Practicing Loving Speech Online

Always Stunning, The Cherry Blossoms

I’ve been thing about writing and commenting online lately. Probably more than most, I have a history of mixing it up and leaving a comment or three that left heads spinning. In the past year, I’ve made a move to practice more loving (or benevolent) speech online.

Choosing to invest in kinder speech, and to not leave a path of strife on the interwebs requires mindfulness and acceptance of my character defects. I don’t pull punches. When it comes to tough discussions, I fight to win. That means someone’s going to be upset most of the time.

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The Ethics of Flash Mobs

Anonymous hackers
Image by Anorak News

In December of last year, Anonymous hackers teamed to hack U.S. sites and post angry messages of dissent against U.S. companies that withdrew support of Wikileaks. Last October, when ace photography blogger Scott Bourne posted on Twitter’s digital copyrights, angry photographers flash mobbed his site, causing Bourne to close comments. In 2007 Greenpeace targeted Apple for poor environmental standards with its Webby award winning GreenMyApple campaign, which in part featured calls to action to comment negatively on Apple blogs.

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

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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

PETA

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.

Civility, Tonality and Manners

Piazza della Repubblica police
Image by Friar’s Balsam

Civility: 1. Formal politeness and courtesy in behavior or speech. 2. Polite remarks used in formal conversation.

Society needs the civility movement online. Recent use of phrases like “blood libel” in speeches or outright threats to someone’s physical well being show that line after line is being crossed. Yet on the other side of the civility argument is a demand for contrarian voices to watch their “tone,” to ratchet back criticism. At their heart these cries may find their basis in a need for better manners online, or simply a desire to silence opposing views. In that sense, cries for civility represent a real danger towards freedom of speech online, a critical element of 21st century democracy as shown by recent events in the Middle East.

The well-meaning “civility police” ground arguments in tonality, which makes it easy to dismiss them as vein attempts to stifle uncomfortable differing views (see PRSA post on this topic). Tone deals with sound and color. Sound is not just the actual words, but the inflection of the voice, the shade of orange.

Printed words — the stuff of most blogs and social networks — does not convey tone as easily as sound or color. In fact, in order to convey tone a writer needs to use bold emphasized statements with punctuation that underscores emotion, or worse, use dreaded emoticons. :D

Criticism based on printed tone finds its basis in imaginative interpretation. Internal emotions and experiences cause the reader to conceptualize tone. Imagination and print have a long relationship, a primary reason why novels capture our minds and hearts. Printed words allow us to imagine the story within the context of our own lives.

Yet, when enforcing civility online citing tone often fails because it can be grounded in imagination. Offended parties and their friends raise the flag of hurt, but one is left wondering why? Did the criticism hit the mark too closely? Was the statement in opposition to the offended party’s belief system? Only in the most direct cases of threats, sexual abuse or attacks can civility be painted as a black and white issue when it comes to print tonality.

Consider that the gay rights movement is considered obscene by a vocal minority in this country. Thank God voices past and present have refused to be held back by those in power and continue their fight for gay rights — even when individuals continue to be abused and die because of their sexuality. Because some find homosexuality obscene, they will find this post and the underlying inferred belligerence to be uncivil. The continuing progress of the gay rights movement is a testimony to the very real power of free speech.

Manners: a. the prevailing customs, ways of living, and habits of a people, class, period, etc.; mores: The novels of Jane Austen are concerned with the manners of her time. b.ways of behaving with reference to polite standards; social comportment: That child has good manners.

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Judith Martin, a.k.a. “Miss Manners”

Unlike tone, manners are not as subjective. Throughout the history of civilization, manners have existed. Every culture and sub-culture has its own unique customs, but there are formal guidelines available to people. In the past we had Miss Manners, and today we have How to Be a Gentleman and How to Be a Lady (hat tip: Techcocktail).

Arguments for civility based in politeness and manners have more weight. It gets back to the roots of civility, and its very meaning. Saying, “she has a right to her views, but I wish she was more polite,” holds water. Note that freedom of speech is not questioned, rather a simple request for more mindful language.

It’s ironic to see bloggers discussing the need for tone-based civility finds in the face of the 2.0 conversation revolution, which sought to free society from the shackles of formal business parlance. Perhaps the pendulum has swung too far, but you won’t see bloggers asking for more formal, polite language. That would require an admission of error, an acknowledgment that the 2.0 revolution went too far. Further, it would mean that these bloggers would have to practice what they preach and elevate their own level of “polite” civility. Teflon revolutionaries continue their course.

