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Bullies don't just hang around playgrounds. Nowadays, their preferred stomping grounds are the hallowed halls of social media. Conveniently, once they release their electronic venom, it quickly spreads for thousands—if not millions—to witness.
Whether it's true or not matters very little once released into the wild abyss of the internet—becoming nearly impossible to correct. This behavior shuts down conversation, pushes us further apart, alienates and prevents us from solving issues if we were willing to engage in open and honest dialogue.
For five years, I and several others volunteered a considerable amount of time maintaining a private Facebook group of 30,000 members. I created this group to offer employment opportunities within the media to women and gender non-conforming individuals. For a time, I even managed a mentorship program and curated various resources for members that included interview and pitching guidelines.
When someone posted a job opportunity at Fox News last month, chaos ensued. Initially, a few people asked about aspects of working there, but soon after, someone condemned her for posting the job—completely transforming the tone of the discussion into a fever pitch. The thread devolved into personal attacks, name-calling and outrage. Fox was described by at least one individual as a "fascist racist regime" that has actually "gotten people killed via its reporting." To some, sharing a job opportunity at Fox was actual harm and "violence."
Consequently, I made a post urging people to avoid personal attacks and stick to job postings rather than politics, and to find ways to come together rather than apart:
"As it stands, this group is over 30,000 humans strong. I continue to be blown away by the generosity of people sharing with and supporting others. All I can say is: Thank you, thank you, thank you. (Same goes for the amazing mods.) One thing I want to reinforce is that this group's goal is entirely focused on helping people find work opportunities and assisting in navigating that landscape. We want to keep this a politics clear zone, and a place where we help each other by sharing facts (e.g., jobs) and experiences (e.g., past experiences at particular workplaces). We want to stay away from attacking others or sharing our feelings about subjects outside of the group's domain ..."
I would have made the same post regardless of whether it was MSNBC, Slate, Salon, or Fox. Thereafter, I was labelled a "white supremacist" by group members and was told that I'd just as soon "let the KKK recruit" through my group, among other accusations.
Throughout all of this, an interesting question kept arising: in a group that shares job postings, where do we draw the line as to what (politically-affiliated) media outlets should be permitted and which should not be? While I may not be particularly fond of Fox, I may also not be keen on other outlets—so what criteria should be followed to determine which posts should be allowed?
There are certainly some journalists who work at outlets some may find "questionable" and were even able to make changes from within. Should other job sharing sites, like LinkedIn, play moral arbitrator as to which jobs they post too?
The original purpose of the Facebook group I started was to share job opportunities and help people find employment, not to make judgments on job postings and certainly not condemn job seekers who explore economic possibilities. Even barring the purpose of the group, should I or anyone else be deciding what legal job opportunities should or should not be posted, or should we just let those in the group decide for themselves to which jobs they do or do not want to apply?
Members of the group told me that as a "white woman," the only "reasonable" action for me to take was to hand over the group to a POC. I was informed that my desire to keep the group free of politics (and hence, acrimony) is inherently political. For me, to ask that individuals refrain from politics was dubbed a "violent act of white supremacy and privilege." Members of similar groups have targeted other founders in similar ways—and all, to my knowledge, ultimately bowed down and left the groups they created.
Being a believer in discourse, I kept the thread open, while personal attacks piled on and became increasingly ugly. Soon enough, others became targets for daring to voice dissent—however minor—or point out the ridiculousness of these accusations. And to be clear, they are. The Facebook group stopped being a forum for job postings and became an overtly hostile pile on of bullies whose targets were not white supremacists, or fascists, or any manner or bogymen they constructed. They were regular people who were sharing employment opportunities, asking questions, or offering dissenting opinions. The group was initially founded to help people find meaningful employment. Now it had become an ideological battleground.
In days thereafter, I was harassed, threatened, doxxed, slandered, and more—before I'd even gotten to my first cup of coffee. People were telling me how my career in media is "now dead" and how they've been "reaching out to editors" to get me "canceled." In the span of a week, the creative content I've put out online was suddenly downvoted on iTunes and YouTube. I witnessed individuals turn into a mob to the point where they became eager to destroy the careers of anyone who disagreed with them.
Whenever someone like me gets called a "white supremacist" for defending someone's right to post a job opportunity without being subject to attack, it devalues a term whose meaning is indispensable to retain so that genuine instances of racism can be identified and rightfully addressed. It also means that we're creating a culture where people are afraid to have potentially contentious (yet important) conversations, or ask questions that might inadvertently offend someone and be branded a "racist" and ostracized or cancelled.
In all of this, many individuals reached out to me to condemn what they saw happening in front of them, while also expressing a great fear of speaking out—lest they too be targeted. Several people shared their own deeply disturbing stories of being harassed online for years.
Open conversations, that do not label the person with whom you disagree with as an enemy, are essential because they mean that we might be able to find common ground—or at the very least, learn from each other. Unfortunately though, loud and intimidating voices have become effective at silencing others. And this is, perhaps, what concerns me most. People have become increasingly afraid of doing the one thing that we've always been told we must do when facing a bully: stand up.
When a mob with torches comes at you (as was vividly illustrated by several images of mobs with torches that were sent to me), and you're the only one standing, you inevitably get "burned." But if many stand up, that's when we can begin to dismantle social media mobs—which is why it's crucial to voice disagreement with aggressive behavior and stand up for people, regardless of whether you agree or not.
When reasonable people stay silent, the voices of the unreasonable are allowed infinite room to fill the void.
We shouldn't shy away from difficult conversations. How these issues are discussed is just as important as what is discussed. As Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan said, "The medium is the message." When the medium is a mob, the message is lost.
There's no better way to defeat a bully than to stand up and use your voice to fight back.
Katherine Brodsky is a freelance writer who has contributed to publications such as The Washington Post, The Guardian, Variety, Esquire, CNN Travel, Mashable and many others. She has interviewed a diverse range of 'intriguing' personalities including Oscar, Pulitzer, and Nobel Prize winners—even spies.