Dealing With Hate on the Internet

Dealing With Hate on the Internet

Some Web sites may cause you to shudder from the deepest part of your being. You can read, view and hear some of the most malicious and inflammatory material imaginable. You’ll find blatant racism, anti-Semitism, Christianity bashing, homophobia and more — all designed to pit people against one another.
Then there are critique, or “rogue” Web sites, that target specific companies or individuals with angry accusations and epithet-filled condemnations.
You’d think that the Internet was the greatest thing to happen to hate since the invention of the printing press. You’d be right.
But with its unparalleled ability to answer ignorance with insight and create a channel of communication where none existed before, the Internet also can  be a great boon to tolerance.
Whether you are a serious business or casual home user, you will no doubt be exposed to hateful content on the ‘Net, some of which may be directed at you personally, a group you belong to, or an organization you work for.
Cybersmearing has a long history on the ‘Net, and a ruling in April by a federal judge in Seattle reinforced the right of people online to speak their minds, even anonymously. The judge ruled that a company involved in litigation can’t force disclosure of the identities of people who anonymously blasted the company on the Web.
“The First Amendment clearly applies to the Internet,” wrote U.S. District Judge Thomas Zilly. In this situation, wrote the judge, the First Amendment applies even though the critics said “downright nasty” things about the company and its officers, calling them “cheating, thieving, stealing low-life criminals.”
How should you react when someone spews forth hate about you or your organization or group? Your first inclination might be to reply in kind, to attack back using angry words, the legal system or both. Or you might decide to ignore it, hoping that few people will notice.
Neither an eye for an eye nor acting like an ostrich are good strategies.
The best approach is to try to establish a dialogue. If someone has blasted you or your organization, ask about the circumstances that led to the person’s dissatisfaction. Come across as humane. Angry, hateful people are always hurting. Say you are sorry about the situation, and ask how you might resolve it together.
When a Web site doesn’t provide contact information, the free program Alexa, at <www.alexa.com>, can uncover it.
If your company is being flamed in an Internet discussion group, it pays to open a line of communication here as well. But it’s best for your company to speak with one voice. Just as you don’t have multiple employees sending press releases to the media, you don’t want more than one person sending possibly conflicting messages on behalf of the company in online discussions.
You will undoubtedly have a tougher time breaking down years of bigotry, but it doesn’t hurt to reach out here also. Over time and with the right influences, peoples’ attitudes can soften.
Whatever you do, treat the matter seriously. The Internet’s reach grows every day. If you allow a small sore like this to fester, it could become a major malady. When a company’s image becomes sullied enough online, this can eventually affect the bottom line.
If you are concerned that others may be spreading false rumors about you or your organization online, you can use a commercial Internet intelligence service such as eWatch, at <www.ewatch.com>, or EclipZe, at <www.eclipze.com>.
Avoid antagonism whenever possible. Otherwise, you may come across to others as a Goliath picking a fight with a David. David will win the PR fight every time.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, don’t try to stifle others’ speech, no matter how offensive. If successful, this type of censorship would merely make these individuals or groups go underground, lending martyr-like importance to their activities.
As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote more than a half a century ago — and no one since has said it better — the best answer to “evil” speech is “more speech.”
Instead of trying to sweep filth under the rug, replace it with positive speech. Sunlight can be a great disinfectant.
One boldly self-confident option is linking to a critical Web site from your own site. This shows you have nothing to hide. If you explain why what they are saying is wrong, you can take away a lot of their power.
The Internet lets anybody say just about anything about just about everything. It can also be next to impossible to shut somebody up.
Don’t try. Instead, speak up. 

— Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or http://members.home.net/reidgold.



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