August 20, 2013

We all know social media is a powerful tool that has many professional and personal advantages. Which is why we use it.

But while you do have control over if and how you build your online presence, you typically lack control about what others say about you in online comments and on social media.

The larger your presence, the more likely you are exposing yourself to feedback – both positive and negative. Even if you haven’t built out your social-media presence, you run the risk of being exposed to one of social media’s dark sides: the personal attack.

Anybody can be a publisher — or an attacker

When you’re attacked on social media, it can feel like the community has already made its mind up about you until you can prove your innocence.

In the past, traditional media typically filtered mass messages to particular audiences, limiting the likelihood of harm as well as its effects. Now, anyone is a publisher to unlimited, worldwide audiences, without nearly as many filters. This greatly increases the potential for harm.

In this environment of instantaneous outbursts of micro-messages, the damage is done the instant something is tweeted or posted online. What is posted online can also be reposted and continue to live long after the original message has been deleted. Those attacked now have a greater need to minimize harm to their reputation, and to do so quickly.

The form of the harm can be much more complicated too. People can incorrectly take a comment you make out of context (which in some states could potentially be ground for a false light claim); they can share hurtful opinions (which are generally protected speech under defamation law); or expose a truth that is less than flattering to you (a statement isn’t defamatory if true).

Or people can just be downright mean.

For example, the BBC recently reported that Caroline Criado-Perez endured “about 50 abusive tweets an hour for about 12 hours” during her successful campaign for Jane Austen’s face to appear on a newly-designed U.K. banknote.

Social-media sites have typically taken a hands-off approach to personal attacks launched by one user against another. However, the recent barrage of Twitter attacks and threats made to Criado-Perez may be changing Twitter’s tone.

In response to this attack, Twitter UK apologized and announced anti-abuse tools to make it easier for users to report abusive tweets. Twitter UK says it plans to add more staff to help handle abuse reports and expand the availability of the in-tweet “report abuse” button, which is currently limited to the Twitter app for iPhone, the Twitter website and other mobile devices.

Twitter currently provides a form for reporting abusive users and details of the behavior. It also suggests contacting local authorities to resolve the issues offline “if the interaction has gone beyond the point of name calling.”

Facebook also provides guidelines for reporting violations. It suggests hiding the abusive item from your news feed, sending a message to the poster asking them to take the item down, and unfriending or blocking the person.

Near every Timeline post, Facebook provides a tool that lets you report harassing or offensive behavior:


Besides reporting an offensive tweet to the site, or reporting someone to the police if the harm is severe enough, what can you do if someone says something less than flattering about you or your organization? And what can you do to make sure you’re ready to handle a personal attack?

Four steps for responding to an attack

There are a number of effective strategies for overcoming the harm caused by a personal attack on social media. And your response can be a democratic one that includes fighting bad speech with more (good) speech.

If someone’s attacked you on social media, here are four steps for responding:

1. Don’t panic.

While this seem like a social-media crisis, realize you aren’t the first person to experience the nastiness of such an attack. Don’t freak out. Suspend judgment. Don’t take what has been said personally. Resist the urge to react right away

Instead, take a deep breath and think about what options exist.

2. Figure out if (and how) you want to respond.

Consider the motivation of the attacker: Are they just seeking attention? Are they misinformed? Based on this, what’s the best approach? What value would come from engaging with the attacker? What’s the best way to minimize any harm caused by the situation?

The Air Force’s Web Posting Response Assessment flow chart is a great example of a simple, yet effective response plan. It identifies three steps that guide the organization’s staff in finding posts, evaluating how to respond, and responding in way that effectively manages relationships with the audience.

As the Air Force’s Assessment points out, not all posts benefit from a response. Meredyth Censullo is the voice of @TampaBayTraffic and gave a TEDxPoynterInstitute talk on how she connects the community around a common complaint. In an email, Censullo said that ignoring trolls sometimes is the best road to take.

“Insults on social media are pretty much the same as insulting phone calls, emails, letters – we’ve all received them at some point in time,” she said. “The bottom line is the insulter is just trying to get a reaction; responding just fuels them.”

Does your organization have an existing comment policy or social-media guidelines that can guide you in this situation? If yes, how can you apply that policy to help you decide what next steps to take? If not, how can you help your organization create effective guidelines to better handle situations like this?

Be sure to save the posts by taking a screenshot or saving the post to a file. If the posts get excessive or threatening, consider letting your manager know about the abusive behavior and informing the site where the attack originated. Also consider blocking the attacker from tweeting at you or posting about you on Facebook, with the understanding that this won’t keep them from posting about you to others.

