Tag Archives: toxic talk

TED finds you’re damned if you do, damnder if you don’t: you’re just plain damned

TED is one of those Internet phenomenon that makes me glad I’m still alive to see this kind of thing. Some of the most interesting ideas and talks have emerged from this forum.

But, the controversy surrounding them today and particularly Chris Anderson, TED’s leader (and not the same person as the editor of Wired and author of Long Tail–at least not according to wikipedia) shows what today’s social discourse and media/social media environment is like.

They opted not to post a talk about inequality that was clearly very partisan. Even though the audience and orientation of TED seems a little leftish, when they opted not to air this one based on its partisanship, they got hammered. They were threatened by the PR firm the author hired that if they didn’t post they’d get blamed as being a tool of the Republican party. Sure enough, National Journal took the bait and TED got hammered by the lefties.

So, in this post explaining what happen, Anderson nicely gives the background, and then finally at the end explains why they are now publishing. Oops. Hammered again, this time from the right.

This is similar in many respects to the Komen Foundation issues, in that when something touches on political hot buttons, you are in a no-win situation. Someone is going to get ticked off and try to start a firestorm. The digital lynchmob is waiting, surrounded by dry tinder. That’s the environment we live and try to build and protect brands in. You’re right, I don’t like it much and wish it would change. But, that’s the world and learning how to maneuver in it, how to build companies, do our jobs and survive the brickbats and outrage, that is the challenge. It doesn’t seem to be getting easier.


Reddit, the internet’s front page, and AMA with an Intervention cameraman

I’ve only been somewhat aware of Reddit. Like a lot of other social discussion site I just don’t have time for all the chit chat and frankly, looking at the vast majority of the chit chat on there, not sure I want to spend a lot of time hanging out with those who do seem to spend a lot of time hanging there. But, lately I’ve become more aware of how important Reddit is to what becomes news, what becomes viral, and what influences public decisions. Reddit is a powerhouse.

That became clear when I followed the story of my friend (actually my son’s friend) Rory who is the guy who rescued the dog in the kayak in Florida. Even though I saw the role that Reddit played in the YouTube video going viral, now up to 1.6 million views I didn’t pay attention to its way of operating and the content of the discussion on it.

Reddit is truly user curated content. Anyone can submit a story or comment. The “redditors” then vote it up or down. The up votes mean that the story or comment rises on the site or in the comment thread. It is democratized news with a certain kind of purity. I say certain kind because the “redditors” are a pretty interesting bunch.

That became very clear to me when my son, the friend of Rory, agreed to participate in an AMA. An AMA on Reddit is “ask me anything.” Well, he actually agreed to an “AMAA”–“ask me almost anything”. Now not everyone can do this. You actually have to be someone where there is some interest when you identify yourself as “IAmA”–or a person of some special interest. Chris Baron is a cinematographer and has worked on numerous TV shows, TV commercials (seen the Ford commercials with Mike Rowe?) and documentaries. His reel and list of credits is pretty amazing (sure, I’m proud, wouldn’t you be?) But his biggest claim to fame, at least with the Reddit crowd, is that he has been the Director of Photography for Intervention and shot many of the A&E series shows in the past six years.

So, with Intervention producer’s permission, Chris submitted an “IAmA” and the discussion about his work there is enlightening. I won’t comment here about how reading some of the stuff he’s been through makes me feel (he told his mother and I a lot but clearly spared us some ugly details). Instead, the application to crisisblogger readers is two fold:

1) pay attention to this culture. The Reddit comments provide an insight into the values, ideas, perceptions, priorities and thinking of this “reddit” culture. As I recently blogged–and before the Susan G. Komen-Planned Parenthood fiasco–brands and organizations that ignore this culture and its values combined with its hyper-networked character do so at their own risk.

2) pay attention to Reddit’s impact on news and your reputation. While I would not claim that redditors reflect general attitudes, I would say that the site and those who live on it have an inordinate impact on both what is covered today and how the news is digested. That means Reddit (and Digg also which used to be the big one) need to be paid attention to. It means that when you are in the news, you are going to want to see what discussion is happening on Reddit, how the votes are going, and whether or not you are front page.

