Keep up with all the chapters at the book page of Facing Hate: Overcoming Social Smearing, Recovering Relationships, and Rebuilding Your Reputation.
I remember the first time I thought I needed to get into Facebook. I attended an out-of-state debate tournament and stayed at the tournament director’s house. She was communicating with all of her staff and students through Facebook — no phone messages or emails — and I witnessed how helpful the tool was. Both Wendy and I entered social media with a lot of enthusiasm, seeing it as a blessing and a boost in getting our greater message of Love in the House out to the world. My debate curriculum business, too, lassoed social media when it was growing in popularity. Added benefits included reconnecting with old friends, keeping in touch with relatives and posting the latest photos of whatever event my family had going on — which means posting something nearly every day! Add in the fact that Facebook was free, and I couldn’t possibly have thought of a single thing that could go wrong!
Five years later our social smear hit. We faced the barrage of haters posting on our profile and pages, shocked by their vitriol and judgment. Wendy turned off all of her social media, but I kept it on. Cutting these virtual ties with family and friends was like trying to go cold turkey on a longstanding drug habit. Besides, I felt I needed to stay connected to social media’s marketing benefits. I was the business owner and operator, solopreneur who took care of all things advertising and branding, so the last thing I needed was to drop the “free” social media arm of the good work we were doing as a family business. We had our books, our debate materials and even yearly summer camps for students. It’s simple for you to go “off the grid,” I told Wendy. But me? I saw that as impossible.
So I was plunged headfirst into the ever-deepening pool of online un-debate. This is not a world of controlled point-and-counterpoint. In competition, students do not need to overcome the preconceived biases of judges. Judges are trained educators who are prepared to set aside their own proclivities to rank the debaters fairly on the merits of their arguments and presentation. You can win a debate even if the judge is averse to your position. Not so with the online mob. With impunity they strike. You’re a defenseless victim thrown among armed gladiators who relish the drawing of blood to gain approval from online spectators. It is ironic that Facebook uses the “thumbs up” icon to show approval, much like the ancient Romans showed approval for sparing the life of a stadium victim. We all know what “thumbs down” means, and though there is not this option in social media, a thumbs-up to a socially slanderous post does the same. And so these tech-savvy neo-Romans use their judgment to rip apart your reputation, your business or career, even your family. You’re quite hopeless being thrown into such a lion’s den. The mob is ready to tear you apart, and they seem to enjoy it.
I was not trained to face the giant of social smearing. My world of debate dealt with rational observers, objective judges and systematic argumentation that was academically measured and assessed. I am skilled at persuading the debate judge, but the mob? They are unreasonable and unmerciful. It is extremely risky to engage them, any chance for actual persuasion very slim. The mighty armor of logic and reasoning, which we so recently discussed, does virtually nothing to the internet beast. Principles and etiquette are beaten senseless. The giant needs to be taken down, but, sadly, it isn’t going to be with traditional argumentation and debate.
There seems to be no way out. This is the haunting truth of so many of these sordid situations, and I would hate to end my book on such a negative note. Are we really stuck with social smearing as the upside-down world we all are intertwined with? I’m afraid so. We are all in this predicament, “facing hate” in the underworld around us. This is our “social dilemma.” We may delude ourselves and think that we’re into social media just to exchange photos with family members and have a little platform in a corner of the world from which to speak. If you’ve so far avoided the scary scrutiny of the online mob, let me tell you, your peaceful days are numbered. If you surf the waves of your social media feeds at all, you’re cruisin’ for a bruisin’. It’s only a matter of time till you say the wrong thing, express the wrong opinion or share an unpopular belief. The unrelenting mob is ready to pounce and bully you into submission to whatever social conditioning they currently find acceptable. This is Orwell’s world now, its goads tipped with a dystopian disease none of us anticipated.
This may sound like a downer — it is a downer! — but nothing is ever utterly hopeless. I’ve learned so much these last few years, and this book is my earnest attempt to share that which saved me from destruction. I leave four considerations for you, some that I have already suggested within the pages you have already read. These considerations are offered to help you wade through this brave new world of social smearing, and I believe fervently they will help you overcome the trials that lie ahead in your story.
1. Consider Advanced Persuasion.
I have a bachelor’s degree in English and an MBA, so I sat through my share of communications classes. These have helped in my professional life. Building credibility as a speaker, prodding a student through a difficult lesson, negotiating the investment and return of a contractual agreement, influencing others in meetings — all of these interactions require communication skills. But as I experienced social smearing, I began to wonder if any of the skills I’d learned actually did any good! The classes I took in college and my masters program seemed to share one fatal flaw: They assumed our audience was just as reasonable as you and I.
