For the past few days I've been working on a story as part of my freelance writing work with The Huffington Post. The topic is one I've covered before: online mom bullying. Due to increased awareness about the prevalence of bullying in our schools the term "bully" has been applied to everything from expressing dissent to actual harassment. My personal opinion is that disagreeing becomes bullying when it crosses the line into the realm of repeated personal attacks and/or directly impacts someone's quality of life.
I've written about this topic after my own experience in this strange world of pestilent inter-blogger communications. Two years ago I operated a local parenting blog before handing over the reigns to a close friend. During that time I experienced how the sometimes competitive nature of mom blogging- vying for traffic and the attention of potential corporate sponsors- can result in perfectly normal people acting in childish and unethical ways. In one bizarre event, another mom blogger in my city, after learning that I was to host a giveaway for a child's sleep aid she'd dealt with in the past, contacted the owner of the company and asked that she withdraw the contest hosted on my blog. Turns out she was personal friends with the company owner who asked that I cancel the promotion. I refused and reached out to the corporate division of said company. Naturally when they learned what was going on they apologized, the company's local representative did the same, and the contest ran as scheduled.
It sounds like a very trivial situation but to have one's name bashed in a professional setting is infuriating. I'll never forget the fellow mom blogger who publicly stood up for me and asked the woman determined to block me from from writing about our city's social events (unfortunately there was more than one incident with this particular blogger) why she was acting in such a way. Once this ally spoke out loudly, the blogger I was dealing with backed off.
This experience taught me that the antidote to bullying is accountability. People who seek to hurt others depend on a certain level of anonymity regarding their actions. They also depend on the apathy of witnesses.
What I went through looks like childsplay compared to what I've witnessed firsthand recently, the events that have inspired the piece I'm racing to the finish to complete.
We've all had Facebook arguments: heated political debates, defended our parenting choices, etc. What I observed last week was a new breed of online anger. The type that crosses over from a social media platform and into real life.
I was introduced to a blogger, mom of three children, who was actively being attacked online and off for simply exposing herself via a blog to a large audience of willing readers. Her blog topics are mildly controversial: birth rights, breastfeeding advocacy, and the likes, and within her large following, there is a group of people determined for one reason or another to erase her from the blogosphere. I've done a bit more research into what happens when a group targets a particular blogger and have heard of child services being called to homes where no abuse was taking place on behalf of angry readers who found a blogger's home address, sponsors being emailed with false claims of blogger misconduct so that ads would be pulled, and mob fan pages set up for the purpose of mocking and venomous discussions.
Remembering the person who stood up for me, I tried to help the blogger by reaching out to my platform of clients and friends to find new advertisers and vocal, powerful advocates. By speaking up for her I attracted by own subsect of her furious detractors. While the vast majority of her readers support her, it was easy to see how a small group of 30 or so passionate and borderline obsessive bullies out of thousands of genuine fans can make a negative impact just by being persistent. It only took a few Facebook posts on a blog sponsor's fan page for ads to be pulled.
The idea of another sole proprietor mom losing income due to malicious individuals is disturbing. Anyone who runs a business knows how difficult it is to secure accounts. The fact of the matter is that companies are simply not willing to weather any kind of PR storm, no matter how mild because their brand image comes first.
For my story, I reached out to one of the companies who had pulled an ad from a blogger's website for comment specifically related to how they handle consumer complaints related to their media buys. Most companies gave general answers about confidentiality and doing their due diligence but one in particular stood out. This company is a breast pump supplier. They work with mothers every day and I was expecting gentle murmurs about staying neutral in the online community of parents. Instead, one of their company representatives asked me after I told them how I was personally trying to help this woman, "Don't you think (insert blogger's name) can fight her own battles?"
Herein lies the heart of the problem where online bullying in concerned. Desmond Tutu said, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor."
To indirectly answer the company's question: Yes, I do believe that most people can fight their own battles alone. But no, I don't think they should have to.
Although I can understand a company choosing to throw up their hands rather than make definitive statements where ethics are concerned, I don't believe believe individuals can claim the same "I have a brand to protect" excuse. That said, in the past two years, a plethora of companies have made definitive statements that have placed them at political intersections. General Mills came out in support of marriage equality. Chick Fil A removed any doubt that the brand has conservative leanings by making statements opposing gay marriage.
If large billion dollar companies are willing to go out on a limb, risking alienating millions of potential customers for the purpose of defining themselves, why are so many of us reluctant when it comes to our opinions, especially when it comes to defending those who need our help?
Whether it's standing up for a breastfeeding mom asked to nurse in a bathroom in a cafe or help out a business owner dealing with bucketfulls hate, why is it even an option for us to look the other way?
Question: Have you ever seen someone being bullied or harassed, either in person or online? What did you do and why?
photo credit: OC Register.com