Reddit claims to be the front page of the internet. For a great many, including news outlets, I’m guessing that is not too far from the truth. but, my goodness, does there have to be so much ugliness in our discussions?


Eli Pariser warns of online filter bubbles

Hyper-partisanship is one of the hallmarks of our Internet-driven public discourse. Citizens and parties seem increasingly polarized with those most interested and active in political discussion and involvement seeming to move ever closer to the outer fringes.

Certainly shrill political discussion is nothing new in our nation. All one has to do is look at the Alien and Sedition Act to see how bad it used to be and how one of the worst pieces of legislation in our history came to be. Newspapers were expected to be and were stridently one-sided. But, one would think that with the Internet, with the new power of the news and commentary customer to choose, with all the tremendous options of voices, information and sources that we would gain some tolerance, some appreciation for other viewpoints, maybe even become a bit more educated.

Sadly, the opposite seems to be true. I and many other bloggers have commented on how angry so many commenters are, the foul language used, the hyper partisanship, the cock-sureness of their own perspectives. In this blog I’ve called it “toxic talk.” In this very intriguing TED talk, Eli Pariser provides some insight into how the search tools we use may be contributing to this retreat into our extremist corners. What is worse, he reflects that with the increasing complexity and sophistication of these search tools, it is almost certain that our exposure to contrary information and viewpoints will be even more limited in the future.

I recently blogged about the importance of contextualization and what this might mean for web design, apps and crisis and emergency communication in the future. Contextualization means the intelligence that the web site or application uses to detect the user’s devices, location or preferences based on previous history to quickly provide the most relevant information and presentation of that. In other words, if you hit a website seeking information, that site can detect if you are using your smartphone or laptop, if you are on the freeway stuck in traffic or sitting in your home, and if you prefer to approach issues from a left or right perspective. Then it delivers content specific to you.

I think that is pretty cool and will be powerful way of communicating. But, Eli has made me nervous about that. There is a dark side to the increasing power of technology used in this way. I echo his appeal to those writing these algorithms. Think about what you are doing. Recognize that the efficient delivery of relevant information may further our slide into hyper-partisanship and declining education levels.

(Thanks much Jeff, for the heads up on this!)

The Tucson massacre, social media and political rhetoric

A few quick comments about the tragic events in Tucson and the strange direction it is now taking.

First, a note on social media in this event. This event, like most all major erupting news stories particularly since the Hudson River plane crash way back in early 2009, is played out primarily on the internet and particularly social media. I’m quite surprised by the observations of some who point out how wrong Twitter and therefore some of the major outlets got the story initially. This story from “lostremote” talks about how Twitter got it wrong, with many reporting that Congresswoman Giffords had died. Well, of course. The old story of emergency and crisis communication is that initial reports are almost always going to be wrong. It’s just in the old days, those initial reports took a lot longer to get out so there was more time to correct them before they traveled the globe. Now, reports right and wrong travel the globe in milliseconds and those initial reports go much farther much faster. What is more interesting is 1) how quickly in this social media environment of “collective intelligence” are the mistakes corrected 2) how major news outlets like Reuters and NPR got it wrong–precisely because they are getting their news now primarily from Twitter and other social media and 3) how the news outlets handle their corrections (Reuters removed their tweets while NPR corrected them with better information later and left the old ones out there–personally, I think NPRs approach will win the day.)

What fascinates me even more about this story is the way it is being politicized. I guess we have to get used to the idea that everything today is going to get politicized. When man bites dog these days, it is not only news but fodder for the endless commentators to decide whether or not the man or the dog was the Republican or Democrat and what societal stresses caused the man to behave in this way, and hidden motives there were for the dog not to bite back.

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows how I feel about the political rhetoric today and how damaging and destructive it is to our public discourse, and particularly to the environment of distrust that pervades everything. I was so disheartened to see the term I have used for this kind of talk here, “Toxic Talk” being co-opted by a new book which denounces the rhetoric of the extreme right. Yes, much of the talk from the right is toxic. But as someone who has lived in a community during the Bush era that was dominated by left-oriented hate-filled language I firmly believe that both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of the phlegm that pervades our discussions. What has been more disheartening to me than anything is the degree to which this kind of talk–with a vulgarity, hatred and crudity not found even on FOX or MSNBC–almost dominating political talk on the internet among our young people.

