Has Social Media Been Weaponized?

Until you find yourself the victim of a social media attack, the whole thing seems kind of silly.  You know, like in middle school: “Sticks and stones will break my bones,  but names will never hurt me.” Remember that one? I do.

Words are just words, right? You can ignore name-calling and nasty comments -- and just rise above it.

Well, this is a story about the day that all changed for me. I think it’s a troubling and important wake-up call for all of us in publishing, advertising, media, and social networking. 

There’s an ugly storm gathering, and until it hits you, it’s easy to ignore.

Let me tell you my story.

On June 16, I went to see Elizabeth Warren at Town Hall in New York. The Massachusetts Democrat read excerpts from her book, "This Fight is Our Fight: The Battle to Save America’s Middle Class," and pulled no punches as she took issue with Donald Trump.

I wasn’t there as press, and I hadn’t planned to write anything. But I recorded a brief video, which I posted on YouTube that night. The next morning, it had been viewed 10,000 times and had 20 comments.



The comments were vile, angry, and nasty.  I was kind of shocked. A few examples: 

Joash Church posted: “So a democrat leftist shoots people in a peaceful baseball field, and we haven't seen nasty yet? Shut up and sit down Pocahontas!“

Sousuke Ryan posted: ”Wtf Fakeahontas talking about this is why the retards of the left is burning their own Democratic Party to the ground.”

Whatisthisplace posted: “Is she actually reading her own book to a crowd.  What the f*ck is this story time for children or something?  Motherf*cker what a sickness.” 

I edited out the profanity, but you get the idea.

I don’t know where the traffic came from, or how it spread. By the next day, it had been viewed 49,287 times and had hundreds of comments, angrier still:

Robert Johnson posted: “the white piece of trash with somebody please stick *ss because that's what she wants she's nothing but white trash anyway so stick it up her *ss and push her brains back up where they belong or maybe push her brains out of her ears she needs to go to hell she don't even need to be on this planet anymore white trash go to hell”

Scooter Van Neuter posted: “This godless mouth-breather has the IQ of a clock radio. Please run this retard for president in 2020, Dems. Please.”

Killbo Fraggins posted: “Pocahontas is one despicable Communist C*NT!”

Now, here’s where it gets even more ugly and personal - the comments started coming after me. 

steve STAR posted “Steve Rosenbaum .... JINO and gay pajama boy.”

And then steve STAR followed up: "Not enough New Yorkers died on 9/11."

And a YouTube commentator named “2 weeks ago” posted: “steve, try being less gay”

So, what happened here? And given Elizabeth Warren’s popularity, why did the comments and the ThumbsUp/Thumbs down votes both go 95% against her on YouTube?

As best as I can tell, there were two explanations. First, while I do believe that the actual percentage of the right wing that is vile, angry, pornographic, and threatening is a small minority,  they’re activated. Someone had a Google search for “Elizabeth Warren” and shared the YouTube link with a community of equally angry and social hate-mongers. But how -and where? I wasn’t able to find the link on Reddit.  And it didn’t appear on mainstream conservative media until days later. 

So why, given the fact that the Presidency, both houses of Congress, and the Supreme Court are now in the hands of the Republicans, is this angry base still so motivated to turn political conversations into personal shouting matches? 

Days later, on June 18, Fox News, Breitbart, The Hill  and others picked up my YouTube video, and without permission turned it into the basis of stories about Warren and her Town Hall talk.  Coverage from mainstream news media or Democratic blogs was nonexistent. 

It’s shocking to be the target of this much hate. The only comment that appears to have been edited (by either the author or YouTube) was one that called me a Jew. That one is gone. 

In some ways it's more shocking that there was NO counter-response, no support for Warren, no balance.  Why are 50,000 angry Republicans finding her on YouTube and launching an attack?  These aren’t bots or Russian hackers. These are bitter, angry American’s who, despite having Trump in the White House, are still looking to attack.

But allowing this kind of anonymous anger without attribution is, in my mind, the political equivalent of yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater, then running for the nearest exit. 

This is weaponized social media.  And you won’t know what it feels like until it’s pointed at you. 

So, what can YOU do to fight back?

1. Don’t accept anonymous posting on your sites or any sites you promote and support. 
2. Ask your peers and partners in the social media world to shift from anonymity to authored comment posting. 
3. Ask Reddit to replace pseudonymity with real names to foster authentic opinion and attribution.
4. When someone with a real name takes a stand or makes accusations that you don’t agree with, stand your ground and comment back. I did. 
5. Set new standards for civility, conversation, and dialog. Get out of your filter bubble, and invite your friends to join you. 

The only way that we allow the power of social media to be eroded into hate speech, threats, and trolls is if we don't bring thoughtful and civil conversations and engagement into this important and growing piece of our digital society.  
We ignore the quality and tone of these conversations at the risk that it grows unfettered and becomes the new normal. If that happens, it's too late to turn back.
5 comments about "Has Social Media Been Weaponized? ".
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  1. Chuck Lantz from, network, July 10, 2017 at 3:17 p.m.

    This is nothing new. AOL chat rooms have been full of this type of hatred since they began, before 2000.  The only cure includes, as you mention, the use of real, verifiable identities, and full-time moderation. 

  2. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, July 10, 2017 at 4:29 p.m.

    Good points, all. Just wondering. I frequent a number of hobby-related forums where unpleasant and sometimes vile arguments sometimes break out. These forums have moderators and when things get out of hand or a repetitive pattern becomes evident, causing members to "report" the offensive content, the culprits are warned and, if needed, banned. I realizr that social media deals with much larger numbers but are there "reporting" mechanisms and are really nasty offenders ever banned---meaning that they would have to create a false ID and computer linkup to re-register---even then being cought if the same sorts of comments are made?

  3. Chuck Lantz from, network replied, July 10, 2017 at 6:08 p.m.

    Ed; The truly bad actors will find other ways in, by opening other accounts on different devices.  The most effective remedy is to moderate all comments before they post, or if that's too difficult, to treat their posts like tagging/grafitti, removing them as quickly and as completely as possible.  This is an example of "speed kills" in a good way; ... trolls get bored easily when their comments vanish seconds after they appear. It's labor intensive, but it works. 

    AOL tried "paid moderation", sort of, by offering free AOL service to chat room participants in exchange for moderation duties (back when AOL cost a few bucks), but it turned into a paid labor dispute and the scheme died. 

    The fact is that all ... ALL ... such nastiness online can be stopped cold if and when those running the sites either put in the time, or the money, to actually moderate their content. It will slow down the immediacy of course, but isn't it worth the effort? 

  4. Robin Donovan from Bozell, July 11, 2017 at 12:22 p.m.

    The only way to stop this is to prohibit any and all violent attacks. I have heard people on both sides of the political equation display horror at such an attack against their viewpoint and then go on to launch an equal attack against the opposing viewpoint. It's not okay - ever. 

  5. Chuck Lantz from, network replied, July 11, 2017 at 3:21 p.m.

    Robin:  Agreed, 100%.  

    Yes, I realize that I'm commenting a lot on this article, but it's a subject that is very important to me, and one that I've been involved with since near the beginning of online social interaction, both professionally and just for the hell of it.  

    I know from first-hand experience just how important and how dangerous it can be. Please note that I did not write "potentially dangerous', since the danger is real.  Until we start treating online threats as seriously as we treat threats made by phone, mail, or face-to-face, the problem will only grow. 

    It may sound like an oxymoron to advocate forcing some people to be civil, but sometimes that's the only remedy. Unmasking them and silencing their bad behavior works. They'll find other avenues to vent their hatred with others who share their sociopathy. 

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