Ten Tips for Surviving – and Learning From – an Internet Takedown

Call them what you want: takedowns, call-outs, beatdowns. They are ubiquitous in the heated, rapid-response world that we once called the “blogosphere.” Blogs as we knew them largely went out with the George W. Bush Administration, replaced by a social media-driven culture in which the prizes go to those who can formulate the quickest – and often cruelest – response to real or imagined outrages.

Takedowns thrive because we believe in them. Hardly anyone thinks every takedown is justified; hardly anyone would claim that they never are. When the target is someone we admire or care about, we’re outraged, complaining about “haters;” when the target is someone we loathe, we quickly rush to explain how “this time, it’s different,” and that our howls of indignation and clamors for blood (or firings, or ostracism, or whatever it is we want) are appropriate. We disagree over the question of which notorious (or merely micro-famous) figures deserve an online beatdown, but we’ve all bought into the questionable notion that they’re at least sometimes necessary.

So what can you do if it happens to you?

I’ve been reflecting on that question for a year, since a controversy around my career and my past erupted across the feminist blogosphere. (If you aren’t familiar with the story, see here and here for a start.) It’s not my intent to revisit the debate about my life and work, which led to calls for my arrest and my firing as well as to the loss of a number of speaking and writing platforms. Rather, what I would like to offer are ten things I’ve learned this year about how to get through, and grow through, one of these increasingly common beatdowns. You don’t have to find me a sympathetic figure to recognize that what happened to me regularly happens to others for whom you do care.

Here are ten tools I’ve learned for coping with a takedown

1. Don’t Immediately React Publicly.

When you suddenly find yourself under the microscope, everything you write (especially on your Facebook wall and Twitter feed) gets carefully parsed and – inevitably – cherry-picked to put you in the worst possible light. Force yourself to restrict not just from anger, but from sarcasm.

2. Don’t Retweet (or “Favorite”) The Haters.

I did this quite a bit early on, both in the hopes of generating sympathy by drawing attention to the most vile attacks, and to show that the critics hadn’t landed a really hurtful blow. Feigning insouciance may seem like the “better person” strategy, but it comes across as passive-aggressive. Favoriting hostile comments won’t come across as acknowledging the criticism, but rather as stalking behavior. The most famous advocate of retweeting and favoriting harsh Twitter comments was the right-wing gadfly Andrew Breitbart. Look what happened to him.

3. Separate Trolls from Threats.

When the controversy around me first blew up, I saw things on Tumblr and Twitter like “I wish someone would shoot Hugo in the head.” I got panicky and reported all such comments to the abuse departments of the various social media platforms. The reality was and is that these weren’t real threats, just ventings. Unless you’re a high-ranking federal official, you don’t have a dedicated agency like the Secret Service to investigate every threat made against you. You simply need to accept – and it isn’t easy – that the vast majority of comments like “I hope you die, motherfucker” are expressions of impotent rage. They’re scary but not dangerous. (Note: I have received two threats of harm I considered serious enough to report to my campus police. They were credible, local, and they were specific about what they intended to do.)

If you can outsource the “threat management” to a trusted friend who can help you discern ordinary haterade from the genuinely dangerous, so much the better.

4. Don’t Read the Comments – But Accept That You Probably Will.

Everyone gives this advice, and very few people take it. For months, I’d pledge not to read the comments (or the angry articles themselves) but then, in a weak moment, I’d break down and read them all. We’re trained to take an interest in what other people are saying about us, even if it’s awful. Learning to avoid that temptation takes time and conscious effort. It can be done, and for sanity’s sake, it’s worth doing.

5. Have Friends Who Support You Unconditionally

You need people in your life who will say, over and over “Your critics don’t know you. We do. We love you.”

6. Have Friends Who Support You – But Tell You the Uncomfortable Things You Need to Hear

There’s a grain of truth in every insult, and there’s a degree of justification behind every online beatdown. I needed unconditional support, but I also needed friends I trusted who could tell me where it was that I had made mistakes, where it was that my critics were spot on, where it was that I still needed to grow. It’s easy to fall into a defensive sense of martyrdom, but you miss a huge opportunity to learn and transform if you stay stuck there. I’m so grateful for the friends and family who could say “We love you, but honestly, your critics have a point about this or that.”

Good friends can help you see that not all those who are attacking your work are haters. It can be so hard to discern legitimate criticism from sheer meanness, because in a takedown, you get healthy doses of both. The longer you dismiss all of the former as being the latter, however, the more likely you are to come across as defensive and entrenched rather than open to learning something.

7. Stop Explaining Yourself.

A lot of us imagine that the reason we’re loathed is because we haven’t explained ourselves sufficiently. We imagine that if we were only more articulate, we could convince those who are furious with us to see things our way. We assume that other people’s dislike is rooted in misunderstanding, when in fact, they usually understand us all too well. Further explanations will come across as patronizing, and will often add grist to the haters’ mill.

