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IWSG: Social media scandals

I thought social media was really fun in the beginning.

People posted cute pics of their pets, or maybe what they’d cooked for dinner that night. You were able to connect with old friends you hadn’t seen since high school (if you wanted to) and keep in touch with that awesome scuba diving coach you met in Brazil. Your friends list, while small, consisted of people you knew and probably actually liked. Twitter was an opportunity to prove how witty you could be in 140 characters or less.

And then something changed. Tired of being disparaged for their fine collection of dog sweaters, or love of tacos, or out-of-focus photos of some vacation spot or other, people started sharing SERIOUS stuff. Politics. Endangered animals. Polluted waters. Celebrity deaths. School shootings. Bombings. Social media became less about hanging out and connecting and more like some dreadful news channel of doom. If it was ugly, it was on social media. Articles correlating Facebook to depression began cropping up. Social media was destroying our true-life relationships, scientists warned. And no wonder–for by then, most of us had more “friends” than we could ever possibly meet, and our “newsfeeds” were flooded with angry missives shared by people we, in many cases, didn’t actually know.

Soon after came the virtual pitchforks and torches. Is it any wonder that when you took a medium that started off as cozy and friendly, that shared information supposedly (ha ha) kept to your nearest and dearest, and turned it into the Doomsday Channel, full of outraged people all spouting their own SERIOUS stuff, that the proverbial kaka was bound to hit the fan?

And so it did. If you haven’t found yourself in the centre of a social media scandal, and you still don’t have at least some connection to someone who has, consider yourself very, very lucky. Because I’ll tell you a secret: no one ever expects it to happen to them. And this isn’t a matter of losing a few Facebook friends anymore. This is a mob of furious villagers coming after you like you’re the latest version of Frankenstein’s monster. They want your job. They want everyone who’s ever rubbed shoulders with you in a professional capacity to abandon you. They want your friends. In a lot of cases, they want you dead. They will threaten you with rape, say they’re going to kill your family, post your personal information where everyone can see it, and tell you the world would be a better place if you weren’t in it. They’re relentless, and just like that creepy chick in The Ring, they never sleep, because there’s an infinite number of them.

You might think that will never be you. You won’t make an off-colour, offensive joke, expecting it to go no further than the small circle of friends who follow you on Twitter and get your sarcastic sense of humour. You would never accidentally write something someone might find offensive. On a particularly bad day, you wouldn’t snap at a clerk or a waitress who’d tested your last nerve, just when someone happened to have their cell phone out and recording. A loved one would never defend your honour and tell a reviewer exactly where they can stick that bad review. It can be even simpler than that, and every time I’ve spoken to someone who’s unexpectedly stumbled into the maelstrom, they’ve always said the same thing:

“I never expected that to happen.”

Just recently, a well-liked and respected author had the nerve to suggest that horror anthologies should be a little more diverse. BOOM! The resulting backlash was so bad she deactivated her Facebook account. Another writer, known and usually appreciated for his dark sense of humour, made an insensitive joke. BOOM! People were actually ordering everyone else in that writer’s circle to unfriend the guy OR ELSE. Even though he’d immediately apologized. There is no un-lighting this fuse.

The reason I say all this is not to scare you, although everyone should find this stuff pretty terrifying. When did we let the mob rule? As someone who’s worked in public relations for so long it’s not polite to ask, I’ve helped lots of companies manage a crisis. Which is exactly what a social media scandal is. It’s no joke–if it catches you in a vulnerable moment, it can even be fatal.

Since we’re writers, most of us communicate online. A lot. So a high percentage of writers unwittingly find themselves in this kind of disastrous situation. If you’ve messed up in spite of your best intentions, here’s what to do:

Delete the offensive post/Tweet/update as quickly as possible. People will have screen capped it and will share it like the vultures they are, hoping for more blood spilled, but at least it will become a bit more difficult for those vultures to find. They’ll have to seek it out, and they’re inherently lazy. If the scandal isn’t handed to them, a lot will pass it by.

Apologize sincerely, publicly, admitting you were wrong. Avoid excuses, which can come across as defensive.

Some people will still lash out, especially if your post went viral or got some traction. Do not engage with them or continue to defend your actions. If possible, avoid reading their comments for your own mental health. Ask your friends and family not to talk about it with you.

Accept that you will lose some followers—perhaps a lot of followers—but that the people who stay and stick up for you are the ones that matter. And new people will seek you out, respecting the way you handled a tough situation.

