I remained largely silent following my social smear. It started in 2014, and its details you will soon learn. Five years passed. Slowly. Sometimes agonizingly. And I finally had to speak.
This is one of several posts concerning "public smearing," and I am leading a Patreon Campaign to fully address this most important issue. You may read my public posts here, and consider becoming a patron to this good work:
Since coming forward to address my personal drama, I have received letters from people who suffered similar public shaming, humiliation for whatever perceived offense, attack from online strangers (to whom I will refer in this book as “the mob”), and more. Before I tell you about mine, I will share with you theirs.
I’m newly married living in a rural area with my wife and newborn son. I work construction during the day, but on the weekends I like to ride my off-road motorcycle in the ditches of the country. I love the country life! I appreciate my nextdoor neighbor, too, or at least I used to. He had been complaining to the other neighbors of my loud motorcycle and has posted derogatory insults online about me. I live next door, and he has never once mentioned having a problem with the cycle, but he feels fine posting his complaints about me online. Last night he posted that he heard crying and sounds of spanking. He lives nearly a whole block from my house, and he heard crying and sounds of spanking? Come on. Nothing of the sort happened, but now my neighbors are on the lookout for any so-called “abuse” in my home.
Both my husband and I married after divorce, most of our children adults, and have made the best of our blended family. I have gotten along with most of his children and their spouses fine, but one of my husband’s sons insists on seeing the worst in everything I do or say. He obviously doesn’t appreciate me, but he doesn’t keep his opinions to himself. He puts me down at family gatherings and gossips about me behind my back. Most of the other kids have joined him. Recently they have unfriended me or blocked me from their Facebook accounts. Yesterday I was uninvited from a baby shower. My nickname, I heard, has become “wicked stepmother.” I honestly have not one wicked thought in my mind for any of my husband’s children.
I have to admit, I did lose my cool with this student. He was hijacking my 8th grade science class with outbursts and immature fart noises. I barked at him to be quiet several times, eventually threatening to send him to the principal’s office. We talked privately after class. When he isn’t trying to impress his friends he receives rebuke much better, and we had a fairly good conversation ending on the hope that he would behave better the next day. I was shocked to read a Facebook flair-up that evening on our school’s parents page. The mom posted mostly everything of the uncomfortable classroom situation, minus her son’s fart noises or the constructive conversation we had after class. Other parents piled on accusing me of being impatient, unprofessional, a bad teacher. My phone rang as I was reading the posts. It was my principal. I am to meet with my administrators tomorrow morning.
I love my son. He’s in his twenties now and living with his male partner. I had raised him in a conservative home advocating marriage between a man and woman only, but he obviously rejected that idea. I would like to be able to understand him and his life choices, but he hasn’t ever allowed me the opportunity. Instead, my son has gone public with a narrative of being ostracized by his parents, being “kicked out” of the home when he came out as gay. Nothing remotely close to this is true. On Facebook he references me as a gay-bashing bigot, but I have never participated in anything of the sort.
The dress could not be adjusted any more. This bride was pregnant and the wedding was drawing near, so I gently made the only recommendation that made sense: she should buy a new wedding dress and start over. The bride-to-be appeared to take the bad news in stride, accepted her full refund that I offered and went to find a new dress that would serve her on her wedding day. I was shocked, then, to see a blistering 1-star review on our Google page about how my small sewing business ruined her wedding. She left out the truth of her pregnancy and her full refund, and added untrue accusations of me being impatient and rude. My business relies on reviews; everyone reads them before hiring a seamstress. And online reviews last forever!
—A Business Owner
Do any of these ring true for you? Prior to my own social smearing, I likely would not have identified at all. But I now connect with each of them in a personal way. They trigger deep, depressing similarities to my story that have left me figuratively beaten down. It is difficult to understand without walking through it yourself. I do not wish the experience on anyone, but it’s an experience fewer and fewer of us are successfully escaping today.
“Social smearing” is the use of electronic media to tear down and destroy (or at least attempt to destroy) an individual or business. In the last five years this powerful tool has become the weapon of choice for disgruntled employees, estranged relatives, disturbed neighbors, and any rebel-with-a-cause with a cell phone and internet access. Gossips have always been with us, but large-scale, wide-reaching social smearing used to be reserved for movie stars and politicians, and consumption of retail-level gossip was buy-in only at the newsstand or grocery store checkout line. Not today. We all “buy in” to social smearing when we search on Google, scroll down our Facebook or Instagram feed, or check our email. And if we’re buying in to the pain of others, then we’re at risk of feeling that pain ourselves.
Even if we’re not buying in, we’re at risk.
You and I have shrugged our shoulders and not given much thought to the social smear of a distant friend or casual acquaintance. But when you see your own name broadcast across the internet coupled with fabricated (or at least exaggerated and twisted) stories of your personal life, your heart couldn’t sink lower and your head couldn’t spin faster. Some of us have lashed out in anger. Others have hidden away. None of us has overcome the lasting damage social smears do to our self-esteem or reputation. Whatever the degree of social smearing we have been subjected to — and no matter how fair or unfair the smears have been — all of us come away weathered, tarnished, shamed.
This is the new world in which we live.
But there are glimmers of hope amid the harassment. Social smearing can be overcome with principled, strategic actions that can, in fact, make you a better person with a stronger personal — and even online — narrative than you had before your social smear. I can’t wait to get to that more wholesome part of my journey. But first I must tell my own tale of woe, the story of my smear. We will sit and talk, you and I, about the five years of dealing with the ashes of volcanic fallout. I am happy to report that I didn’t lash out in anger through all of this — and you’ll see why later — but I didn’t hide away either. And several events followed my apparent ruined reputation that helped give me a better understanding of the entire world of social media. I discovered ways to “lean in” on the smear, listen to the hidden truths embedded within it, and adapt to the challenges that come with the the unique mixture of shame and injustice that accompanies so many social smears. I even learned how to turn the tables on a smear campaign, sometimes turning once-bitter enemies into lasting friends and advocates for my renewed online reputation.
I conclude this book with pointed direction for anyone facing social smearing, advice for loved ones who wish to support the smeared, and convicting warnings for those who may be entertaining their own smear campaign against people they have personal grievances. It seems like this new phenomenon of social smearing brings a wide range of often useless advice from people who have no idea what it’s like to be personally accused, tried and convicted without ever having their chance at rebuttal or day in court. My advice, then, is hard won, tried and true in the fires of personal circumstance. I’m confident it will help you through your trial of social smearing, whether it has already come or is merely waiting in the wings.
I’ve walked through the shadow of online death from beginning to end and have come out not only alive, but stronger for the experience. I’m glad to say that I am a better person — a better father, husband, businessman and teacher — than I was before. I won’t submit to the untruth of the initial smear, but I will submit to you the proactive responses I eventually figured out, that have brought about a much better resolution than I could have ever dreamed.