Introduction by Helio Fred Garcia:
This is my fifth in a series of guest blogs featuring my recently-graduated capstone (thesis) advisees in New York University’s Master’s in Public Relations and Corporate Communication.
See my earlier posts:
- On the Power of Why in Business by Jocelyn Jiaxin Cao;
- On Wall Street, Reputation, and Recovery by Julia Sahin;
- On Changing Narratives in Oil Conflict Regions by Claudia Espinel;
- A 10-C Model for Apologies by Iris Wenting Xue.
In this blog, Maura Yates explores the phenomenon of online shaming and advises victims on how to survive such an onslaught. Maura is a senior specialist in corporate communication at Con Edison and received her MS in Public Relations and Corporate Communication from New York University in December.
Maura notes that the phenomenon of public shaming is not new; what is new is the speed and reach of such shaming, and how what exists in social media is essentially permanent. But the speed and ferocity of social media shaming make an effective rebuttal virtually impossible. And she notes that most people’s instinctive self-protective responses are actually counterproductive.
You can see the complete capstone, The Rise of Online Shaming and What to Do if You’re a Target, here.
Surviving Online Shaming, by Maura Yates:
Just two decades ago, if a person was publicly shamed, whatever newspaper articles might have been written about the shameful event would have been quickly forgotten, and difficult to dig up in the future. Worst-case scenario, the person could simply relocate to a new town and start over.
Today, thanks to social media, whatever it is that the person did to get in the crosshairs of the digital mob will live on in perpetuity.
The Internet is slow to forgive, and it never forgets.
The behaviors that drive people to gang up on each other on social media are actually derived from our instinctive herd mentality that gave the earliest humans a competitive advantage. Humans for time immemorial have used the strength of a group to work together to enforce social mores and keep life predictable by shutting down people whose behaviors stray from the accepted norm. Predation is literally the result, and depending on the level of the shaming dished out, victims who step outside of the socially accepted norms can be virtually eviscerated by the crowd, their reputations shattered, their careers ended, and their lives threatened.
While social media provides a modern, instantaneous channel for it, there is nothing novel about the human behavior that drives shaming online. Writers like Everett Dean Martin, Wilfred Trotter, and Edward Bernays explored the psychosocial roots of this behavior in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
There’s a physical safety in numbers, but there’s also a psychological sense of security when surrounding oneself with like-minded people who not only agree with one’s opinions, but concentrate them, as the group enhances their legitimacy through sheer numbers. We see this us-versus-them phenomenon all the time: Liberals versus Conservatives, NRA members versus anti-gun activists, people who are pro-choice versus people picketing a Planned Parenthood, New York Mets fans versus New York Yankees fans. The crowd dynamic allows people, whichever side of the coin they’re on, to band together and gain constant reinforcement for their beliefs from other members who share them.
Much online crowd behavior is driven by the sense that the members of the dominant crowd are somehow morally superior to their target who has somehow acted outside of the crowd’s accepted norms. Crowds form to ensure that these norms are protected. Martin wrote:
We all dread the element of the unexpected, and nowhere so much as in the conduct of our neighbors. If we could only get rid of the humanly unexpected, society would be almost fool-proof. Hence, the resistance to new truths, social change, progress, nonconformity of any sort; hence the fanaticism with which every crowd strives to keep its believers in line. Much of this insistence on regularity is positively necessary. Without it there could be no social or moral order at all. (Martin, 1919/2015, p. 70)
To overcome the crowd mentality, Martin wrote,
“The kind of people who have an inner gnawing to regulate their neighbors, the kind who cannot accept the fact of their psychic inferiority and must consequently make crowds by way of compensation, would have to be content to mind their own business.” (Martin, 1919/2015, p. 68)
That, of course, is an unlikely outcome.
