We have seen an increase in Internet hacks and leaks undermining corporate and personal integrity alike. Sony, Anonymous versus the Ferguson Police Department, the Ray Rice elevator security tape, starlet cell phone pic hacks, and on and on.
As noted in my Cision’s 5 trends for 2015 post, vigilante style attacks will increase and continue to negatively impact individuals and businesses alike. There is little we as a society can do to stop it.
In a recent Pew Internet survey on future media, dozens of experts agreed: Cyberwar, hacks and vigilante attacks are expected to continue. Attacks involve a wide complicated group of parties, ranging from governments, companies (yes, we have to know some corporations engage in hacking), organized vigilante groups like Anonymous, and of course, individual hacks. Below is my contribution to the Pew study.
The bottom line: Authorities may act to apprehend and prosecute online offenders, but it has become harder bring vigilantes to justice. The Fifth Estate can go farther than speak their mind, now. They can act — right or wrong — and escape.
We are now living in a Neuromancer-esque world (see William Gibson’s book) where anyone or any entity’s data can be exploited.
Surveillance is everywhere, personal location can be surrendered by our phones, watches and clothes, and our wallets are on our phones, there is no turning it off. The reasons why can be as simple as angering the wrong person with an axe to grind. In some cases, people will be completely innocent, but cannot stop their credit cards, email, photos and more from being used against them.
Inevitably, we will all be touched. Just last month I found my check card cancelled, its number one of many captured by a hacker who had raided one of my online retailers. There as no follow-up, just a new card.
Companies, athletes and stars who have a public stake in their business would be wise to prepare for the worst. No secrets are safe. And on the Internet there is little recourse for exposed wrong doing or naughtiness.
The Wild West is upon us. There is no true security, no safe haven.
In the online world power is determined by security skill, hacking creativity, and resources. Authority, right and wrong, well, these concepts of justice have become weakened. In fact, they may simply be antiquated.
Strap in, this is going to be a bit of a random wild post. All of the mentioned topics were notable but not worth full blog posts so you’re getting a bit of a mash-up.
1) Lists Don’t Matter Until You’re On One
Most folks claim that lists don’t matter until they are on one. Then the lording of mightiness ensues, humblebrags and the posts of “how you, too, can be part of x influencer (or whatever) list.”
Here is the truth. If lists didn’t matter people wouldn’t talk about them, good or bad. Do you talk about lists? Of course, this doesn’t apply if you are one of the top-ranked guitarists of all time.
2) Jason Werth is the Dude
For those that don’t follow baseball, Jason Werth is the wild bearded zen leader of the Washington Nationals. Watch him speak, and you’ll be struck by his calm manner, matter of fact comment, and his slang/poor English, all of which reminds of The Dude. That’s right, The Big Lebowski. Go ahead and make your own determination.
3) What Did That Get You?
A few years ago I won the top Twitter personality in DC according to a Washington Post poll (see #1 above), and called my Dad to tell him. He said, “That’s great, Geoff. What did that get you?” I still don’t know.
4) Be Visual
We’re working on our website and trying to develop something new that will really stand out. It occurs to me if we really are in a visual media era, then we cannot talk about visual, per say. We need to be visual. Practicing vs preaching.
5) Doubling Down on DC
There was a lot of great feedback about last week’s Capitol Communicator announcement that in addition to my building Tenacity5, I am supporting their team as a media strategist. Phil and Paul have done a great job with the product and the Summits. It’s an honor, and rather than blog here and create entities to help the local community this seemed like an easier path. More than 80% of Tenacity5’s business is in the DC area, so it only made sense to double down.
6) If No One Takes Responsibility Everyone Loses
There is plenty of blame going around these days for wrong conversations and content. But if no one takes responsibility for their own actions and participation, then the only winner is Anonymous. That dastardly crowd-sourced villain does everything today. And the cycle of wrongness continues.
I wrote two Facebook posts last month, one on LinkedIn becoming spammy, the other on real-time marketing off of Robin Williams death. Both were complaints, distractions and wasted my (and others’) time. They reminded me that energy and time spent on negative issues that don’t really impact me is energy and time lost. Plus such actions lead to a lack of mindfulness in speech, something I continue to work on.
Freedom allows many things, good and bad. The rationalization of justified Internet vigilantes arguably falls in both camps, depending on your perspective.
We love the archetype of the vigilante, the person who goes out and meters justice when authorities fail to do so. In a romantic sense, it makes sense. Consider our pop culture heros; Batman, Iron Man, Jack Reacher (in spite of Tom Cruise), Clint Eastwood’s many tough guy characters, and on and on. We worship their ability to right wrong in the spite of flawed protection mechanisms.
Thanks to the Internet, practicing vigilantism has never been easier. Social media empowers anyone to speak out for justice, and successful acts are met with attention and notoriety.
That’s unfortunate. Vigilantism (or “digilantism” online) is dangerous because the actor may not be well grounded in their ideas of right or wrong.
While usually used to organize rallies or market consumer products, online flash mobs are a favorite tactic to silence or overpower opposing viewpoints. Sometimes they involve a negative commenting campaign on a Facebook fan page or a blog. Other instances feature more risque action, such as sending supporters in to report a fan page as spam or taking down someone’s web site.