But to turn the hideous actions of a deranged young man into attacks on Sarah Palin as CNN did last night is hypocritical to the extreme. While pretending to be talking about the problems and dangers of extreme politicization and bare-knuckled attacks, they do the same thing just strikes me as distasteful and disgusting. I haven’t watched FOX in response so I can only imagine what is going on there.

At the same time, I’ve been reading a fascinating book by Jack Fuller, the former publisher of the Chicago Tribune. The book, “What is Happening to News” takes the approach not of attacking the news purveyors (as I have done here so often) for how they have destroyed journalism, nor does he blame the news viewers whose ratings determine the behavior of the media outlets. Instead, the culprit is our over-messaged environment and the impact that it has on our brains as we process information. I won’t say more because I am in the early part of it. Applying neuroscience to understanding today’s journalism is potentially very important way of understanding what is going on.

Whatever the cause may be, and however hypocritical the news media’s navel gazing about the vitriolic political rhetoric may be, it is a good discussion to be having in our world. Like so many other things, I think we may look back and see that the level of disgust about how we talk to each other has been steadily rising. Then this sick kid from Tucson does his thing for reasons of his own, and suddenly it becomes the trigger to spur a much needed national discussion. Let’s not make the mistake of thinking however that this is about the sick kid. It’s about us, and what we need to do to make this world a little friendlier, more positive, more trusting place to live.

Trolling, toxic talk and the challenges of transparency

Thanks to Dave Statter of statter911 who alerted me to this outstanding op-ed piece in NYT by Facebooks’ design manager Julie Zhuo about the challenges the tech community faces regarding trolls. Trolls are those mean, nasty horrible creatures that lurk around seeing who they can attack with their slobbering, venomous mouths. In this case, they don’t lurk under bridges and pathways, but they lurk around blogs, news sites and websites, contaminating almost every conversation with their toxic expressions. Yes, you’re right, I don’t like them very much and have written about them a fair amount here under the topic of toxic talk. I think they are a significant contributor to the decline of public trust and the disagreeable atmosphere surrounding much of our public discourse.

As Julie points out, a primary cause for this is anonymity. People will do all kinds of things when their identity is unknown and unknowable that they wouldn’t think about doing otherwise. The Greek philosophers certainly understood this. Trolling, like many evil deeds, would be seriously decreased by making it illegal to reveal who you really are.

But, that runs smack into a primary ethos of the internet. The internet crowd really likes this anonymity and I suspect a great majority of them would fight hard to protect it. And I for one do not believe there is or should be a legal or legislative solution to every problem that plagues us. If that is the way, soon our only problems will be legal and legislative ones and sometimes I’m not too sure we aren’t there already. I just think it is quite ironic that the internet ethos of anonymity runs smack dab into that other high value of the internet culture–transparency. How can you demand transparency from anyone and everyone, while hiding behind anonymity? Yet, that seems to be the value system at work.

Speaking of transparency, and speaking as one who has proclaimed its virtues loudly and tried to help organization leaders understand its urgency and demands, we are now seeing some of the dangers and challenges of transparency. I am referring, of course, to wikileaks and the widespread publication of classified war documents and now diplomatic messages. I have little doubt that those subscribing to the internet ethos, as I am referring to it, are largely applauding the release of these documents and looking to nominate Julian Assange, wikileaks founder, for a Nobel prize. Part of me wants to join in the applause but there is also that part of me that says there are some times when secrets are necessary.

