Online Character Attacks: Why They Happen, How to Prevent Them and What to Do When They Happen to You

online-shockOnline attacks suck…and so do the people who initiate them.  It’s a terrible practice that seems to be more and more common online as social networks, discussion boards, blogging and microblogging become all the more pervasive.  Once upon a time, there was a lot that went unsaid – today, it sometimes feels like nothing is off limits – world leaders, celebrities, parents, major corporations, even young people and children.  They…now WE…are all fair game.  So to speak, that is.  Nothing much seems fair about online attacks either, so we wanted to explore this issue further and try to offer some suggestions for preventing and avoiding the trash talking from affecting you.  If, after all, you can take some simple precautions yourself, why subject yourself to becoming a victim needlessly?

As a side note, there are a lot of different kinds of abuse that occur regularly online – from very serious to benign.  We’re of the mindset that information is power.  So here are a few types of abuse to look out for as you continue to build out your persona, brand, personal and professional life in the online world.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s stick to character attacks.

Why online attacks happen

Someone could probably write a PhD thesis on this topic.  Why online attacks happen has as much to do with human psychology as access to technology, if not moreso.  But some like to pin online abuse on the pace of innovation, which is just not the full story.  Some people in this world are simply:

• sick (cyber-stalkers),
• cruel and insecure egomaniacs (cyber-bullies),
• angry, irritated, emotionally charged (flamers)
• passive-aggressive (trolls)

More on these characters here.

Beyond the psychological rationale, why is it that some feel compelled to publicly criticize or worse, bash others online?  Personally, that question just baffles my mind.  I was raised to be sensitive to other people’s feelings, treat them with respect, use objectivity and restraint whenever possible. We all know that not everyone is raised with the same values though.

Some people are a little too hungry for attention and power and will say or do anything they have to get it, or feel like they have it. Some have issues with self-control, are angry people, ignorant, reckless or just straight out evil.  I think a lot of it has to do with us all becoming a little desensitized to negativity and attacks.  Just think about how casually we watch violent movies, listen to profane lyrics, and make tasteless jokes.  Frankly, there just isn’t a clear line about what’s appropriate or not anymore; so many things are totally subjective.

At the same time, we have to appreciate that we live in a time of free speech, access to information and communication tools to share our opinions with the world.  Politicians pundits, comedians, media personalities, journalists, filmmakers, evangelists, critics, bloggers, MySpace and Facebook personalities, Twitterers…have built powerful reputations by calling things like they see them.   Some are censored in their broadcasting of thoughts and ideas, others are completely unfiltered – even by their own moral code or values.

How to Avoid Being Attacked
You probably know a lot of these already, but it doesn’t hurt to hear them again…especially if you’re not living by these basic rules:

  • Carefully manage your reputation on and offline.  You can’t get caught doing bad things if you don’t do them in the first place.
  • Always conduct yourself knowing that anyone anywhere can photograph, video tape or record just about anything you’re doing.  And even if you’re totally innocent, we all know that editing and the wrong vantage point or perspective can change everything.
  • If you are going to engage in anything you wouldn’t want the whole world to know about, be sure to do it in a very private place around only your most trusted of friends whenever possible.
  • Be VERY proactive about building your own story our online.  Use your profiles, articles, and conversations as a way to build a positive reputation and show others what you’re really made of.  That way, when not so great stuff emerges, your friends and followers have a lot more to go on than what some random person says about you.
  • If you’re going to be controversial, do so knowing what you’re getting yourself into and subjecting yourself to.  You might get famous, but there can always be consequences.
  • Understand what your true values and priorities are and respect yourself by living according to them.  (If you’re not sure what they are, let YSN and the top behavioral scientists in the world on values help you find some clarity.)
  • Be substantive in what you say, do and create.  If you build and propagate a lot of fluff, or worse BS, you’re asking for it.  Intelligent people, people who care and others heavily vested in the subject matter you engage in will take issue with you.
  • Be respectful of others.  If you’re not, you’re just asking them and others to treat you with the same lack of regard.
  • Always try to take the high road.  If someone tries to engage you, be the bigger person.  Others will see that and in the short and long run, it will make a tremendous difference to how you feel, act and are responded to.
  • If you’re in business, make sure great customer service is always a priority for you and your company.  Don’t wait for problems to crop up to be responsive, and certainly don’t ignore them when they do.

What to Do When You’re Attacked

If you’ve been the victim of an attack there are a few things you can do in response, but in most cases, online postings can live online forever whether they’re true or not.  That said, don’t feel like you’re entirely helpless.  You are in complete control of how you react to the situation, and that should make a big difference.

When attacks happen to us I think we have to look at not just the source, but the motivation, and manage our own reactions accordingly.  First look at why you’re being attacked, then respond thoughtfully.

Certain attacks are based on misinformation or misperceptions. In these cases, take the opportunity to help someone understand the situation from a different perspective, fill in the facts, even just let them know that they don’t have the full story.  Counter their remarks with substance, not pure emotion.  Keep your response as respectful and factual as you can not to raise the tone of the discussion unnecessarily.  Remember that people will be watching how you conduct yourself too.

Some attacks are based on jealousy. The more success you achieve, the more certain people will be out to knock you down.  In Australia, they call this “Tall Poppy Syndrome”, the idea that no one wants to see any poppy flower grow taller than the others.  Hopefully your ego doesn’t get the best of you as you become more accomplished because that is a surefire way to insight people to want to come after you.  Even the most humble and gracious people will be subject to unfair attacks though.  In those cases, my advice – just keep being who you are and keep your standards about how to conduct yourself high.  Don’t let others drag you down into murky exchanges just because you’re hurt.

Some attacks are just mean spirited or come from an ugly place. Try not to engage with these people, or do so very soberly and plainly.  Make your point, speak to the truth to put it on record, and then step away.  Try not to let your own emotions get the best of you or you might end up saying things you’d regret.

Here are a few other tips and tricks if you’re encountering online attacks or harassment. (Note: these are just suggestions and websites responses will vary based on their terms of use):

  • Try asking the owner or webmaster of a site to remove the offensive content or block a specific person, clearly citing the reasons.
  • The more you talk about it and link to it, the more visible it will become in searches of your name or company.  Keep the chatter to a minimum.
  • If links to this content keep appearing high on Google or other search engines, talk to an SEO expert about trying to bury it in the rankings.
  • Write a formal rebuttal and post it in the same place as the harmful content if you can.
  • Consider asking for a retraction if the information is straight out false.
  • Get your friends, customers, and fans to respond on your behalf.  Have others stand up for you.  That will add a whole new dimension to the conversation.
  • Unsubscribe.  Stop visiting that site.  Suggest to your friends that they do the same if your concerns are not fairly addressed.  Move on.

Bottom line, the more good stuff you do and put out into the world, the less crap and negativity will stick to you when it does appear.  That’s how I’ve always lived my life and conducted my businesses and thankfully, it has worked out pretty well so far.  I’ve been featured and reviewed and debated in front of hundreds of millions of people from the biggest media in the world to the most specialized of niche blogs and I can only count on one hand how many things have come to haunt me unfairly.  I still think of those few cases all the time, but I can always sleep at night knowing that I, as our friends at Google say, live by the “do no evil” mantra.  The only principal that’s even more important to me is the constant intention to do as much good as possible in the world.