NBC Brian Williams suspension

Social Media as a Tool for Character Assassination

The social media witch-hunt that was largely responsible for NBC News suspending news anchor Brian Williams for six months was a scary thing to behold.

NBC management simply couldn’t withstand the mob at the gate. Instead of fighting back they took away the raw meat to calm the attackers. If Williams couldn’t survive, could you if someone clubbed you on social media?

No Time, No Time at All

Williams was caught in a lie, which he admitted and then he apologized. But the network didn’t have the luxury of conducting a thoughtful investigation of his reporting on other events and perhaps doling out a less severe punishment.

It’s doubtful that Williams will return. The six months suspension was probably just a more gentle way to push him out.

My point is that all of us are but one step away from character assassination. Just one tweet or post is all that’s required to take you down. But it’s not only real people, but also technology that can be the enemy.

Think of Google suspending your account if you’re on online merchant, taking you completely by surprise because you didn’t even know something was wrong. You have to make the required changes and then ask for a re-evaluation of your account. That takes time.

What are your customers to think? Will they trust your site when you’re back up? Will they even come back at all?

People to People

The broadcast and print media have had standards in place for years to evaluate what makes for acceptable advertisements. But a human being at the news outlet was the first filter, not an algorithm. And most likely the sales rep on the account would be notified and he would pick up the phone and tell his client. The client could make a quick fix, or substitute another ad. It wasn’t “off with your” head when you weren’t looking.

Most often the offending ad wouldn’t appear to begin with. Back in the day (and maybe still), an ad agency would send a storyboard commercial to the network’s standards people for a preliminary approval and there would be back-and-forthing to get the ad right. People to people.

A Faceless Community

I sat down to write this post after reading a thoughtful, and somewhat scary, opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times by Stephen Marche entitled The Epidemic of Facelessness. He described how people tweet and post threats to strangers and think nothing of it. Just fun. Not when the recipient fears for her life.

As the perpetrator who threatened a member of the British Parliament casually tweeted, “If you can’t threaten to rape a celebrity, what is the point in having them?” Indeed.

Marche quoted Dick Costolo, chief executive of Twitter, who, in a leaked memo, said about inflammatory tweets, “I’m frankly ashamed of how poorly we’ve dealt with this issue during my tenure as CEO.”

Several studies, Marche writes, discovered that without face-to-face contact we lose empathy and compassion. “Emojis are an explicit attempt to replicate the emotional context that facial expression provides,”he said.

Smiley faceBut smiley faces are a poor substitute for understanding another person’s emotions and feelings as you look into her eyes.

Marche goes on the write, “In a world without faces, compassion is a practice that requires discipline, even imagination. Social media seems so easy; the whole point of its pleasure is its sense of casual familiarity. But we need a new art of conversation for the new conversations we are having — and the first rule of that art must be to remember that we are talking to human beings.” (my emphasis).

Blogs and websites with videos and images attract more readers. HubSpot cites 19 Reasons You Should Include Visual Content in Your Marketing [Data]. I think the primary reason is because videos and images are the available substitutes for the personal interaction that people crave.

So it’s no surprise that usage of Skype and Google Hangouts has skyrocketed. As The Wall Street Journal reported, ”Skype’s growth of 54 billion minutes is a full 50% higher than the growth of the rest of the international calling industry combined.”

Let’s Hangout

I was on a Hangout a couple of weeks ago with friends I’ve made on LinkedIn. I had never met them face-to-face. It was fun to see the faces behind their avatars. Honestly, we did more laughing than talking about the topic of our conversation. That’s what personal interaction does for you.

If you stop by my blog pretty regularly you may have noticed that I now use a large featured image at the beginning of each post and have added more images to my service offerings. I was feeling that my old design was a little impersonal.

Maybe it was my small attempt to inject more personality – my personality – into my site. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just making this up after the fact. I do know the feeling of loneliness that comes with being glued to a computer for most of the day, as so many people are.

I truly miss the conversations around the water cooler with people I could shoot the bull with. Eye-to-eye. Person-to-person. But that era is gone and no sense moaning about it.

