the fan," she says. "This does not happen very often."
It's not just big brands that must deal with the issue of what to do about the nameless trolls who emerge from their lairs to deface comments sections. The Blog Herald states on its policies page that it deletes comments whose content is abusive or off topic, contains ad hominem attacks, promotes hate, or is "excessively foul."
The Blog Herald also filters out spam using a combination of Akismet, Spam Karma 2 and Bad Behavior 2, it reports.
This year The Los Angeles Times started experimenting with a requirement that people log on through Facebook in order to comment. "Will this move be a 'troll-killer' or will it make our blogs seem hollow?" an editor asked in announcing the policy. "We don't know, but we're going to give it a shot."
Elliot J. Silver, founder of Top Notch Domains, recently blogged about the issue, asking, "Should Comment Trolls Be Banned?" What annoys him most are polarizing attempts to change the topic of discussion, he wrote. However, he primarily removes abusive comments.
Some companies don't want to read negative comments about themselves on their own websites, he says. "However, if [a company] wants to encourage sharing and a sense of community, it needs to realize that people may not all have positive experiences with the company and they should allow people the opportunity to express themselves honestly," he says.
Despite his recent decision to delete comments, Lacy says in most cases companies needn't cut negative remarks from their blogs and social media pages. If most of your customers are happy with your product, they will probably defend your brand.
Don't attack the waitress
"If you don't have a great product and people are posting negative comments, then you have a bigger problem than just negative comments," he says. "You have a crappy product."
Where he draws the line is personal invective in comments. If somebody goes on a restaurant website to slam the food he ate last night, a company shouldn't cut it. But if they rip on a waitress personally and make fun of her appearance, then nobody needs to tolerate that in the name of customer engagement.
"One's degrading to an individual, and one's not," Lacy says.
As for those who are tempted to pound out an angry rebuttal to something they've read on the Web, a cartoon from Laughing Squid puts it in perspective. In it, Professor Internet, a cat in a mortarboard, offers this advice to would-be trolls: "Just walk away! Anything you do now is a better use of time."
Perhaps, but trolls don't see it that way, as the cartoon depicts, and it gets pretty funny from there. There's just one problem. It uses language that would get it booted from the comments sections of some corporate pages.