How To Deal With An Online Shitstorm

Tips for weathering massive online backlash, from four people who attract it for a living.

1. Know When the Storm is Coming

As last week’s outing of the infamous Redditor Violentacrez from Gawker’s Adrian Chen demonstrated, nobody can ever be completely anonymous. The mask will slip, or be torn off, inevitably. That is as true of Chen as it is of Michael Brutsch, the real name concealed until last week under the moniker of “Violentacrez.” Chen’s piece is a sad and thoughtprovoking comment on the vulnerability to which participation in a free society condemns us, and on the enlightenment we might be coming to find, sought or unsought, in 2012.

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The anonymous Redditor Violentacrez could post sexually suggestive photos of underage girls, of women being beaten and so on, with complete impunity, while these activities were protected by the low and flimsy firewall of his Reddit alias. (He was skating on very thin ice, attending public Reddit events in his own name, and letting many other users in on his secret. The newly unemployed Michael Brutsch, it is safe to assume, will not be free to do these things under his own name.)

So when Chen found out who Violentacrez was he shared this information, as he always does. He didn’t threaten Violentacrez, as has foolishly been surmised; it wasn’t “blackmail.” There was never any question but that Chen would publish.

Chen maintained, as always, a mildly sardonic but ethical position; that has been his persona. The surprise for this reader was that contact with Violentacrez seemed to dissolve this facade in a subtle way, even as he busted his target.

On the one hand, Chen did not skimp on the details of the private practices of Violentacrez. On the other, there was this:

When I called Brutsch that Wednesday afternoon and told him I knew who he was, I was a little taken aback by how calm he remained during our intense but civil hour-long conversation. I had figured that a man whose hobby was saying horrible shit just to screw with people online would rise to some new horrible level when conditions on the ground actually called for it. Instead he pleaded with me in an affectless monotone not to reveal his name. […]

The problem was, he explained, that if his identity got out, his many enemies would start attaching lies to his name because they simply don’t like his views. They would say he was a child pornographer, when all he had done was spearhead the distribution of thousands of legal photos of underage girls. […]

He asked a number of times if there was anything he could do to keep me from outing him. He offered to act as a mole for me, to be my “sockpuppet” on Reddit. “I’m like the spy who’s found out,” he said. “I’ll do anything.”

Though Chen has tangled with the desperadoes of Anon, 4chan and worse, the sight of this guy Brutsch falling apart appears to have gotten to him some. Brutsch said at the time, “If you want me to stop posting, delete whatever I posted, whatever. I am at your mercy because I really can’t think of anything worse that could possibly happen. It’s not like I do anything illegal.”

“[I]t wasn’t my place to tell him what to do,” Chen says he replied, adding “I was just reporting on what he’d already done, but this did shake me a bit. It didn’t help that our phone call had been unplanned and I hadn’t properly steeled myself for a tough conversation.”

Many on Reddit are fiercely protective of contributors like Brutsch, because they see themselves as well-intentioned outlaws manning the outposts of free speech. No doubt there is something in this. It’s no accident that the ACLU has found itself defending the speech rights of the KKK, nor that the American public owes a real debt to the likes of Larry Flynt. Free speech means necessarily means horrible speech.

Maybe the best thing about the Violentacrez story is that it demonstrates accountability on all sides. The cost, the responsibility. Near the end of his piece, Chen wrote:

Under Reddit logic, outing Violentacrez is worse than anonymously posting creepshots of innocent women, because doing so would undermine Reddit’s role as a safe place for people to anonymously post creepshots of innocent women.

I am OK with that.

Though reactions to Chen’s piece in the aftermath of the Brutsch affair have been overwhelmingly and increasingly positive, the author has been treated to a lot of invective since it came out:

Then again, maybe the best thing about the Violentacrez story is that it illuminates the question of how any of us should interact online in the face of violent disagreement. It presents a set of questions that everyone on the internet could profitably ask himself. Namely, how should you act before — and after — the storm?

When someone comes tearing after you with a machete on the internet, how should you react? This isn’t just a question for the muckrakers. If you have the slightest taste for blabbing online, they’re going to come after you.

Joel Johnson recently wrote a beautiful and compelling piece advocating silence as the best general strategy when people yell at you on the internet.