Such is not the case with your smearer, and especially the hateful mob that stands at the ready. They are not a paying audience ready to receive my prepared message, nor are they an eager student striving for a good grade in my class. In the world of business and even everyday interactions with friends and family, most of us rely on problem solving, basic instruction and just being kind communicators. Public smears of today are more like hostage situations where the terrorist cares nothing for you and makes unreasonable demands … or else! How do you negotiate with people who live in this alternative reality?
This is where advanced persuasion comes in, and if you are facing hate of the mob — or, more importantly, from a family member you love or an associate you appreciate — advanced persuasion techniques will help immensely. I sometimes hesitate to talk too much about these techniques because they can sound manipulative when presented as the specific and detailed maneuvers in persuasion that they are. Some may accuse me of being intentionally conniving, of leading people down a dark path of deception. Quite the contrary, for two reasons. First, my attraction to advanced persuasion is a defense following the initial online attacks from the mob, who are the truly deceptive ones. Second, more importantly, my persuasive techniques are being used to lead people away from the deception that holds them so enslaved.
Remember my friend who suffered a divorce? He taught me strategies to help persuade my daughters to abandon their lies and desire their family once again. Remember the meeting I had with the couple from school who wanted me fired? There I practiced techniques that I had learned from my debate world of persuasion. Business and psychology are rich with negotiation strategies that work just as well in social media. And when smears come your way, you are able to tap into the “secrets to closing the sale” and be the “negotiation whisperer” that sways your opponent to your side. Simple understanding of some of these techniques can help immensely when dealing with social smearing.
We’ve already established that social smearing is like a hostage situation, which drew me to Chris Voss, an FBI hostage negotiator and author of Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It. He shares how negotiators will simply mirror the perpetrator’s words, repeating his demands as a question, to show the criminal that you are somehow connected to his interests. Such a simple practice, but it works wonders when communicating with someone who is hostile. Remember when I saw my daughter at the Rush concert and wanted to persuade her to switch seats with my friend? “Come on, it’s Rush!” I said, the exact same words she used with me when we first connected. Rather than rationally explaining my interests or trying to convince her to change hers, I mirrored her interests. This tactic works for FBI hostage negotiators, and it sure worked in my “hostage” situation.
So many of us approach social smearing with argumentation, trying to get those who hate us to change their minds and give us a “yes” confirmation. This is very difficult to do. Voss suggests that the last thing an anxious madman wants is to commit to anything, which “yes” does. Instead, revise questions to encourage “no” answers. Voss calls these “calibrated questions” that are measured to create the illusion of control, but actually draw out the conversation to help you better understand what your adversary wants. “Will you please stop this smearing?” is a lead-to-yes question, and a controlling hater will gladly reject you. Asking the same question in a lead-to-no way raises the probability of getting the answer you want: “Must you continue with this smearing?” The angry hater will be less prone to commit to “yes,” and you may even get the “no” you want.
Voss goes on to encourage a more careful consideration of your foe’s needs and desires, a strategy hostage negotiators call “tactical empathy.” You want the social smearing to stop, but don’t place that as your primary focus. Instead, seek out the smearer’s real (often unstated) goal. Negotiations are more about information gathering than about winning a debate, and the information you gather will adjust your approach. Remember my daughter in Australia? Her sisters took some of what she shared about her stricter childhood to exaggerate the original online fabrication, and my regular tendency would have been to logically contest it. Instead, I “leaned in” and embraced her inner need for restoration and reconciliation related to past hurts from her childhood. This was not sappy or compromising. It was “tactical empathy,” the most caring response that got exactly what both of us wanted in the end.
I know others who have suffered social smears like mine. Some have errantly held onto their traditional communication skills to attempt to persuade the hater in their life — adult or teenage child, angry spouse, extended relative, work associate or customer, etc. I have not seen much success in heated situations like these, and I have never seen argumentation and debate work with anyone from the crazed mob. These estrangements will be prolonged as long as you hold onto the methods that may work fine in the civilized and sane world but rarely if ever in the wide open wilderness that is social media. Move on to advanced persuasion and you may see some breakthroughs that will help restore your relationships and begin to rebuild your reputation.