The dilemma inherent in this struggle against transparency versus other competing values and interests–including the lives of people and security of the nation–is evidenced in the New York Times explanation of its decision to publish most of the leaked documents. Wikileaks creates a huge dilemma for responsible news organizations like the New York Times. Refuse to publish and they not only lose out on all that web traffic and public interest, but they look like digital content Luddites. Publish it all, and they fall right into the reasonable accusation of not caring about anything other than their ratings or readers. Personally, I think they did a pretty good job of walking this tightrope with this explanation. Still, it makes you wonder a bit when they make a point of pointing out that they did not necessarily agree with the Obama administration’s opinion about publishing all documents and so are making themselves the arbiters of national security questions rather than leaving that to the government. I guess so it has always been, but this seems to be on a whole new level.

What seems clear in all of this is that transparency is not an unmitigated good–as even the most adamant of internet freedom protectors would agree. If they did agree that transparency was the ultimate good then they above all would demand an end to anonymity on the web. So, both individual members of society, like the publisher of the NYT and society as a whole will continue to struggle with finding the right balance between transparency and protection. It will be interesting to see how this will play out in the field of conflicting values. What is certain for crisis communication is that any effort to restrict information without clear and compelling justification will be met with hoots and howls from the media and the social media crowd alike. All the more for the trolls to slobber over.

What the… Goldman outlaws bad language?

Gosh darn I hope this is a trend. DailyDog reports that Goldman Sachs is banning bad language from internal emails. I’ve been talking about “toxic talk” for some time now and believe that the cursing, swearing, foul language combined with the vitriol and hyper-partisanship that characterizes so much of social media and blogs is damaging. Damaging to the people who participate, damaging to the ones they intend to damage, but most of all damage to the soul of our communities and society. I’m glad Goldman is taking this position and I hope it is not merely, as DailyDog suggests, part of their effort to clean up their image. It’s not that I would be dismissive of this step in helping clean up their image. I would rather it be done because it is a healthy, right thing to do.

Reminds me of a research project I did years ago for the construction industry. In much better construction times than these they were faced with a severe shortage of young people entering the field. This despite paying probably the highest starting wages of any industry. So I did some research among high school students as to their interest in construction as a career. I found that the biggest obstacle to considering the industry was their perception of the people in the industry. Who wants to invest their lives with people they find disgusting. They referred to the leering and catcalls directed at young women from construction crews. They referred to the filthy, unkempt appearance. And they referred to the bad language. My recommendation was to train workers to treat the public with respect, train them to treat each other with respect, wear uniforms and improve physical appearance, and ban swearing. This advice went over about as well as a toad in a punchbowl. Oh, I also advised they do some PR and advertising showing some of the outstanding young men and women who were happily making construction a career–that part they liked.

Some no doubt are attracted to the profane, testosterone environment of the trading floor. But, our world is changing. We’re tired of the kind of free for all environment, greed and excesses that are at the heart of the financial mess we are in. Cleaning up the language isn’t going to change the world. But, like continually scrubbing graphiti off the subways in NYC, it just may be the tipping point to begin removing some of the toxicity of our discourse and society. I hope there are many others who follow Goldman’s example.

Are we tiring of "toxic talk?"

One of the most disturbing aspects of our culture to emerge with Internet communications and social media in particular is what I call “toxic talk.” That is the tendency of a very substantial portion of the Internet sub-culture to engage in conversation that is crude, lewd, venomous, bitter and disrespectful. I’ve blogged about it repeatedly and I have been surprised that more in our society are seemingly resigned to this unpleasant manifestation of this mode of communication.

Well, I was wrong. Although there has been surprisingly little discussion about it in the media, PR circles or sociological studies, WeberShandwick has corrected this failing. They published results of a survey on Civility in America (available on their website). This is a very important study. I am absolutely thrilled with the result that shows 94% of Americans consider this incivility a problem and 65% consider it a major problem. Perhaps more significantly, the public is turning away from those places including websites and social media sites where incivility is so strong. They are also turning away from the political discussions because of this high level of incivility.

I’ve observed at first hand the incredible animosity and foul language of so many who are expressing their opinion of the Gulf spill on the spill website (www.deepwaterhorizonresponse.com) and the social media sites for the spill. In presentations recently to others about the spill communications, one of the lessons learned that is shocking to some is the incredibly high volume as well as hatred so vividly displayed. This toxic talk creates an atmosphere that brings all who observe and participate in it down.

