How transit, airlines react to abusive posts from social media

Companies are figuring out policy against a barrage of sometimes abusive social-media criticism

The TTC's new Bombardier Flexity low-floor light rail vehicle is pictured beside an older light rail vehicle, also known locally as a streetcar, in Toronto on August 29, 2015. (Stephen C. Host/CP)

The TTC’s new Bombardier Flexity low-floor light rail vehicle is pictured beside an older light rail vehicle, also known locally as a streetcar, in Toronto on August 29, 2015. (Stephen C. Host/CP)

TORONTO – A union grievance over abusive tweets directed at the some Toronto Transit Commission employees has drawn attention to the way organizations handle hostility on social media.

A provincial labour arbitrator ruled earlier this month that the TTC had “failed to take all reasonable and practical measures” to protect its employees from derogatory comments tweeted to the @TTChelps handle.

The decision stemmed from a 2013 complaint by the Amalgamated Transit Unions Local 113 over tweets that included personal attacks, profane language and disparaging remarks about TTC employees, including racist and homophobic slurs.

TTC personnel who run the Twitter account usually reply to such tweets by acknowledging the customer’s frustration and asking them to refrain from making offensive comments.

But Robert Howe, the labour arbitrator, called that approach inadequate, and recommended that the TTC respond by indicating it does not condone offensive tweets, requesting that the tweeters immediately delete their offensive comments and then blocking tweeters who do not comply.

The TTC is far from the only transportation service provider beset by online vitriol, and it seems few take the approach Howe’s suggesting.

WestJet Airlines says it receives a “constant barrage” of inquiries and criticism on social media, some of which can include expletives or abuse.

But the company prefers not to delete posts or block users if it can be avoided.

“It’s our goal to be responsive and accept feedback and constructive criticism,” said WestJet spokeswoman Lauren Stewart.

The airline has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to profanity on their Facebook page, so comments with bad language are removed.

But on Twitter, where the tweets of customers cannot be deleted, WestJet has a more lax approach.

“A lot of people, we’re going to let them rant a little bit, but when it turns to more bad language or being abusive toward others on Twitter we usually try to let it go and move on,” said Stewart.

“If it gets too bad, we would consider blocking somebody but that doesn’t happen that often. We’d rather take that conversation and turn it around as best as we can.”

Staff might also respond to abusive or profane social media posts by reminding the commenter to refrain from personal attacks, name-calling or foul language.

But even then, WestJet’s brand is to keep its communications light-hearted, Stewart said.

She pointed to an instance when WestJet social media staff replied to a particularly vulgar tweet with: “Watch your language, young man. There’s people on the other end of this account.”

Air Canada says it has a strict policy that posts on its Facebook page should be “based on mutual respect to encourage a healthy forum for sharing information of interest and relevance to our community.”

Posts that do not conform to that policy are deleted.

On Twitter, Air Canada does block some users, but it’s a rare occurrence, said spokeswoman Angela Mah.

“We find the vast majority of people understand the rules of social media engagement,” Mah said. “Only a small number of Twitter accounts have been banned due to inappropriate content such as solicitations (or) abusive comments.”

Metrolinx, the provincial agency that oversees transit systems in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area, says it trains its social media staff on when they should delete a Facebook comment or block a Twitter user.

It’s up to each employee to use that training in the way they see fit, said Metrolinx spokeswoman Anne Marie Aikins.

“We want our customers to know they’ll get a response from us when they are being respectful, and that our staff will be protected,” Aikins said. “We do not expect our staff to accept any kind of harassment or any kind of behaviour that is hurtful.”

Social media attacks on Metrolinx staff are no different from face-to-face abuse, Aikins added.

“We don’t tolerate customers on Twitter, just because they’re nameless and perhaps faceless, doing that to our staff,” she said. “It may say (the company name) on the account but that’s a person behind there.”

There is, however, only so much control that a corporation can exert over what is said about it on social media.

As TTC official Sue Motahedin testified at the arbitration hearings, customers can make profane or abusive comments about transit staff with or without directing them to @TTChelps.

“(Twitter) is public,” she said. “People will say what they want about the TTC and any other person or product regardless of whether that person or organization has a Twitter account.”

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