“Just shut up.”

That’s it. It doesn’t feel good. It goes against instinct and causes the ego to howl and run its tin cup across the bars of its cage. But most of the time, it’s not only the most prudent option immediately, it’s the option that results in the least repercussion and anxiety over time. People will forget. Sangfroid will outpace schadenfreude. Snipers hiding in the bush will have a target-lean environment and will move to happier hunting grounds. You will seethe and your teeth will wear to powder, but you’ll eventually be happier you kept your mouth shut.

(The internet has also inculcated this wisdom as “Don’t feed the trolls.”)

Silence is golden, I agree, with respect to the ordinary brickbats — those composed of mere sound and fury. “You are stupid,” say, or you’re a philistine, pretentious, self-promoting, insufferable. Unvarnished slurs like these are based on the false assumption that calling someone else stupid means that you must be smart.

I’ll call this the Vizzini Gambit (“Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons.”). The Vizzini Gambit always works, because it’s always true. All human beings are flawed and tragic; we’re tiny little specks of dust marooned out here in the velvet blackness of space and whatnot, and so “you’re ignorant” is an ever-victorious argument against all seven billion of us.

The smart money, then, is on asking oneself in a friendly way, well, how about it? Am I being a dick here? Or pretentious and insufferable etc.? Have I read Huizinga? It’s worth just asking yourself, to make sure.

From time to time the hostility of detractors comes attached to an actual argument. Then what I really like is to open a discussion, if possible, and try to get to the bottom of the disagreement. What if this person is right? The best possible thing that could happen is that someone who understands something better than I do would make a great argument, improve my position, make me change my mind. Then I can progress. This strikes me as the point of the whole enterprise.

8. Consider Who Comments

When I try to open a tense conversation in a friendly way, I have found that almost everyone who began by yelling at me changes his tone right away, and then it becomes easy to have a real talk. I wrote to Joel Johnson to ask what he thought about that.

Who comments? People who want to be heard. And what’s an easy way to get someone’s attention? By throwing a fit. Calling names. […]

Yet their desire to be heard is often a trapdoor: just talking to people who have commented makes most people instantly mellow, even mildly sycophantic, because commenters have become used to being an ignored chorus.

There’s Twitter, though. I talk to almost everyone who talks to me on Twitter.

As for criticism, though, unless you’re really going to change your opinion — and change it publicly — there’s probably no reason to get into the muck and defend your position. You’re already as on top as you’re going to be.

All of that is hard to argue with.

Any blog or listserv is apt to be hijacked, eventually, by a growing crowd, just like a nightclub or a restaurant starts out very cool and secret, and then that quality is diluted almost in direct proportion to its popularity.

Systems like Branch and Kinja that attempt to preserve the cool quotient, quality and relevance are, I think, necessarily doomed by this (as statisticians call it) “reversion to the mean.” Making a public space is a double-edged sword; you need the juice and excitement of making participation easy for a large number of people, but that ensures that eventually, the trolls will gather. (And they’re mean! and we revert to them.)

10. Give People Enough To Change Their Minds

As for Joel Johnson’s comment, I guess I hope I am always ready to change my opinion, and change it publicly. That’s part of the danger of becoming too associated with some set of positions, especially if you write for a living (but also, if you don’t, among your acquaintances). There’s too much at stake for you to engage totally, Enlightenment style, with all your doubting mechanisms intact. If you respond to your detractors privately, then, you can have a more intimate and less guarded conversation; if in public, though, you have the opportunity to move the needle quite a lot for those who have followed the entire exchange.

I tried to open such a dialogue with Dan Savage a couple of years ago, when he claimed I had my head up my ass; a remarkable thing to learn from Google Alerts, and maybe the most extreme comment I’ve had on any of my own writing.

Our disagreement was about the motives of pregnant women with a rare genetic condition called congenital adrenal hyperplasia; Savage thought these women were being encouraged to take an experimental drug in order to prevent having lesbian babies, and I thought that was absurd. Savage never responded to me directly, but at least readers of the linked materials could make up their own minds based on more than a single volley of expletives.