I believe we can do something about this. First, by not participating in it ourselves, committing to respectful, cultured disagreement rather than gutter language and personal attacks. Second, by turning off the radio and tv programs that specialize in the angry, excessively partisan, hate-inspired language so evident on both left and right. Third, by letting those engaging in it know that you find it offensive (prepare to be offended twice as much). Fourth, by getting involved in what I hope is a growing movement to discourage toxic talk, like that conducted by www.civilination.com.

Hazmat for Toxic Comments — A Guest Post by Dave Statter

Dave Statter is a very well-known blogger on fire and EMS issues at statter911.com. I’ve linked there a few times and appreciated him commenting here. Not long ago, he commented on a post about blog comments. I really liked what he had to say and asked if he would prepare a guest post on the topic. Here is some great advice for anyone who engages in blogs or any form of social media. If you haven’t encountered toxic talk yet, you certainly will.

Hazmat for Toxic Comments
You’re a jerk. You hate volunteer firefighters. You hate career firefighters. You’re a racist. You suck. Everyone should boycott your blog.
Those are some of the printable negative comments I received in the first months of STATter911.com. The blog features fire and emergency medical services news focusing on the Washington, D.C. area where I am a TV reporter.
As the comments trickled in, after starting the site three-years-ago, it became clear I was not immune to the toxic thoughts that plague every website with an open public forum. This virtual vitriol was usually directed at a fire chief or some other public official mentioned in one of my stories but readers were also taking aim at the messenger.

Nasty comments were not something I had given much thought to as a new blogger. In fact, most of the 16,000 plus comments you’ll now find on the site are not vicious. They’re usually just opinions on a fire department policy, the actions of a fire chief or tactics used to fight a fire. But on the blog — like news websites everywhere — there are people emboldened by anonymity who go a step further. They are on the attack. They target the subject of a news story, the blogger and the people who comment. And they do it in a very personal way.

Some top emergency management officials in the country tell me how much they enjoy STATter911.com but can’t stand the comments about themselves or their colleagues. There are also firefighters, paramedics & public information officers who constantly complain about a negative tone in the comments section. I agree with them when it comes to the personal attacks. My lofty goal is a respectful exchange of ideas that doesn’t focus on personalities. I know… I’m dreaming.

My guidelines are simple. Any of George Carlin’s seven dirty words (plus a few he failed to mention) will always prompt me to hit the reject button. I do the same when posters decide to be reporters, presenting new “facts” I can’t verify. But going beyond these limited rules seems a slippery, subjective slope for a free speech advocate like me. I always challenge those complaining about the comments section to give me workable guidelines that don’t smack of censorship. No one has met that challenge. Like me, they soon realize one person’s view of “crossing the line” is very different than the next.

I have no magic formula to fairly and successfully weed out those comments. But if toxic words on an Internet forum are directed at you — and your reputation is on the line — I may be able to help. Consider what the readers said about me. How do you respond when you are called a racist jerk who sucks? First, you need to know I’m fair game on my blog. If comments meet the language test, they’re posted. But the negative comments went beyond STATter911.com. My reporting had become a topic of conversation among firefighters on thewatchdesk.com. FYI: No language filter on that site! Friends in the news media and the fire service urged me not to engage the Statter-haters. They believed it would only make things worse. But I had reputation management in mind. My own. I wanted anyone who Googled Dave Statter to get both sides of the story. It became a bit time consuming, but I responded to each attack. Still, watching others go down in flames trying to defend themselves on anonymous forums gave me pause. Like a hazmat team dealing with a toxic substance I knew to proceed with caution.
I needed a set of rules for this on-line reputation management. They’re now my personal SOP and I believe they work.

•    I never attack the attackers.
•    I try to get beyond their emotions and point out the facts behind the
•    I explain the why and how of what I do.
•    I challenge the writer, in a firm but nice way, to back up their claims with
•    I make a maximum effort not to sound defensive.
•    I try to infuse a self-deprecating sense a humor into my responses.
•    If I find valid points within the emotional rhetoric it’s acknowledged and
•    I thank them for reading my blog and taking the time to write.