If it gets to be too much, deactivate your accounts for as long as you need. Life is short, and your mental health and happiness are more important.

No matter how bleak things get, rest assured people will forget about your faux pas and they will move on. Once you’ve apologized, all you can do is ride it out.

What if you haven’t done anything wrong, though? What if you’re like the author who praised diversity? (The horror! And yes, I’m joking.) The Delete, Accept, Deactivate, and Ride It Out rules still apply. And above all, be kind to yourself. Reconnect with the world outside of social media. It’s still a really cool place.

Most of all, remember that it could happen to you. Keep that in mind the next time you see some poor soul drowning in a sea of hatred online. Throw them a lifeline. Swim away from the sharks. And if you see an opportunity to cool things down, please do so.

Have you ever found yourself embroiled in a social media scandal? Are you afraid of the pitchforks-and-torches mentality we’re seeing so often these days? Any tips to add?

The purpose of the Insecure Writers’ Support Group is to share and encourage. Writers can express doubts and concerns without fear of appearing foolish or weak. Insecure Writers Support Group BadgeThose who have been through the fire can offer assistance and guidance. It’s a safe haven for insecure writers of all kinds. To see a full list of IWSG authors, click here.

P.S. If you need an escape from real-life horror, and let’s face it, there’s way too much of it these days, check out Return to Dyatlov Pass. While inspired by a true mystery, it’s some good, old-fashioned, creature-horror fun.

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41 Comments

  1. I’ve seen it happen to others, but it’s never happened to me. I’m super careful about what I post online, and I do make use of the block/ignore features when people get snarky. I don’t even bother engaging with people like that.

    Reply
    • JH

      That’s great, Renee, but never say never–that’s what I’ve learned. These things really can come out of nowhere. And in the case of the author whose loved one went to war with a reviewer, it’s not just you, but everyone in your circle as well.

      Reply
  2. I don’t comment often on social media. If I do, I try to keep it simple. And I reread my posts so many times, making sure the wording is just right before I post, because I don’t want anyone to misinterpret. I did find myself in the middle of a fight between two people in the blogging world after I posted a sympathetic comment. It was a crazy situation that magnified my depression over a year ago. I almost quit blogging.

    To think an author could find him or herself in scandal on social media for suggesting there needs to be more diversity in horror anthologies sounds bizarre, though. Of course, I don’t read horror anthologies so I don’t know if this is true or not, but still…that is a harmless suggestion any of us could make. And to get that reaction? That is worrisome.

    Reply
    • JH

      So sorry that happened to you, Chrys. I’m glad you didn’t quit blogging, though. I had an evil troll who did the same to me because, back when I still wrote about kickboxing, the guy took offence to a post I wrote about drinking a lot of water. The truth is, anything can offend someone.

      As for the diversity post, never underestimate how far the people in power will go to stay in power, and keep things exactly how they are. And yes, it’s sadly all too true.

      Reply
  3. Good post. I assume you’ve read Jon Ronson’s “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”? Great book (and he’s a terrific writer anyway you might enjoy).

    Reply
    • JH

      I actually haven’t, Randee. Just have a lot of years of experience and training helping people navigate this stuff. Thanks for the recommendation.

      Reply
  4. Scary how fast it can happen. I watch what I say and avoid hot topics, but who knows what might offend someone.

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly, Alex. People think if they’re careful, it could never happen to them, but the truth is, no one knows what’s going to set it off. Some of the people I mentioned were careful too.

      Reply
  5. The stories I could tell about this. Granted, I’m not “important” enough to be involved in a full-blown scandal (I think the types of people with pitchforks only want to take down someone or something in a position) but I’ve had plenty of similar issues on smaller scales. It has really made me consider how necessary social media is and whether I want to continue with it. I rarely comment on anything that my friends post, because inevitably, one of their friends (who I don’t know) will take what I meant as a supportive comment and start an argument with me, assuming I’m a horrible person.

    Right now, unfortunately, this type of behavior is affecting my beloved rescue I volunteer for. Yup, you read that right. Animal rescue is full of drama and people that want nothing more but to fulfill their own agendas and take down people and rescues, regardless of how it affects the animals. Thought police that are posting screen shots of “private” conversations, proving that the people involved in rescue are “horrible” because they talk about others in the community. Insisting that since they gossip and talk trash (which I’m sure THEY never do *eye roll*) they must not really take care of the animals or care about them. It’s enough to make me want to go completely dark on social media and just deactivate everything. Sigh. I can only imagine how writers and other public figures feel – no doubt it can be discouraging!