It’s OK to admit we are wrong. Humans err (only politicians are perfect). In this context, last Tuesday’s post title, “Kick Your Competitor’s Ass” was in poor taste. It failed to meet the standard of polite discourse this blog seeks to maintain. That doesn’t mean the message would be any different: Cries for kind agreement amongst competitors on positions make no sense. Companies should seek to best their competitors through differing views, increased value and better approaches.

Civility grounded in politeness is just another way of asking for mindful discourse while empowering the right for free speech and opposition. It may not always be met either. Freedom of speech supersedes politeness. Free speech is what differentiates open societies from totalitarian regimes like Libya, where dissidents are shot for voicing their opinions.

Let’s not use civility as a way to shut down strong, opposing views. In all aspects of life, the minority opinion should be heard and personal grievances should receive careful consideration. How many times has the rightful majority found itself wrong in the annals of history? Even the founding fathers — our first Presidents — allowed for error and corrections with a structure for constitutional amendments.

Queen of Spain Receives Death Threats on Twitter


Erin Kotecki Vest at NewComm Forum in 2008

With great regret this post discusses recent death threats (warning: graphic language) received on Twitter by Erin Kotecki Vest, known on the social web as the Queen of Spain. In the worst cases (warning: graphic language), the lives of her children were threatened.

Death threat

Erin is one of those special people who has been on the social web since the pioneering days, yet makes herself widely open to her community. A Democratic party leaning political blogger and a friend to many, Erin is currently publicly waging a harrowing battle against Lupis. While certainly the ire of GOP social web opponents may be understood, no human being — especially one as fun, loving and special as Erin — deserves such horrifying threats online.

Erin’s situation also follows on the heels of the horrific Arizona shootings. While not a Congresswoman, Erin is a highly visible person on the social web, and thus has attracted the worst kind of parasocial behavior.

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Such cases have happened online in the past, most notably with the Kathy Sierra controversy in 2007. Kathy ended up leaving the blogosphere, and though she came back briefly on Twitter, the threats chased her off the web. Erin has chosen to stay online, an act of courage given the harsh nature of these threats.

Having been threatened with a beating for questioning a photographer’s practice of tagging bloggers with watermarked images on Facebook, it’s easy to say that such threats are not a pleasant experience. Threatening people physically — or worse threatening to kill them and their children for differing ideas — goes beyond “heated discourse,” and enters the realm of criminal and mentally unbalanced behavior. There is no provocation that can justify these kinds of threats against other people.

Yesterday, the Momocrats hosted a podcast on the topic with Civilination’s Andrea Weckerle. While sometimes disagreeing with Andrea about the finer points of civility, we agree that there can be no tolerance for cyberbullying and online threats. If you are sickened by this news, if you have experienced threats online, please check out Civilination’s site.

Let’s hope Erin’s bullies find help, and go away. Lupis is enough of a scourge. Here’s to the Queen of Spain. Long live the Queen!

Kick Your Competitor’s Ass

DC United at the DC Auto Show

Yes, you did read the headline correctly. One of the most annoying flavors of kumbaya in social media circles remains the idea that we should all get along. These voices leave no room for public competition. Meanwhile most of the folks singing this tune don’t run businesses, and are bloggers and their fans. They are clueless about winning market share.

Ignore them. As a marketer, your job is to outperform your competitor.

Growing the pie bigger and helping the industry makes sense. That’s just part of being a good community member. Acknowledging when a competitor does good things makes sense, too. Facts are facts, and everyone appreciates best practices. You probably like some of your competitors. Hey, sometimes it even makes sense to team together for larger purposes.

The cause space could stand for less competition and more cooperation since nonprofits seek to resolve the world’s ills rather than compete. Still, nonprofits have different ideas and approaches towards change, and compete. Thank goodness because some approaches don’t work, like Komen’s suing other causes over the phrase “for the Cure.”

When it comes to direct one to one market competition and position, your job is to win. “Me, too” platitudes and nicety will cause your organization to fall behind more often than not.

If a competitor launches a winning service, innovate and offer customers a better offering. When the competion catches up and betters you, focus and compete on quality, price, timeliness, distribution and services. Look how Radiohead competes in all of these areas compared to traditional recording artists.

When competitors have weaknesses or hurt the market with bad practices, position against them and seize the market. See Google Android versus iPhone (open versus closed operating systems). When competitors make poor decisions that distract them from your customers, let them fall down. Who cares if they like it or cry about it? Are you in business or in a popularity contest?

Whether its your phone operating system, selling music and tickets, ideas via blog content, a better answer to social crisis, or a marketing firm, competition exists. Kick ass, and don’t look back.