My goal, then and now, is setting the record straight and telling my story. I’m not looking for love.

When I started fighting back three-years-ago the first replies were often worse than the original toxic comments.
I stood my ground. I repeatedly asked for the facts behind their emotion. Instead, I got something different.
A small number of these overly passionate writers actually thanked me for the response. They understood my point of view and respectfully disagreed. One or two went further. They began an email dialogue and soon became sources for future stories.
When the toxic writers didn’t change their ways, the community often joined in. Forum readers told the offending poster they should put up (the facts backing their point of view) or shut up.

In the end, the flame throwers couldn’t provide any real facts to support their positions. In virtually every case, whether the rest of the community responded or not, the attacks stopped. A few returned for a second or third round in reaction to a new blog story. After getting the same type of responses from me they disappeared.

I stood up to the school yard bullies and won. Very different than grade school where they took my lunch money.
Still, this technique may not work for everyone. Here’s why:
You have to check your ego at the door and need a thick hide. If you’re easily offended and can’t respond without sounding defensive, don’t engage the enemy. You will be dead meat. My experience is they’ll sense your weakness and pounce harder.
It’s important to find someone you trust to monitor your responses. They can let you know if you’re wandering outside the guidelines. My monitor was a fire service friend who gave very good feedback.

I no longer hear from any of the bullies on thewatchdesk.com. I searched the site while writing this and found it has been a long time since anyone made me the target of a toxic comment.

On STATter911.com the traffic has more than tripled, but the attacks against me have dramatically decreased.
My experience is telling your own story in this very specific way solves a few problems. It neutralizes even the most toxic comments. It puts the facts on the record. It also sets a tone. Attacks on your reputation won’t go unchallenged. And along the way you may earn a little respect.

Now, if we could just get everyone who writes online to focus on the issues and not demonize those they disagree with. Still dreaming.

Maybe we don't need to worry so much about online attacks

Along with many others in the crisis and reputation management business commented on the Motrin ad featuring a mother carrying a baby. Johnson & Johnson quickly pulled the ad and apologized. I used this as an example at the recent Ragan/PRSA conference relating to the hair trigger outrage that seems to characterize so much of the conversation on the internet–something I’ve been calling “toxic talk.”

This article in Advertising Age suggests that companies involved in this kind of viral outrage need not be overly concerned. For one thing, the internet and the conversation doesn’t impact everyone–90% of consumer hadn’t seen the ad (probably more did because of the controversy–which could be a good thing considering that most people really liked it). It’s also interesting that the research showed that while some didn’t like the ad, a small percentage saw the ad as negatively impacting their impression of the company.

What does this mean Social media and “toxic talk” doesn’t matter. Hardly. But it does caution PR folks to be careful about over reacting. It also shows that the controversy online can be beneficial in pure awareness level (say anything you want but make sure you spell my name right school of PR), and that just because a few take umbrage does not mean that the entire world is offended. Did J&J do the right thing to pull the ad? Probably, but those under attack should take comfort from knowing that most people out there, even on the internet are pretty reasonable. What it does show more than anything is that you better be paying attention to what they are saying–both the outraged ones and the rest of us.

Another great example of "toxic talk"

Just back from a wonderful cruise with extended family to Mexico–in case you were wondering why I’ve been silent lately.

I’ve been noticing an increasing number of comments about the nasty side of social media. Might be just because I’ve been focusing somewhat on the topic–sort of like when you are thinking about buying a particular model of car you suddenly see so many more of them on the road.

Here is a great article in Media Bullseye by Chip Griffin about nastiness of social media as expressed by one of the leaders in the whole area of social media technology.

I’m hoping to do some more writing and analysis around this issue of Toxic Talk so if you have any further examples to provide, I’ll use this blog as one way of tracking and organizing them. Also, we’ve done a little theorizing here already but if you have ideas to add as to why there is so much nastiness let me know.

Also, I’m thinking at some point there is going to be some counter reaction to this–some effort by someone or a group to try to return some civility and politeness into our global conversation. If any of you know of any such movement, I’d be very interested in hearing about it.