2. Consider Engaging.
The purpose of this book is to help you overcome social smearing. I hope I have convinced you that traditional engagement of the mob — online debates or counter-blogging — will produce very few victories, if any at all. Remember to consider your audience, and only engage in a debate when your audience is persuadable (and this is typically not your hater). There are much more successful strategies for the call of engagement. I identify with the conviction to engage online haters for ravaging your reputation, and sometimes the call is needed. Briefly return back to the prologue of this book. There I referenced real stories people have shared with me about their unique social smears — a neighbor spreading gossip, stepchildren labeling the stepparent “evil,” a teacher facing irate parents, a father being ostracized from his son, a business owner smeared by a disgruntled customer. If you relate to any of these stories, I have suggestions for you to consider:
Gossipy neighbors. The strategies in this chapter will be most useful for you. In the example given, the neighbor complained online about the loud motorcycle driving at night, an obvious irritation to him. Mirror the cloaked complaint, “My motorcycle bothers you?” Apologize for this, but don’t ask for permission, which would demand a “yes” answer. Instead, offer a solution, such as, “I will do everything possible to keep from firing up my motorcycle late at night from now on.” Even if late nights weren’t the original problem, what you’re doing here is showing your neighbors that you care about them. In this case the neighbor posted his grievance on the community Facebook page, so if you engage with him through this forum, the entire neighborhood will witness your gracious response.
Stepchildren. The strategy of giving time — so hard to do when you’re being smeared — is most successful when dealing with a situation like agitated stepchildren. Recall the straw man fallacy. The wife in this example is not “evil,” but being accused of such has the potential to draw out your inner witch. It’s not fair to judge good intentions in such a way, but the only path to overcoming the judgment is overwhelming kindness. “Show, don’t tell” the saying goes, and give time for the truth of the straw man’s opposite to be believed. Most helpful is the strategy of ignoring the offense. Trust me, I know how badly you want to rebut the accusation of being “evil,” but pretend it never happened. Treat the stepchildren graciously and nicely, always showing the goodness in you. In time the truth will be self-evident … and freeing.
Irate parents. My heart goes out to the middle school teacher whose parents disparaged him online. I hope his administration was as supportive as mine! When being professionally attacked, the temptation will be to become defensive or counterattack. I fear these natural approaches only throw gasoline on the fire and lead to social media blowups that become embarrassing for the entire school or organization, not just you. I have found “extreme professionalism” to be a much better approach, which is what I clung to when the school’s parents were blasting me online. Take the higher ground and fly straight as an arrow. On a deeper, more persuasive level, attempt to develop a relationship with the irate parents. If you can use advanced persuasion to get them on your side — or, at least, to significantly change the tune of what they’ve been posting online — they can become tremendous assets to your continued rapport as a teacher. A troubled-turned-supportive parent’s attitude will trickle down to your problem student, and it will make teaching fun again.
Estranged children. The dad who shared about his son choosing a gay lifestyle is enmeshed in a story that is much in line with the story of this book. When your children lash out at you, your expectations for your growing family are crushed. Sometimes estrangement takes years to settle, so giving time is definitely warranted. Give your other children a chance to step in as well. At the time of writing this book, I have two estranged children — one still hostile, another docile but still separated — and I have chosen not to engage with them. However, my other children are free to engage all they want, and I have been very proud of how they have. Understanding that sibling bonds are arguably tighter than parent-child bonds helps shape up a proper perspective when dealing with estranged children. Parents seldom talk an estranged child out of hating them, but siblings have had great success. I have 14 children who love their parents and love the home they are in or return to as adults, and they all are hopeful that the two lost sheep will soften someday. I’m most hopeful for this, too.
Disgruntled customers. Understanding your audience is key when dealing with customers who are on a holy-terror crusade to ruin your business. In the case where an unwarranted negative review or social media post hangs out there — especially if your business depends on positive reviews — an answer is needed. In your answer, avoid arguing or correcting any assumption by the customer. In the case of the pregnant bride whose dress could not be altered anymore, the business owner should kindly apologize for her disappointment and remind the audience (who, by the time the tirage gets posted online, is not the disgruntled customer) of the money-back guarantee that was honored. The customer may not be right in her judgment, but business professionals always want their customers to win. Make sure your response reflects that. Most people nowadays expect some negative reviews, but your personal response of graciousness and professionalism — not argument or dissension — will persuade online review readers to do business with you.
These are all examples of how to effectively engage with the social smearer. Tread these waters carefully. If you find yourself defaulting to no engagement at all, that may actually be the safest reaction to social smearing. But, if you must engage, I urge you to utilize precise persuasion that will help sway the audience … not your adversary.
