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.
Considering these developments, you might 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 can also be a great boon to tolerance.
Free speech reinforced by recent ruling
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.”
When you’re the target
Whether you’re a serious business user or a casual home user, you’ll no doubt be exposed to hateful content on the Net, some of which may be directed to you personally, to your own business, or to a group you’re affiliated with.
How should you react when someone spews forth hate in your direction? An initial 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. However, neither “an eye for an eye” nor acting like an ostrich is a good strategy.
The best approach is to try to establish a dialogue. If someone has blasted you, your company, or your group, ask about the circumstances that led to the person’s dissatisfaction. Come across as humane. Angry, hateful people are always hurting. Say you’re sorry about the situation, and ask how you might resolve it together.
If the Web site that’s involved doesn’t provide contact information, the free program Alexa, at http://www.alexa.com, can uncover it.
Note that when it’s your company that is under attack, it’s best for your firm to speak with one voice. Just as you don’t have multiple employees sending out press releases to the media, you don’t want more than one person sending possibly conflicting messages in behalf of the company in online discussions.
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.
The wisest course is to avoid antagonism whenever possible. Otherwise, you may come across to others as a Goliath picking a fight with a David. It’s likely that the David will win the PR fight.
You’ll 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.
If you’re concerned that others may be spreading false rumors about you, your company, or your group online, you can use a commercial Internet intelligence service such as eWatch, at http://www.ewatch.com, or EclipZe, at http://www.eclipze.com.
Respond, don’t repress
Perhaps most important, 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 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’re 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or