3. Respond quickly publicly, then take the follow-up conversation offline

In most cases it’s good to respond quickly in the same venue where the attack was made by sending a brief, temperate message recognizing you saw the attack. Then, if appropriate, try to follow up in a more private way that can extend beyond 140 characters, such as a phone call or email. Consider what value would come with taking the conversation offline. Figure out your goals for a follow-up conversation and let them drive your communication.

4. Damage control: Determine how to best remedy the harm

Can’t I sue for defamation?

In traditional media, when someone makes a false statement of fact to someone else that harmed your reputation, the typical remedy would be to sue that person for defamation or slander. Reaching a resolution often involves a defamation lawsuit that can potentially last for years.

In social media, that remedy isn’t as effective. A lawsuit isn’t quick enough to mitigate harm; the toothpaste is already out of the tube.

Many times the harm someone causes in a comment or post online wouldn’t even fall within the purview of defamation, because it isn’t an actual false statement of fact. I mentioned earlier some ways an attack can be hurtful, but not technically defamatory.

Fortunately, those who have been attacked online can now create their own remedies to harm caused by personal attacks. With social media virtually everyone has a publishing platform — and a voice. We can use the power of speech to minimize the harm negative feedback, comments and posts can cause.

Fight bad speech with more speech

Social media is often a double-edged sword: it can be an effective platform that elevates your profile, but it also exposes you to direct feedback, including negative comments or false information.

I have heard from a variety of people, ranging from doctors to book authors, who have been disappointed by the online feedback people leave anonymously — feedback that often comes from posters who haven’t even used their services or read their books.

Instead of passively letting these conversations spiral negatively out of control, consider how you can engage your allies to minimize the impact of an attack.

Retweet your critics

Censullo suggests retweeting your critics. She recalls a time when she responded to a tweet complaining about traffic with her typical, “let me know if I can help you with a different route.”

The user tweeted her back with a not-so-nice retort. So Censullo retweeted that. And her trusty traffic followers demonstrated they had @TampaBayTraffic’s back.

“Within minutes, several of my followers had tweeted back to me AND her, defending me. I finally had to ask my followers to please leave the girl alone!” Censullo said.

Building strong relationships with your allies before a crisis happens will make them more likely to support you and your work when things are going well — and more likely to defend you when someone posts something negative or incorrect about you.

Planning in advance

While you can’t always anticipate when someone may post something hurtful or harmful, it’s helpful to develop a plan in advance for how you will respond to such a post thoughtfully.

To develop your plan, ask yourself these questions:

1. How will I monitor what people are saying about me in social media and online posts so I can respond quickly?

Set up an alert using Google, Talkwalker or Mention so you’re aware when someone says something about you or your organization. Also, frequently monitor Twitter and Facebook to see when someone has mentioned you.

2. What can I learn from teachable moments?

Outline scenarios you have seen people or organizations face and use these as teaching moments. Celebrities, who are especially susceptible to Twitter Wars, have lessons to share.

Examine how people and organizations handle their social-media attacks. What do they do that works well? What would you do differently?

Use these real-life situations that fortunately don’t involve you to consider what your response would be in that situation. Or actually draft an action plan with example responses to use if you ever face a similar situation.

3. How can my social-media use support a strategy?

Both organizations and individuals should have strategies that guide their social-media use. Organizations should have a clear sense of their content goals, and how social media can help them reach these goals. How you respond to an attack can be a reflection of your employer as much as it is a reflection of yourself.

It is helpful before you or your organization faces a social-media crisis to have values-based conversations about common ethical pressure points you confront in social media. For example, how transparent should you be about your work in posts? How should you reflect your biases and your beliefs in your social-media posts?

Social media is personal and lets you reveal as much about yourself as you decide you want to. Individuals should also take responsibility for what they post online, and create personal strategies to guide them.

For example, my colleague Jill Geisler said she never retweets something that she hasn’t already read. Another common strategy I follow is an 80/20 rule: I try to post content I think is beneficial to my audience 80 percent of the time, and forgive myself for posting content I would consider self-promotional (and is ideally beneficial to my audience) no more than 20 percent of the time.

A social-media attack can be your opportunity to take a lemon and turn it into lemonade — something productive for your personal brand. When you are aware, proactive and strategic, you can not only mitigate harm from a social-media attack but also use the incident to build and enhance your impact on those you reach through social media.

In the comments below, share how you have handled — or seen someone successfully handle — negative feedback or a personal attack on social media?

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Since joining The Poynter Institute in 2007, Ellyn Angelotti has helped Poynter explore the journalistic values and the legal challenges related to new technologies, especially…
Ellyn Angelotti

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