When I approached Alex Pareene of Salon about this stuff, it turned out he’d written all about it in a fantastic 2008 piece, “How Not to Storm Off the Internet in a Huff”.

Manage Your Narcissism. Please. And:

Have a Sense of Humor Please.

STOP DIGGING. You’re mocked or attacked. Respond with a cutting counter-attack, a reasonable and self-reflective defense, or DON’T RESPOND AT ALL. Or email the author and make friendly! This secret tactic usually works wonders. DON’T flail about helplessly in the comments section, where you’ll be piled on. Don’t post something hurt and whiny that reinforces whatever real or imagined fault you were attacked for. Bite back and enjoy the game or ignore it and move on with your life.

“Do you respond to online detractors still?” I asked. “Should we?” “In general I think that when someone ‘calls you out’ it’s PROBABLY better to not respond at all,” he replied. “But I also think [the no response] rule can be happily broken, as long as it’s done with good humor and with more wit than defensiveness. And sometimes it is just fun to flame someone who flamed you, and pretend we are all Pro Wrestlers or something.”

Also interesting: Everyone I spoke with agreed that when you break the ice with someone who’s flamed you they very often start purring, practically, just from being noticed instead of ignored.

“[I]t is definitely 100% true that most people, unless they’re huge assholes, soften the second you email them,” he said.

Good dissent like good manners begins with us, not with the other guy.

14. Mark, Learn, and Inwardly Digest

Max Read, an editor and writer who covers the penis beat at Gawker, and is a species of internet field marshal, has a coolly professional attitude toward flaming (an old-fashioned word now, I suddenly realize.) He told me:

[I]f you take a sort of incredibly cynical, high-school-locker-room view of discourse as a whole — and I think you probably do, to make a living as an editor or publisher or someone involved in the business side of words-on-the-internet — you should never, ever respond to criticism, ever, because it’s essentially an admission of weakness. This is true from the smallest, saddest message boards to the biggest newspaper outlets. It’s deeply related to the phenomenon of trolling, I think. […]

[T]here are always exceptions to this “rule,” a lot of which have to do with relative positions of power with respect to the “attention economy,” like if someone who has a relatively larger audience criticizes you, your response helps continue what is likely a beneficial arrangement for you, attention-wise, even if you’re on the losing end: you gain audience, power, legitimacy. […]

Or you can just “U Mad” your way out of it by making the whole thing a kind of joke; i.e., making it exceedingly clear that you don’t take the criticism seriously and are completely unaffected by it.

The question of audience size complicates matters a great deal. Nobody thought about that sort of stuff at the turn of the 21st century, but it’s becoming more and more important every day.

If I were giving advice, to myself as well as anyone else, I’d say this: Don’t feel obligated to respond to every bit of criticism or disagreement, at all. Assess its quality. Make sure it’s in good faith. Think about the ultimate goals of your critic and yourself. Be honest with yourself about what you want out of the discussion.

Wherever possible, respond in private, over email. (This way you can take the fraught problems of the “attention economy” and public performance in front of judgmental peers out of it.)

Most importantly: sleep on it. Always. At the very least, take a walk.

The last bit of this advice from Max—to stop and take a breather before mashing the “send” key—should surely be enshrined as the Prime Directive of the internets. No matter how experienced a writer you are, no matter how cool-headed you imagine yourself to be, ignore this precept at your peril.

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Americans in our time have been sort of castrated by this idea that any agency we have is false, meaningless. It doesn’t matter how you vote because the game is rigged, only the eminent have any say and even they are the playthings of forces bigger than themselves; god is dead and nobody is listening. It doesn’t matter what I do.

Add to this the general despair among journalists in the age of Honey Boo Boo over getting anyone to take anything seriously for five minutes, and you begin to see a tacit assumption that borderline-criminal behavior like that of Violentacrez is just part of the price we pay for free speech. And to some degree, this is I think a correct assessment.

But it doesn’t tell the whole story. Because this business of Adrian Chen’s was revelatory in a subtly different way from his usual exposés; because you could feel the tug of empathy and personal involvement and a sense of responsibility from him that seemed new, and good.

As though he were saying, this choice I made, this decision, has a moral dimension. As though he were saying, it matters what I think, what I say.

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