Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Five Ways To Save Face In An Internet Firestorm

The internet is unforgiving of those people it deems are, not to put too fine a point on it, douchebags. The trouble is, douchebaggery is in the eye of the beholder and to paraphrase Richard Adams, if you're caught in a lie, keep talking. People will believe you as long as you sound convincing. That's all well and good, but when more than one person is talking, how do we make sure they're listening to the right one?

There are five principles to follow when the internet kicks off, some of which I've put into practice myself and others I've learned from watching other people take a header off a proverbial cliff. They are:

1. Honesty

2. Humility

3. Humanity

4. Decency

5. Reasonability

Get those on straight and no matter how big a mess you're in, you can turn it around. Fail to heed this advice and you're going to take a nosedive to oblivion and bump off every rock on the way down.

1. Honesty

In a recent post, I wrote about how I'd been screwed out of my credit for a website I'd worked on because one of the admins had deleted my work so there was nothing left to credit me for. I was angry and went on a rant rampage on Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus, and Reddit. When a Redditor called me on my whinging, how did I react? "I came here to rant..."

If you're honest, people can see more clearly where you're coming from. If you get all defensive, people look for chinks in your armour. The more vulnerable you are, the more sympathy you'll get, for the most part.

2. Humility

The more arrogant you are, the more annoying you appear to be and the bigger a target you present. To reduce the number of rings, be humble. Don't know something? Admit it! I am as opinionated as the day is long, particularly in politics, but when an advocate for Libertarianism appeared I didn't tell him he was wrong even though I fully believed it. I asked him to explain more about where he was coming from. In the end we agreed on pretty much everything because I junked the assumptions I had made and took him at his word.

A recent comment by the Libertarian Ron Paul at a Tea Party rally where people chanted, "Let him die!" did little to win progressives over. Basically, he said that people should rely on the charity of their neighbours when they're in trouble. This is what it looks like. In a nation without universal healthcare, if you're uninsured, you end up competing with other charity cases for the few spare dollars other people have. You've got to stand out from the crowd if you've got any chance. You know, like bus monitor Karen Klein or the Bear Love campaign. The point is, if you're not part of an internet cause celebre, you're on your own, QED. Now try to get people to see you as being reasonable. Ron Paul has been losing support for his call to idealism in a corporatist America. The GOP (Republicans) have made some massive faux pas but are basically relying on tinfoil hattery and voter suppression to keep them afloat. When your voter base is dropping because people can't be dealing with nonsense like a ban on critical thinking, what do you do? Carrying on regardless and trying to change the subject is their game plan but only diehard supporters will vote for them. The point is, a bit of humility and admitting to being wrong would win more people over than changing the subject and pretending nothing happened. The recent Aurora shootings inspired gun nuttery on a massive scale and I ended up uncircling people over it. I might have kept them on if they'd at least tried to admit there was a chance they were wrong.

3. Humanity

The minute I typed that, I was reminded of a scene from an American Dad episode where protagonist Stan Smith tries to persuade his neighbours to like him by behaving in a ridiculous, over-the-top fashion. "Attention, neighbours!" he shouted. "At age ten I set the garden shed on fire and blamed my uncle. I don't know why I did that." Then he spray painted the neighbourhood pink from a crop-spraying aeroplane.

That's not how it's done. OTT soul-baring can be perceived as attention-seeking. Being human is actually more about being able to relate to people where they're at. When I had my social media rantfest over that website I'd worked on for free, I was called out for being petulant. I replied that I was caught by surprise and was hurt not just by the way I and my contribution had been excised from the record, but by the callous, indifferent response I received when I complained. "I don't behave like that myself," I explained. "In my naivety I assumed that because I can't imagine doing that to other people, they wouldn't do it to me. It's more about the way I was treated when I complained than anything else. I just wasn't expecting it." This is what moved people away from thinking of me as an entitled prat to someone who had been unfairly treated. Nonetheless, they resolutely refused to form a flash mob and go after the person responsible. I had to woman up and take it on the chin. I admitted that I wasn't happy about the prospect of doing so but since I hadn't much choice in the matter, I might as well.

This is how being human works. When I think of the massive gaffes public figures have made over things like gun control lately I can't help feeling that if they had said, "This is a hot button issue and people need to calm down so we can discuss this in a calm and rational fashion because both sides have merit in this argument," we would have thought better of them. As it is, I've got little, if any, respect for people who advocate turning a darkened cinema theatre into a shooting range.

4. Decency

Earlier today on the Jeremy Vine show on BBC Radio 2 there was a debate on whether or not it was right to go and watch the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises in the UK because the Aurora shootings had somehow tainted it. I sneered because I thought it was ridiculous to fetishise the victims in such a manner, as if boycotting the film somehow served as an offering of sorts to them. Anyway, actor Christian Bale, the star of the film, has apparently gone to visit the victims of his own accord and on his own account. As a publicity stunt (it's more likely that he was simply moved by reports of the event and wanted to do what he could), it's a winner and puts paid to the idea that boycotting the film would do any good or in any way make more shootings less likely. It's the principle of doing what's right, what's kind, and what makes things better for everyone.

Violating the principle of decency can quickly get you turned into an internet hate figure, but if you're in a firestorm you can win people over by making concessions or finding ways to do something to demonstrate the goodness of your heart. Apologies help, but it's better if you can do something to redress the balance in favour of the wronged person.

5. Reasonability

When tempers are frayed and the tension is palpable, the last thing you want to do is pour petrol on the fire. Being reasonable can get you out of a lot of trouble. The Kim Dotcom situation is a case in point. The US Department of Justice is digging their heels in and behaving unreasonably by withholding the evidence they've taken illegally out of New Zealand. Kim is making a meal of this by jerking his thumb at everything they've done. By continuing in this fashion they can only make things worse for themselves. What could you do if you were the DOJ?

Set out your case as clearly and transparently as possible and comply with the requests made by Dotcom's team. If your case isn't strong, apologise, restore everything and compensate reasonably. Blaming the MPAA would actually be appropriate since the case rests on their assertions. However, the DOJ is not going to apologise any time soon and are continuing to make giant fools of themselves, as far as I can see.

When I've been in a situation I've got myself into, such as the Reddit Rant incident, I've had to deal with people telling me I'm wrong and accusing me of being ridiculous. At this point I applied all of the principles outlined above.

1. Honesty - "I came here to rant."

2. Humility - "I know, you're right..."

3. Humanity - "...but I can't help being annoyed about this. I just wasn't expecting it, that's all."

4. Decency - "I did it for free to help them out."

5. Reasonability - "Removing my credit without letting me know made a huge fool of me because people thought I was claiming someone else's work. I realise it's foolish to keep harping on about it so I'm moving on."

If you're taking the fall for someone else's foul up you can say, "I wasn't expecting this because I completely trusted X and believed what he told me. I still find it hard to accept that he's wrong because he was so convincing."

If you've been caught being horrible admit to what you've done, be honest about your motivation, admit to your weakness, and do your best to put it right. This won't make you popular but it'll put out the fire by reducing the amount of fuel to burn. Or you can ignore this advice and let your detractors or other people get hold of and own the narrative while your side of the story gets buried under a flurry of unflattering comments. I take it because it works for me.

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