Leave a Reply


  1. Oh Jeannette, I have thinking about this very thing too. What I wonder is if the world at large has slip to impersonal ease that has resulted in all the discord and tradegies we see today on a global scale. As far as Mr Williams is concerned – he made a mistake. What happened to forgiveness, we are al human after all. Sigh. I do fear for mankind as a whole.

    BTW: I was unable to comment on my iPhone – Not sure why

    • Susan — The Internet is a cruel, cruel world. It is shocking when terrorists stage beheadings so the images will go viral. The world has become a big open stage with too many unsavory performers. (Thanks for the note about not being able to comment on your iPhone. I’ll check that out).

  2. Interesting post, Jeannette. A sidebar to the Brian Williams story is to consider how it would have been handled in the pre-internet/social media era. Williams would have apologized, even if lamely as he did. He would have been criticized in the few newspaper media columns, in print journalism reviews and printed newsletters that reached subscribers weeks or months later. He would have been scarred but he would have survived, probably even without suspension.

    • Hi Nancy — thanks for stopping by and good to hear from you. I agree. Every misdemeanor is blown up into a felony of the internet and social media. In a matter of just a couple of days it was off with his head. Brian Williams seems like a good man who made a mistake and look what happened to him.

  3. Jeannette, I read the same article and then sent the link to an online friend who has been bullied off the internet by a bunch of thugs over at GoodReads. Due to a rather harmless blog she posted, stating that she wished reviewers would be less brutal to authors, these people tore her apart to the point where she unpublished her book and took all of her social media sites down. Then they went after the people that had favorably reviewed her book and unliked everything about them too. She is physically ill and now under a doctor’s care. I have different feeling about Brian Williams simply because I have a great deal of respect for the profession of journalism; however, you make a very valid point in that his employers, due to the wild fire aspect of social media, had no time to vet the charges rationally. I have long advocated for more face-to-face time…I think it’s essential to keep us grounded. I’ve been pleased to be able to meet some online friends. In the meantime, I try to keep my head down until somebody figures this out. I like the idea of the larger image, too!

    • Jacquie — what a horrible story. I so feel for your friend. An online assault can feel just as brutal as a real-life one. To think they destroyed her book and ability to use social media is appalling.

    • Thanks, Joyce. It is frightening and it’s like waiting for the shoe to drop on your reputation if you’re not careful — or even if you are careful.

  4. Hi Jeannette,

    First I want to say that I do like the new design. It’s fresh and inviting so you did really good.

    I understand what you mean about hiding behind tweets and insulting others because we can’t see them face to face. I think it’s sad which is why I continue to ask for a phone number when people opt into my blog. We have a real live conversation and the majority of them end up feeling like I’ve known them forever. So also do Skype and Hangouts too for those who are in another time zone. I like to “see” who I’m connecting with and get to know them because they are a real live person.

    I think with the way social media is moving that things can easily get out of hand. Now lying about something that happened in the news to get more ratings is just wrong and Brian knew better than that. We aren’t a world without making mistakes though so the powers that be are the ones that have to hand down his punishment but we’ll see if they ever welcome him back.

    Thanks for bringing this topic up and I hope that for some at least it will make a difference.


    • Adrienne – I’m glad you like my new design. I think you may be the only blogger who asks for a phone number, and I can absolutely see why. We are living in an increasingly faceless society so the more we can engage people face-to-face the better. I’m sure subscribers are pleasantly surprised and flattered when they hear from you. Great idea. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Bullies on Goodreads! A place for authors and readers, which I thought would be quiet and thoughtful. Not surprised at thugs and bullies on Twitter — Matt Binder is the founder of publicshaming.tumblr.com where he posts dumb (and worse) tweets so they can never be deleted. But Goodreads! I have considered whether all online comments should be posted only with the commenter actual name. The downside to this is that it would inhibit freedom of speech and I know the ACLU (of which I am a longtime member) opposes this as a policy. But still….

    • Nancy — I’m surprised at the ACLU’s position, although I know they will defend free speech to the death. I’m suspicious when someone doesn’t leave his or her name. Of course, there are many social media accounts with fake names. I think it’s awful the Matt Binder posts what he judges to be dumb tweets. Is there no mercy?

    • Donna — that’s what is so scary, that your reputation can be in tatters when you’ve done nothing wrong. Just someone having fun at your expense.