    Reply
    • JH

      Thanks for commenting, Nikki, and even though you are hugely important, you don’t have to be important at all to have this happen to you. You just have to attract notice somehow. All it takes is the wrong person sharing your post, and boom! All hell breaks loose.

      How sad that this is happening at an animal shelter. There are much better ways to spend one’s time, especially at a rescue.

      Reply
  6. I’ve seen a fair few of these “scandals” and I can’t help but think that these days, a lot of people actually enjoy being offended and melodramatic.
    I’ve also seen it work the other way – people purposely post something controversial knowing it’ll get attention and gain them notoriety and new followers. It’s quite funny really that the haters in this scenario think they’re harming the person, but in reality, they are just boosting their engagement and their reach.
    Debbie

    Reply
    • JH

      I’ve never seen anyone intentionally seek out a scandal like you’ve described, but it actually makes me feel a bit better to know that someone has figured out a way to benefit from this frightening trend. More power to ’em.

      Reply
    • JH

      You’re very welcome, Juneta. Feel free to pass them on. Hopefully they can help someone.

      Reply
  7. The world on-line, and off, can be terrifying. Surround yourself with genuine friends, foster real relationships, and go ahead and hibernate when necessary. And, yes, escaping into a good book is always an excellent choice. Thanks for this, J.

    Reply
    • JH

      You’re welcome, Mary. Thanks for the additional tips!

      Reply
  8. There used to be a show – “Social Media Ruined My Life.” It was terrifying how one simple mistake destroyed a person completely. The mob mentality is scary.

    Reply
    • JH

      Figures they made a reality show out of it.

      It really is terrifying. Hopefully these tips will help someone.

      Reply
  9. Thankfully, I haven’t been caught out in a social media scandal…yet. There are far too many people out there just looking to stab their pitchfork into something. {Sigh}

    Reply
    • JH

      Please do us all a favour, Ellen…sic Simon on them.

      Glad you’ve avoided the pitchfoks thus far. May fortune be always in your favour.

      Reply
  10. The mob mentality of social media is the adult version of junior high school “popular” cliques. Certain people love being part of this mob activity because 1. they can behave in an uncivilized manner with little accountability, and 2. they have 15 minutes of being part of the “in crowd.” The crowd mentality is pathetic and intellectually dishonest, but there you have it. I don’t post about politics, religion, or personalities. I follow the rule of not saying anything if I don’t have something nice to say. And I still don’t feel safe.

    Reply
    • JH

      Wise words, Lee. Mob rule is truly ugly.

      And the truth is, no one is safe. Anything we say–or our loved ones say–can be twisted around and used against us. It’s the new reality, sadly.

      Reply
  11. I’ve heard about several attacks. I understood the writers felt helpless once it began and eventually they disappeared, giving up their careers to get away from it.

    I’ve never followed the mob mentality. It’s an excuse to behave badly. The funny thing is, the mob doesn’t take the blame since each individual in it can still be seen clearly.

    Anna from elements of emaginette

    Reply
    • JH

      Bravo, Anna. Exactly. Everyone is so brave when they’re hiding behind their screens. How sad that this has caused some writers to end their careers.

      Reply
  12. It’s a scary thought, and you’ve got some good advice. I haven’t gotten caught with anything yet–I try hard to stay out of political discussions, etc., but sometimes I lose control and jump in. FB is a mess, and I’d like to figure out a way to just see when people share the things I want to know–like how wonderful their kids are (seriously, I know we all like to make fun of FB bragging, but if you are really my friend, I DO want to hear that your kid got into Stanford or won 3rd place at the preschool track meet).

    Reply
    • JH

      It has become a mess. And I hear ya–news like that isn’t boring when it comes from someone we care about. It only becomes an annoyance when it’s incessant, just like it would be in real life. If someone always brags about their kids, or shows a photo of every single thing they eat, it can get old fast.

      Reply
  13. I have a friend who had it happen to her and have seen them happen to others in real time. The speed and venom of some of the people involved in the mobbing is scary. There is no forgiveness with them.

    Reply
    • JH

      Exactly, Patricia. It’s truly awful. I’m so sorry this happened to your friend.

      Reply
  14. Solid advice. I’ve wandered back and forth between deciding to delete certain social media accounts and deciding I’m overreacting. In all honesty, I’ve come closest to blowing up my author twitter as I’ve grown tired of the echo-chamber.

