On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog

We live in a time when public opinion on many issues is almost evenly divided, when politics has changed from a search TCB-22230for compromise to the “permanent campaign” of “us versus them,” and when, as a result, discourse and debate often devolves into a coarse exchange of personal attacks and disrespect.

In this environment, have social media and online communications only made things worse, giving many the anonymity to engage in personal attacks and even hate speech?  And what are the implications for influencers, communicators and others who work within open and free channels of communications?

I’ve often wondered about this when, after reading articles online, I’ve perused the “comments” section that follows, only to find it full of name-calling and extremism. But, after ignoring such vitriol, I was struck by a recent New York Times op-ed column by Joe Nocera.

Referring to Twitter, and why he doesn’t Tweet, Nocera wrote: “What I object to most of all is that, like other forms of social media, Twitter can be so hateful.  It can bring out the worst in people, giving them license to tweet things they would never say in real life.”

He then referred to an “investor and CNBC commentator,” who “regularly tweeted his investment insights,” and had 63,000 followers. But the commentator withdrew from Twitter because of nasty and foul messages.  “I received several life-threatening tweets,” he told Nocera.  “I concluded it wasn’t work navigating the sharks to find the good fish.”

So, it’s at least worth reflecting on whether social media have opened new avenues for hateful anonymous speech that will only continue to worsen public discourse. Thought leaders in public relations and marketing commented that such speech is an unfortunate but not unexpected byproduct of developments in media, yet media and communications professionals can play a role in addressing it.

Just ignore it?

Ron Culp

Ron Culp

Although such online disrespect seems to be increasing, it’s important note that, as with speech in other media, many are ignoring it it.

“If I had 63,000 followers, I’d put up with a few social media shark bites,” commented Ron Culp, public relations consultant (formerly, general manager of Ketchum PR’s Chicago office) and now professional director of the graduate program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University. “Anonymous social media comments — both negative and positive — carry little weight with most readers, so throwing in the towel over a few discouraging comments seems a bit thin skinned.”

Likewise, Augie Ray, a social media leader at an East Coast-based Fortune 100 company, pointed to how anonymity and public discourse aren’t necessarily compatible, and how readers can avoid the vitriol by frequenting platforms where commenters identify themselves.

Augie Ray

Augie Ray

“I’m increasingly a fan of dialog in places where anonymity is not the rule or where moderation is possible,” Ray said. “For example, I’ve observed Facebook being used for more professional and political discourse than was common years ago.

“I think there will always be a place for the open, anonymous dialog on places like Twitter (where I’ve never had a problem with nasty or threatening tweets, by the way), but I also think the benefits of civil discourse are easier to achieve when people have to be themselves, where community managers moderate discussions or where reputation matters.”

When reputation matters

That’s perhaps the key word for public relations, marketing and other professionals who ply their trades in communications and media: reputation.  For professionals whose responsibility is to manage reputation, should we care about the coarseness and vitriol seen on social media?

Mr Seitel043013

Fraser Seitel

“You bet we should care,” responded Fraser Seitel, New York-based public relations consultant, adjunct professor at New York University and television commentator on news communications and marketing-related topics.  “Social media devices are compulsory tools for public relations,” Seitel said. “But they are just ‘tools.’ What matters much more than a facility with social media is knowledge, counsel and judgment.”

Social media, Seitel added, “has not only made coarseness and vindictiveness a prevalent no-risk proposition, but it also has given voice to unknowledgeable, inexperienced, no-talent novices parading as experts; who lower the standards of that on which they opine.

“For public relations people who should be concerned about ‘standards,’ social media pose a new threat to the perception of the field’s professionalism,” Seitel said.

That’s a pretty strong statement, underscoring the special responsibilities of those who work in communications.  In light of the comments of Tim Brunelle, a Minneapolis-based brand strategist, such risks and responsibilities have already existed in other areas.


Tim Brunelle

“The Internet (and social media specifically) are duel-edged,” Brunelle said. “They empower — but that gives fuel to the best and worst of humanity. The same is true of the printed word, of art, of science.

“It’s just easier to run into mean-spiritedness and cruelty in the new social spaces,” Brunelle added.  “And let’s not forget that social media is a child, very few years old. Children are cruel.”

We’ve been here before

Nocera and his friend, therefore, may have been started at what they encountered on social media, but I believe their response – to withdraw from it – is incorrect. The duty of commentators like them, or public relations and marketing professionals who listen to such teachers as Ray, Culp, Seitel and Brunelle, is to remain in the realm of social media, adhering to professional standards by exhibiting reason, respect, and decency.

John Milton wrote almost 400 years ago that competition in the marketplace of ideas is the only way to ensure the best ideas prevail. Today, the same principle applies to the tone and manner of public speech: as social media are used to enlighten and inform, rather than degrade and defame, more will focus on the former and ignore the latter.

That, perhaps, is one of the great potential opportunities of social media: to elevate public discourse as the public is exposed to more information and more points of view.

What, then, is your view?  Do you agree or disagree? And have the comments of some on social media caused you to withdraw from it, or to participate with a better type of public discourse?


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