  6. Jeannette it’s about societal norms and values. Where the heck has our civility gone? Do you remember a couple of years ago when a woman who was a guest blog said that people of baby boomer age just don’t get social media? Gosh I cannot remember her name or too much more about it other than this. Hundreds of people attacked her with comments. It was brutal and … lacked compassion and understanding.

    I’m grateful for high profile people like Neale Donald Walsch, are hosting worldwide online events like he is doing in March this year. evolutionrevolution.net While this seems to be a global grassroots movement emerging from the Conversations with God dialogues, so many people want to do something and feel powerless about what is happening in our world.

    Thanks for sharing that research about what is found about how face-to-face contact is causing us to lose empathy and compassion. Civility.

    Hey, we weren’t laughing that much! hahahaha Or maybe it was another group call you were on.

    • Pat — I was referring to our hangout – and I distinctly remember a lot of laughing! The lack of civility is really alarming. As Stephen Marche wrote in his NY Times piece, “…remember that we are talking to human beings. People lose their sense of propriety on social media and forget that there is a person at the end of a personal attack.

  7. Jeannette, this post rather scared me. As you know I am just cruising along learning a little at a time. The thought that I may inadvertently do something to tick someone off with the result of Jacquie’s friend is truly frightening. I had no idea that Goodreads would condone such behaviour.

    • Lenie — I’m not active on Goodreads but it does seem they should be able to tweak their algorithm to filter out negative and potentially reputation-threatening remarks. Maybe they don’t have the firepower of a Facebook to do that.

  8. I used to say the virtual world is no different from the real world. There are some who steal, gossip, complain, etc. But now I can certainly say the virtual one is very dangerous. Some do whatever they like or even worse, plot a plan against someone’s reputation, personality, etc and get away with that. The hardest part of such events is to prove the opposite.

    • Rahman — As you say, there are bad people in both the virtual and real worlds. But now the bad people can hide behind the veil of anonymity on social media.

      • You’re right, … and the owners of social media cannot reveal their members’ identity due to privacy pledges! In real world, when people see a criminal breaking into a house, pickpocketing, etc, they call the police and reports the whereabouts of the bad guy. Will this happen in the virtual world or privacy protection is still there?

        I’ve read that some big corporations (I don’t want to mention names), do provide access to their database of their members. This is of course more than required.

        • Rahman — You make a good analogy. You can report people who are acting inappropriately on social media. But by that time the post has gone viral and can’t be taken back.

  9. You nailed it on the head when you talk about the impersonal part of this story. Having a lack of “identity” to face others, give some people empowerment and also a false sense of bravery. Some take this aspect and use it for good, while others simply abuse it over and over again to attack others.

    • William — Yes, it’s cowardly to post hateful comments. So people can be brave when they’re hiding behind social media.

  10. Thoughtful and very well said Jeaneatte. My niece is experiencing some of what you describe at this very moment. She has been working tirelessly for most of her adult life to rescue abandoned and abused animals. That passion recently focused on dog fighting when she took in a dog that had been horribly abused as a “bait” dog for dog fights.

    Now she’s on a mission to bring awareness to the fact that even though dog fighting has been illegal in America for decades it is in fact a thriving business with a lot of money and very violent people backing it – in fact there are Facebook pages promoting dog fighting! She’s gained a lot of support for her project and thousands of fans for Huey (her former bait dog now on the mend) but she’s also gained death threats and attempts to disparage her character by the owners of the FB pages she’s been trying to shut down. Fortunately the FBI is now involved so maybe there will be some progress. It breaks my heart to see her go through this, but she’s hanging tough so I’m also a very proud aunt.

    • Marquita — I admire your niece for her commitment even in the face of death threats and attempts to disparage her character. I don’t know that I could be that brave. You should be proud of her. More power to her.

  11. I think we’re all just one precarious step away from social media assassination and that is pretty scary. I had a sorta blog stalker for a while and still often wonder if that person will come back to bug me again.

  12. The facelessness of social media has bothered me also. Sometimes you read new articles online and then scroll down to the comments section. For the most part the comment dribble is a waste of space. If you cannot put your face to the comment then don’t comment. So often the comments turns into an off the topic rant containing all manner of ideas that would be offensive to many. As for BW I am disappointed he was taken off the air. I am also disappointed in him for feeling his story needed embellishment. Social media is a powerful tool and like all powerful tools it is a double edged sword.

