Friday, April 30, 2010

Guest Post -- Hazmat for Toxic Comments

Nearly everyone who blogs gets attacked at some point. If you don't blog but read blogs or other social media you have likely been stunned as I have been by the level of vitriol, hatred, meanness and genuine nastiness of a too-large percentage of those who talk about things online. I blogged about this on crisisblogger not long after I started and the issue of "toxic talk" has been a strong interest--even thought about trying to write a book about it once.

Dave Statter is a broadcaster in DC and a prolific and very successful blogger dealing with Fire and EMS issues--I've referred to it several times in the past. When Dave commented recently on a post on crisisblogger on the issue of toxic comments, I asked if he would prepare a guest post on this subject. Here are his excellent comments-- a great guide for anyone who blogs and for those who use or will use social media in a major emergency.

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 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 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 My reporting had become a topic of conversation among firefighters on 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 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 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.