The above examples are the public ones. Many are not. From animal rights and pro-life activists to political voices and free speech advocates, some deploy attacks to silence their opponents, anonymously organizing in the background and acting publicly. What are the ethics of the flash mob as a means of dissent?
Anonymity, the Mark of Unethical Behavior
The core of flash mob ethics revolves around anonymity. If organizations and people disclose their identity as part of their mass action, they are acting in accordance within the norms of public communication. In addition to publicly disclosing who they are, mindful civil discourse should be used.
“If you’re going to ask folks to comment, en masse, each person who posts a comment is obligated to reveal his or her affiliation,” said Bill Sledzik, associate professor in the School of Journalism, Kent State University. “It’s the only way the process can be transparent. Of course, rules of civility should also be followed, but folks do tend to get out of control when the issue is an emotional one. The ethical rules really don’t change from one platform to the next. So long as the intent of those posting is to make their case, and they do so with transparency and civility, I don’t see a violation.”
In the end, from a larger objective standpoint, strategists have to decide whether the negativity of such attacks really helps the larger effort. Winning may tarnish an online brand. In essence, by attacking with a public flash mob, a group may win the battle, but lose the war. For example, PETA often wins many of its core public issues, but lacks respect outside of its immediate circle of supporters in large part because of its questionable tactics.
“I know a lot of people will disagree, but is there any victory in winning through negativity,” asked Danny Brown, communications blogger and co-founder of Bonsai Interactive. “Why not get the same followers to promote all the good your organization does, and really push that to others as opposed to trying to change minds that are already made up, not to mention the negative response you could bring on yourself?”
Flash Mobs as Bullies
Sometimes the mob can be unruly and down right mean spirited, resorting to nasty personal attacks and even threats. Individual voices act with passion and virtual force to achieve their objectives, creating charged situations where feelings are hurt. The loudness and sheer magnitude of the attacks silence the opposition.
“Using whatever communication means available, whether social networking sites, blog comments, Twitter and others to effectively gag another’s ability to express themselves is dishonoring freedom of speech and in my view, not defensible,” said Andrea Weckerle, founder of the nonprofit Civilination. “That doesn’t mean that all views are socially or morally defensible, but as an approach, in a free society we need to defend others’ right to expression and not use strong-arm tactics to force them into silence… When the methods of expression reflect personal attacks, insults, hominem attacks, and threats against individuals and groups, the intent is pretty clear.”
The civility issue seems to come up the most in politics with a focus on extreme elements in U.S. political parties. The outcry that occurred after Arizona shootings in January brought this matter to a new level of public discourse. At the heart of it was Sarah Palin’s efforts to rally on and offline Tea Party activism using gun sights targeted at Democratic Congressional districts, including the critically wounded Representative Giffords’ seat. How appropriate are extreme online and public attacks?
“I prefer to live in a society in which laws, however corruptly enforced, not mobs, decide who is guilty and how to punish them,” said Howard Rheinghold, author of Smart Mobs. “There is the public sphere in which demonstrations and boycotts are legitimate actions, and online flash mobs tipped presidential elections in Korea and Spain. But drowning out voices of dissent has no place in a democracy.”
It is a hard discussion, one that balances free speech versus decency. As we have seen with Anonymous’s most recent target of the often controversial Westboro Baptist Church, two wrongs don’t make a right.
Recourse for the Flash Mobbed?
Recourse is the first instinct for the flash mobbed organization or person left with a blog littered by negative comments and in-bound links, or worse, a fan page or web site that’s down. But it’s not as easy as a gut reaction to fight back. Sometimes fighting back simply prolongs the issue, even validating it. An organization or individual needs to take the time to respond intelligently rather than simply react.
The first and most obvious area of recourse is negative commenting that’s anonymous and/or attacks personas. It is increasingly acceptable to delete such attacks on one’s own fan page or blog. It is advisable to have a publicly stated social media policy that clearly states the organization’s position on anonymous comments and attacks before an incident.
“First, I would delete all comments that use profanity or resort to personal attacks,” said Kent State’s Bill Sledzik. “If the comments are transparent and civil, we have to live with it. When they’re not, we have to call them out for their dirty deeds – and fight back as best we can.”
“If comments are being left on one’s own blog, for example, the blog owner can decide which to allow and which not to publish,” added Civilination’s Andrea Weckerle. “This is not censorship, as far too many people believe – censorship applies to suppression of speech by a government body”.
The next level of recourse is a public statement. It’s important to do this when the situation involves negative, incorrect information about an organization or a person. But it may be best to weigh the gravity of the flash mob attack. Statements and counter actions should be reserved for serious situations that damage a person or an organization’s long-term reputation. In such cases, engaging one’s own community to help makes sense.
“Reach out to your community and ask if they can write about their experiences with you,” said Danny Brown. “Continue to monitor sites and postings about you, and if need be, ask for complete lies and non-facts to be removed. Try and counter bad exposure with facts and good exposure, and use SEO to work in your favor to (hopefully) counter the bad over a sustained period of time. It’ll be tough but it can eventually be countered.”
In the worst situations, people and organizations should seek legal recourse. Certainly violent threats and illegal actions like shutting down web sites require the attention of law enforcement officials.