    • Tim — I often want to leave a comment on a site then I don’t because I don’t want to be associated with the other stupid or nasty comments. YouTube comments are the worst.

  13. Hi Jeannette. Interesting post–as always. I definitely relate much better to any online account where the user has their picture. I think that the internet can be too impersonal at times, and I think that we will have a tendency to be more honest and admirable with someone whose photo we can see and relate to. But there will always be people who are insensitive and too wrapped up in their own egos to be polite and “play nice” so to speak.

    • Doreen — I rarely, if ever, comment on a post or interact with someone on social media who doesn’t use a photo. It’s not only impersonal but I find it a little suspect. Makes me nervous.

  14. Hi Jeannette

    It is sad what happened to Brain Williams. This shows that one’s reputation online is at risk. It reminds me about a blogger known as Linda Ikeji who almost lost her blog. She was in luck that she had the backing of her loyal fans.

    It is so strange that these days people are willing to build a relationship with faceless characters and it is that people would go to the extent of damaging one’s reputation online.

    Thanks for sharing. Have a great weekend

  15. Yes, our hangout was fun, wasn’t it. And so was the one we had last Friday.

    It’s scary how anybody can, for any reason, decide to ruin a person’s life by posting slander online. In Sweden, for example, there’s a comunity called Flashback where people hide their identity and write the most horrendous things about people that, one way or another, are famous. Remember what we discussed about WOT recently. If a group of people are angry with any website owner they can have a go at her/him that way. And it will have an impact on users of that app.

    • Catarina — that’s awful about the site in Sweden. I’m sure these kinds of sites exist elsewhere, too. Are there so many people in the world with evil intentions? I guess that’s a question I don’t answered because I already know what the answer is.

  16. Social media really is a scary medium in lots of ways, although of course the flip side is that it brings to the fore things that the public should be made aware of more easily. But it’s easy for some to treat their words as if there are no consequences and with no real people behind the avatars. Good move on your part to make your site as personal as possible. And it is fun to finally see our online friends in ‘person’ on a hangout. Glad you enjoyed it 🙂

    • A.K. — true, the Internet can be a force for evil AND good. Unfortunately, it’s the comments that shock that get the most attention. The good just isn’t newsworthy.

  17. Wow Jeannette. You have really hit the proverbial nail on the head with this one. We really are “but one step away from character assassination”.

    Communicating well online is an art form. Without being able to pick up on non-verbal signals, it’s very easy to misinterpret someone’s intentions.

    On the other hand, there are trolls and bullies abound. It’s unfortunate. There are always going to be people who are especially vulnerable to online abuse. I’ve been fortunate to not have come under attack but it could happen at any time.

    Great job on another thought provoking post. I always appreciate the calm insightful approach that you take. BTW – I love your new design.

    • Thanks, Sherryl. You make a good point about picking up non-verbal cues. I think, as mentioned in the post, that one reason people are turning to Skype and Hangouts is to re-establish that personal connection and be able to not only hear but see each other. Sometimes we need more than just the written word.

  18. Hi Jeannette; this is a topic we really need to think about and talk about so much more. we have to be nicer to people online and off. i am currently struggling with the fact that i cannot add new listings to the equipment section of my sales website. this is very frustrating. but i can only imagine how much worse it would be if my site had been taken down all together. I hate having to tell people stuff up there is gone and i will fix that eventually but there just isn’t anything i can do. i can also remember getting my google page rank lowered and having to go through the process of reconsideration hoping they would give me my ranking back and knowing that if they didn’t there was nothing i could do about it. we need to do more person to person so congrats on interjecting more of yourself into your site and your posts. thanks for bringing attention to this, max

  19. Hi Jeannette,

    This is my first visit to your blog via Adrienne’s post. I found your post an eye opener. While today we all are huge fans of social media and often do not pay much heed to one or two stray incident that come in to focus, social media abuse is really becoming an issue to take notice of.

    It definitely have a lot of benefits to offer, but only responsible using and more stringent rules for the preparators can make the online space more safe.

    Thanks for the post. Have a nice day!

    • Thanks for visiting, Nisha. Agree that spammers and hackers are increasingly making our lives miserable.