3. Consider the Cost of Social Media.
Social media has much to offer, and it’s free. Or is it? Businessmen recognize that nothing is really “free,” that there are “opportunity costs” in anything that sells itself as free. Every minute you spend consuming is a minute lost creating, and wise businesspeople recognize that their resources should be spent on those things that create a better return. Sure, virtually all the social media platforms cost no money, but do they actually bring enough value to justify their use? We would be wise to consider the following costs of social media:
The cost of our time. The numbers keep changing (for the worse), but my latest fact check found that people spend an average of 2 hours and 22 minutes on social media per day. Even if you justified this time as “quality entertainment,” this is a lot of time spent every day on entertainment, especially if you add in traditional entertainment like television and music. Consider the cost of your time that exceeds two hours per day. If the minimum wage is similar to Colorado’s $12/hour, this amounts to a “free” service that costs you more than $10,000 per year. I used to feel that the cost of time was worth it for me, chalking it up as a business expense (since I connect with customers on social media), but 10 grand can buy me a pretty snazzy marketing package for my small business affairs. So I was wrong! The return on investment for me is not worth it.
The cost of our focus. Even when I don’t have my phone out to thumb through feeds, I’m thinking about what I should next post. This takes a toll on us, more so than even time. My focus throughout my day should be on my wife, my children, my business and customers, the real experiences that I encounter. My phone in my pocket seems to call out to me for a new selfie, a clever quote or an opinion of importance to share with the online world. It is tantalizing to post something that is liked and shared, but that post expended a great amount of focus before I pressed “publish.” I didn’t realize the drain on my focus until I actually went on a personal social media fast. When your focus shifts from what the online world thinks to the real world in front of you throughout the day, you find your focus is on much greater matters. You might find that your own media fast reveals the same for you.
The cost of our freedom. For years the tech-world giants have been dubiously gathering private data, often without our permission, to harness its power and use it to market to us. At the time of this writing, the Federal Trade Commission just fined Facebook $5 billion for illicit data harvesting, Google executives were caught on camera admitting to rigging search results that favored their political biases, and the United States Congress is proposing a bill to ban a feature of Snapchat for teenagers because of its manipulative nature. That’s just this week in the news! This is beyond a social contract where we all surrender a few freedoms for some collective advantages in society. It is becoming clearer that “big tech” is pulling freedom out from under us, often without our permission or even knowledge.
These costs are high, and they should weigh heavily in your decision about how you interact with the internet and social media. If, heaven forbid, you are swept up in a social smear, the costs can bankrupt you. You can understand, then, the next consideration.
4. Consider Shutting It Down.
There is something to be said about Wendy’s strategy of going “off the grid.” It is doable. In fact, it’s perhaps easier than any of us want to admit. Before Wendy shut off all her social media when our social smear hit, she was the social media manager of our family business, but the trouble with social media are the thousands of strangers who demand answers and explanations. Demand time. So never mind them. If you weren’t on her speed dial and weren’t a real friend, there was no getting ahold of Wendy during the first year of our smear.
As I mentioned, I was not so willing to leave. I saw unplugging from social media equivalent to sticking your head in the sand, choosing to be oblivious to the world’s events and volunteering for social obscurity. I think differently now. I appreciate social media for the connectivity it allows me, and I’m sure you do, too. But the elephant in the room — the evil dragon that is growing more sinister — is the online hatred that whips up so easily.
I did plunge my head into the sand a few times, shutting the social world down (or at least ignoring it) for the initial months of the smear, but I must admit that I kept “peeking under the hood.” It was depressing, and it took its toll on me emotionally and mentally. It is dreadfully burdening to accept the reality that people genuinely hate you. I tried to read comments to understand the nature of their hatred, but it was an abyss of despair that left me deflated and demoralized. Online hate is the epitome of human depravity. You certainly see the worst of humanity when hanging out with the hate online.
As much as I love connecting with others, I cannot live in such an environment of hate. I have returned to social media, as has Wendy, but we now ration our intake. We no longer thumb through our Facebook feed to see what everyone else is up to, and I set up automations for my business to take care of most of my business posts. When the smear flared up again during my teaching employment, I went off the grid once more, totally shutting down my social media presence. I made this announcement to my Facebook friends:
I’m giving my full attention to my new English teaching job. Therefore, I’m unplugging from Facebook till October. Be good!
I must be honest, those months were so good for me. The lingering need to post the latest tidbit of news in my family’s life was gone. I was focused on my task of teaching, and I loved it so much that October came and went without a single fond thought for social media. I didn’t return to Facebook till March. What once was a daily ritual of posting my latest adventure — and reading up on everyone else’s — has since become perhaps a once-a-month chore. I feel that keeps me in touch enough, but I still sometimes think even that may be excessive. I hesitate to advise you to totally pull the plug. I would feel hypocritical to make such a suggestion. But, honestly, pulling the plug totally may be in my future. And I cannot envision missing it much.
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