8. Be Okay With Being Disliked

This is the tough one. I don’t say you have to enjoy it, but the reality is that no matter who you are, when you take strong stands, you’ll make enemies. Don’t fall into the trap of believing that those who scream at you loudest (in real life, or online) are representative of how the bulk of readers feel about you. But do accept that you will be disliked, often not just by anonymous trolls but by other prominent writers and activists who for any number of reasons find what you do and what you say to be worthy of their opprobrium. That’s the price of a public life, and it’s proof, as the saying goes, that you stood for something.

9. Set Aside Time Away from Technology

Dealing with a take-down can become a 24/7 job – if you let it. The emails and tweets come flying in (at its worst, I was getting several hundred hate messages a day), and posts and articles condemning you as the WORST PERSON EVER seem to appear hourly. Simply keeping track becomes overwhelming. If you must read (see tip #4) go ahead. But take time off.

Following advice from friends, this past summer I started taking a weekly technology Shabbat. At sundown Friday, I turn off my phone and my laptop and stay offline completely for the next 25 hours. At first, it can be scary wondering what’s happening that you’re not there to witness – but soon, it becomes liberating to disconnect. Soon you become known as someone unavailable that one day a week, and the world adapts. You, meanwhile, get to recharge.

10. Remember Your Desire to Write Is Stronger Than Their Desire to Silence You

Takedowns end. The mob gets bored and moves on. If you cared enough to write or say things that drew the attacks in the first place, then it’s likely that your passion for writing will outlast any storm of criticism. Learn your lessons, reflect on what you can do better. Make changes that make sense. And keep writing, trusting that the audience will return, and may even be bigger as a consequence of your very public controversy. Take the long view, knowing that some new crisis will occupy everyone in six months or a year. And if you take care of yourself, you’ll not only still be here, you’ll be doing better work than ever.

13 thoughts on “Ten Tips for Surviving – and Learning From – an Internet Takedown

  1. Oh my goodness, Haily, yes — that is very serious and ought to be reported to the police. Document the tweet and anything else, and take this very seriously. I am so sorry.

  2. you do have to develop a thick skin so that the negative doesn’t overwhelm you. we ALL have a past. accept it or move on. and as Maya Angelou said- “when you know better, you do better” keep doing your thing. i’m a supporter!

  3. 11. Realize that no matter how insipid your writing – or whether you more or less copy other feminist memes on the Internet, aside from writing about your glorified past antics – you are Godlike and much smarter than any Nobel Prize winner or real academic author. You are so much better than everyone else that it is truly amazing.

    12. Realize that no matter how deep and broad the hatred for you – it’s just like other people who get bad comments on their blogs. It’s just normal for so many people to mock you, make “We Hate Hugo” websites, write “Scumbag Hugo” memes and to express their hatred in hundreds of other ways.

    Perfectly normal. Not even worth thinking about.

    • Ria,

      You’re so right. What annoys me is that this character shows a complete inability to wrestle with the thought that maybe his critics are right.

    • Nothing like taking potshots using first names and/or pseudonyms. Rule #11 should be, “Recognize that the the levels of cowardice and jealousy that course through Internet takedowns like fecal matter in a city water supply.

  4. as a hater who you might accuse of cherrypicking, I would like to note that almost every single thing you say is monstrous in context as well as out of context.

  5. Pingback: Must Reads, 12/14/12 | Julie Gillis

  6. Hugo proves once again that he couldn’t buy a clue if he had a Groupon in a clue store.

    An alternate title for this piece could be “Ten Tips for How To Keep Blabbing About Women’s Rights After You’ve Posted About How You Did Something Heinous to a Woman, and your Lawyer Told You To Remove the Post, and Why It’s Everyone Else’s Fault That This Bothers Them.”

  7. I’ve been there, Hugo. I think your article is spot on, except for this:

    “There’s a grain of truth in every insult, and there’s a degree of justification behind every online beatdown.”

    No and not necessarily. I have had stalkers just make shit up. Once, I wrote about a celebrity’s death and her fans came out of the woodwork to attack me personally. I did everything I could think of, including trying to reasonably engage with them. The result of that was months of hell, including the posting of my personal info online (someone actually paid for a background report and illegally obtained my credit info — law enforcement didn’t care).

    Among my currently known stalkers, there’s one still left from the celebrity debacle, a thieving druggie and her co-dependent partner, an ex-lover, two people enraged over my political articles, two bloggers who were jealous of some minor attention I received, and another who thought my book didn’t deserve to sell as well as it did (and really, it barely sold). Then there were these trolls in Amazon’s forums, who were outraged that I had the audacity to respond to a fake review .

    As “payback” I’ve gotten other negative reviews and comments. Entire threads have been dedicated to growing stories about me that are wholly false. I’ve been attacked on blogs and by anonymous letters written to agents and would-be employers.

    So, no, sometimes people don’t need a reason. They can be insulting without cause, and have no justification except for their own messed-up psyches.

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