So this us-against-them dynamic that gives crowds their power also leads people to do some really terrible things to one another online. Why? Because we like making people suffer. Los Angeles crisis consultant Jonathan Bernstein told The Wall Street Journal’s Jeffrey Zaslow in 2010:
“Human nature hasn’t changed. There have always been people whose aim in life was to cause pain to others. If they saw people embarrassing themselves, they got pleasure in sharing that information. Before the Internet, they had to gossip with their neighbors. Now they can gossip with the world.” (Zaslow, 2010)
With the physical buffer of a computer screen shielding a shamer from his or her victim, plus most likely not knowing the victim personally in the first place, it becomes very easy for people online to forget that their words are more than just keystrokes sent out into cyberspace. When they reach their target, there is a very real person absorbing the criticism, the threats, and the attacks.
Regardless of the route that leads to an online shaming, the following best practices can help if you ever find yourself the target.
Check Your Ego/Don’t Argue
If a crowd starts to gang up against something you posted, resist the urge to defend yourself. You won’t win. In his famous 1936 book “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” Dale Carnegie wrote:
“I have come to the conclusion that there is only one way under high heaven to get the best of an argument — and that is to avoid it. Avoid it as you would avoid rattlesnakes and earthquakes.” (Carnegie, 1936/2009, pg. 122)
Regardless of how they become Internet targets, it’s extremely difficult for victims to launch a counter-attack to hit the brakes because these movements happen so fast and are often unanticipated. As a result, victims lose out on the first- mover advantage because the damage is already being done before they can react.
If you haven’t already, set up a Google alert set for your name and set it to immediately notify you of any mentions online. This way, you can keep tabs on any potential threats and respond right away. Consider suspending posts for a while if you know you’ll be off the grid and unable to respond for a period of time.
It may seem counter-intuitive to consider a crowd of cybershamers as victims, but consider that they may feel hurt and offended by whatever it is they are reacting to.
If critics start piling on and it’s clear the crowd feels victimized in some way by your actions, offer a sincere apology for any harm caused. The crowd is thirsty for blood and once you prove to be an easy kill, there will be no fun left for them and they will move on.
Take Down All Social Media Profiles
After issuing the sincere apology, take all your social media accounts offline and keep them offline. Attackers won’t have a direct target to hit, and will soon lose interest. Maintain a clean and professional LinkedIn presence. Also maintain any personal blogs or professional websites that show you in a positive light, but disable any comment features while under attack.
Seek Professional Help
A very swift, sincere, and humble apology can help diffuse an online attack, but after that, it’s a matter of waiting to become yesterday’s news, and reduced to the third page of search engine results. The paradox of social media is that it takes mere nanoseconds to post something that will offend the masses and set off a digital pitchfork mob often before the poster even realizes they should have thought twice. But as little time as it takes to get into trouble, it takes a very long time for the damage to fizzle out, then stop, and start to rebuild a ruined online reputation.
Companies like Reputation.com offer to fix negative search results. With a minimum charge of $3,000 per year at this writing, the company will provide individual clients with 10 personalized websites, one unique direct website, and eight pages of professional content as a way to dilute the negative search results connected with the person’s name.
In his 2015 book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson describes how one online shaming victim who had been attacked for an insensitive photo she had posted worked with the company to flush her online presence with benign, positive blog content. Over time, search engine algorithms began turning up flattering and inoffensive photos and blog posts about animals, vacations, and music.
“We were creating a world where the smartest way to survive is to be bland.” (Ronson, 2015, p. 266)
Fly Under the Radar
The best defense against public shaming on the Internet is to use common sense when posting anything under your real name, particularly if the post may be considered controversial, or offensive. Keeping a positive tone will help you fly under the radar on your personal pages. If you can’t shake the urge to engage in fiery discussions on matters you feel strongly about, consider setting up a Facebook or Twitter account with a nom-de-Web.
Online posts, particularly tweets constrained to 140 characters, stand for themselves without room for explanation about what was really meant, so think twice — no, make that three times — before posting. When in doubt, ask a friend for a sanity check before you launch your comment into cyberspace.
A good rule of thumb: if you have even the slightest feeling of unease about something you’ve written, don’t post it.