Social Media’s Ugly Shadow

200-yr-old cottonwood tree

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In this season of All Hallows Eve, when what normally stays in the shadows comes out for all to see, I want to bring up a topic that we don’t often talk about. Namely, that not all online attention is positive. Achieving your goals by growing your platform can also attract negativity: people who use online anonymity to spread cruelty and lies, destroy reputations, and threaten physical harm. For fun. Meet the “trolls.”

Trolling is bullying, plain and simple. It can happen to anyone who gains a large following, especially in tech. And unfortunately, women are often singled out for the worst abuse.

Two cases have been in the news quite recently. In one, Anita Sarkeesian cancelled a speaking engagement at Utah State University after an anonymous emailer threatened to kill her in a mass campus shooting if she were allowed to speak. Sarkeesian writes and speaks about misogyny in video games.

In another, Kathy Sierra wrote extensively about how trolls get people to believe in and spread their lies. Sierra is a bestselling author, Java programmer, and brilliant speaker. In the article, she draws from her 10 years (yes) of experience being the victim of such attacks to describe the online psychology that enables trolls.

Be Smart, Defend Yourself,
Uphold Your Own Standards

The solution to all of this is not to give way to fear, or to hide your light under a bushel. You’ve worked hard for the recognition that is coming your way. Neither is banning all aggressive speech or stamping out online anonymity the answer. But there are concrete actions we can take to combat trolls and call out online bullying.

The first step is to get educated. Here are three great articles about how to deal with trolls on Twitter and other forums. These tips will take you well beyond the most oft-heard advice, which is, “Don’t feed the trolls.”

The second step is to raise the bar on your own online speech. When you are targeted it’s hard not to strike back in kind. And let’s face it, firing off a blistering ad hominem rant can be fun as well as cathartic. But stooping to the troll’s tactics only makes it harder for others to defend you. So start now to make your online speech as impeccable as it can be.

Maintaining equanimity in email and social media is hard. If you have any doubts at all about your ability to stay civil and on-point, hire an editor, or create an advisory board of friends who will vet your writing before you hit “send.” Go ahead and write that blistering rant—and then delete it. Permanently.

Start now to protect yourself from the shadow side of social media by developing your own personal ethics standards, and holding yourself to them. Here are two great examples to draw from: the Code of Ethics for Bloggers, Social Media, and Content Creators, and NPR’s Social Media Ethics Guide.

Post your standards where readers and clients can find them. Then, should unwanted shadow attention come your way, you will know exactly what to do, and you will have the systems in place for others to help you, too.