August 15, 2014

The Dark Side of Social Media During Times of Grief.

social media internet computer

It’s only Wednesday but it feels like this has been the longest week I can remember in a long time.

On Monday, there was the shocking, unexpected passing of Robin Williams. The following day, the world lost a true silver screen legend when grande dame, Lauren Bacall, passed away at the age of 89.

And today, there were two reports that left me feeling like this could very well be the worst week ever.

The first one was actually from Monday. Adult film star, Christy Mack took to Twitter and tweeted pictures and her account of a horrific attack allegedly inflicted upon her by her ex-boyfriend, MAA fighter John Koppenhaver a.k.a. War Machine. (Full disclosure: I had no idea who any of these people were prior to this.)

I happened to see the photos on a popular supposedly “family-friendly” entertainment website and was horrified. The abuse suffered by this woman is the stuff of nightmares. However, the real horror was reading some of the comments by some who seemed to think that somehow Mack’s chosen profession as an adult entertainer somehow “justified” her savage attack and others who actually called into question if she was a victim of domestic abuse.

If that wasn’t bad enough, some actually took glee in the photos of Mack’s bruised body saying more or less that she “got what was coming to her.”

If that wasn’t depressing enough, Zelda Williams, the only daughter of Robin, announced she was quitting Twitter after receiving abusive messages by trolls.

I guess on the bright side I should point out that so far at least, I am unaware of any trolls harassing the family of the late Lauren Bacall but honestly, it would not surprise me. Indeed, when Robin Williams’s death was first announced, I knew it was only a matter of time before the trolls came out.

It’s not that I wanted this to happen, but spending time on social media for over a decade has taught me many things including this truthism: there are some really cruel, sick people on the Internet who delight in harming others.

While many may read that statement and say to themselves, “Yeah, and what’s new?” the truth is, abuse on social media is a problem and one that may be growing.

While I use to dismissed trolls as largely attention-seeking kids, new research is showing that may not be the case. A recent study conducted at the University of Manitoba found they are “narcissistic, Machiavellian, psychopathic, and sadistic.” While some may argue that the best way to deal with them is to ignore them or quit social media, it doesn’t resolve the problem.

(There is also an argument to be made that why should I or anyone have to leave social media because some people delight in ruining the experience for others?) Plus, even quitting does not change the impact of the emotional pain and turmoil they cause.

As someone with a public Facebook page I occasionally get messages and comments from people who disagree with my point of view or do not like various posts that have been published on this site.

Fair enough.

I always thought the world would be a boring place if we all agreed. However, a month or so ago, I had one person who sent a number of downright abusive, threatening messages that left me feeling very disturbed.

Despite reporting them to Facebook and despite the fact that I did not have any deep personal information on my public page such as my address, employer, etc., I was still wondering if I was going to receive some sort of unwanted package in the mail or if this person might pay me a visit. It was not a good feeling in the least and frankly, isn’t one that I would wish on my worst enemy.

That experience as well as reading about the respective situations of Christy Mack and Zelda Williams left me wondering what it is about sitting behind a computer screen that makes some feel if not invincible then at least willing to say things that they would probably never dream of saying in real life.

For example, many years ago, I was involved with a man who lived several hours away. The worst rows we ever got into took place via email. In real life, he was a very mild-mannered sort who made sure that every word that came out of his mouth was politically correct. However, online was another story. In one instance, we were arguing over him missing my birthday and he brought up a gay male friend of my mind, who had nothing to do the situation and whom he never even met, by writing, “I hope your f****t friend dies of AIDS and you along with him!” (It actually got worse from there.)

The irony that this man sat on a committee designed to promote tolerance of gays and lesbians in the company he worked for was not lost on me.

Years later, I always wondered how the “real” man was: his internet persona or the one he showed in real life. To this day I do not know.

In any case, those of us who chose to be on social media (and more and more of us really don’t even have much of a choice because our work may require it to reach new and existing clients and customers), need to be aware of the perils involved and how to deal with such individuals that do not result in us either stooping to their level or putting ourselves in harm’s way.

I wish I could offer a clear-cut, simple formula but alas, I do not have one other than take all threats seriously and report, block and/or ban abusive posters if possible.

However, one thing I do not suggest is apologizing for not being able to take abuse or feeling like you are somehow immature or lacking for not “rising above it.” (In one of her her final Tweets, Ms. Williams wrote: “I’m sorry. I should’ve risen above.”)

The truth is, no one deserves to be abused period, and words and images have just as much power to hurt as a physical blow.

Lastly, keep in mind as well that while there is a darkside to social media, there is also a lot of light.

I remember reading a memoir by the late Elizabeth Edwards where she shared that one of the things that helped her cope with the unexpected death of her teenaged son, Wade, was an online support group for parents who lost a child and then there is my own experience with a group of (mostly) women whom I met-in all places-on an entertainment chatboard dedicated to all things related to 2006 summer media circus known as “TomKat” who have been an invaluable source of support and wisdom for 8 years and counting. (I really don’t know how I would have gotten through my first pregnancy without them.)

As Anne Frank (someone who had more reason than most to be cynical of humanity)  once put it wisely and succinctly, “I still believe in spite of everything people really are good at heart.”


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Editor: Renée Picard

Photo: Ministerio TIC Colombia  at Flickr 


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