    I’ve certainly found myself in the middle of many a facebook feud, made many mistakes, deleted many blogs because I’ve opened cans better left sealed.

    Great post.

    Reply
    • JH

      Sorry to hear you’ve suffered from this as well, Ryan. While there are great benefits to social media, I’ve often found myself feeling down after spending too much time on it. I’ve been tempted to delete my accounts many times, and my author page has been the only reason I haven’t.

      Reply
  15. Thanks JH – pretty scary! We’ll all get so PC maybe ?

    Reply
  16. You have captured something very real here, JH. As I was reading through your post, my heart started beating faster, as if reading a real horror story. Well, it is. I totally agree with you. The “virtual” world, namely social media and everything “out there” online is scary. But, what is even scarier, is the way some people think and act. Nothing can be done about that. Even if you think you only post positive stuff and never offend anyone, you’re wrong.

    This account is close to my heart, because we experience similar things running our business. You can’t make everyone happy. Customers blame us for things that have nothing to do with our product, tell lies all over the web, are violent and offensive and swamp the forums discrediting our business, often without even giving us a chance to help or get things resolved. It is nasty out there and it – unfortunately – affects our lives, our health and our moods, because we care, are responsible and hate conflicts!

    Reply
    • JH

      I’m so sorry to hear that, Liesbet. As much as reviews are important for writers and consumers, I’ve started to hate our review-centric culture. Anyone can have a bad day or a personal grudge and decide to leave a shitty review that really hurts someone else’s livelihood. I dislike Goodreads because people can just leave a star rating, which requires no thought and very little effort, but yet can be devastating to the writer.

      Reply
    • JH

      It definitely would, Victoria. How I wish that were true!

      Reply
  17. Good post. I’ve been there a few times, at least people tried to put me there, but I simply walked away from the situation and let the other people be mad. It’s one thing to take the risk of expressing your thoughts about a controversial issue or attempt to tell a joke or make light of a situation, but every time I’ve seen this in real life, it was just me or someone I know answering a question about day-to-day stuff and someone didn’t like an answer. I guess I’ve lost all hope in humanity because I expect this kind of stuff now. I just assume that I’m offending someone simply because I exist. I can only hope that someone else out there agrees with me or, at least, tolerates my opinion. That’s a rare and happy exception.

    Reply
    • JH

      Sorry to hear, Toi, but you’re right. This can result from something as simple as answering a question. It’s gotten beyond ridiculous.

      Reply
  18. The problem is that this conflates two real but different problems: someone calling for diversity vs someone saying or doing something offensive. Two very different things. None is an excuse for threats of course, but this “oh well, it was just a joke” or “everyone is so PC” is never the right response. Calling for diversity is not the same thing as making an offensive comment. In the latter case, that person does need to be called out. Depending on the situation, there does need to be backlash. The person who made the comment does not get to decide if it was offensive and does not get the play the victim. In the former, we have victim blaming and that person should not have to shut down social media or do any of this (of course, they may need to but that should’t have to). The people who attacked should be the ones to be called out. I doubt your intent was to confuse the two but it can be read that way.

    Reply
    • JH

      I was providing a number of examples of situations that have all resulted in the pitchforks-and-torches response. The fact that I presented a variety of different scenarios was to illustrate that this can, and does, happen to everyone.

      And I disagree that people “need to be called out” and that there “needs to be backlash.” What’s offensive is very much in the eye of the beholder, for starters. If someone makes an off-colour joke, it offends someone, and they immediately remove it and apologize, I really don’t think it’s necessary–or compassionate–to call for them to lose their friends or their livelihood. No one I discussed in these scenarios said “It was just a joke” or “everyone is so PC”…they were genuinely apologetic for the misstep.

      Anyone who thinks this kind of over-the-top backlash is deserved should be prepared, because it can and will happen to them too. No one is immune. I’d prefer it if we all took a moment to think before lashing out and calling other out. I’m not perfect, so I’m certainly not going to stand in judgement of someone else.

      Reply
  19. I’m a social media sissy. I avoid those controversial posts as much as possible, and even when my blood goes to boil over the unsubstantiated, so-called facts, I pass. I’m out there to share ideas, find and promote books, and network with readers and writers. I even keep my family contacts on the low-key side of things. I’d prefer a more professional face out there.

    Reply
    • JH

      You never know what could offend someone, Lee. Sometimes not taking a stance is enough, sadly.

      Reply

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