There have been times when I’ve really wondered if it’s all worthwhile. When someone set up a homophobic parody account in my group’s name. When insults turned into direct threats to my personal safety. When it got so bad I had to spend a workday handling calls with police instead of doing work. When I sat in cafes hiding my puffy eyes behind sunglasses as I reported abuse that turned my phone into a snake pit of notifications.
In my spare time, I co-chair Proud and Palace, the official LGBT+ fan group of the Crystal Palace football club. Football, unfortunately, has a deep-rooted issue with homophobia, and being the visible face of the movement to make it more LGBT+-welcoming comes with issues. The worst thing is that I can name dozens of people I know who get it worse than me, and we are far from alone.
Police-recorded incidents of hate crime in the UK increased 17 percent between April 2017 and March 2018, and the Anti-Defamation League says more than half of Americans were subjected to online hate speech in 2018. The ADL survey also showed 63 percent of LGBT+ respondents had been targeted online. That’s billions of people around the world crying in cafes, looking over their shoulders at football matches, and resignedly seeing the user they got suspended for abuse is back.
As a communications professional, and as a victim, that’s fascinating. I find studying it as a phenomenon with how people communicate in 2019 helps dissociate from the times it gets personal. Here’s a few things I’ve learned from the hate I’ve faced online:
Spotlights are nothing without support
A lot of brands are doing a good job of putting a spotlight on issues, but the spotlight comes with a need to support the individuals who are now exposed.
I’ll always remember the first time I joined Pride in London with Pride in Football, the network of LGBT+ fan groups. Crystal Palace had tweeted their support for our group and the majority of responses were positive. Then my counterpart from the Chelsea group showed me her phone. As a club with a larger global fanbase than Palace will ever have, Chelsea’s social media followers include those in over 70 countries around the world where homosexuality is illegal and eight where it is punishable by death. The responses to Chelsea’s post included death threats and suggestions that LGBT fans of Chelsea should kill themselves.
Nationwide CMO Sara Bennison recently spoke to Marketing Week about “the duty of care that comes from how you wrap your arms around the talent you use and help them stand up to this [hate speech].” Bennison had seen online trolls attack the stars of their Voices adverts and recognized the brand’s role in supporting them. It’s something all brands will need to consider moving forward.
Brands are powerful amplifiers for issues, but once you have drawn attention to a community you need to stand with them and help them weather the storm.
People react before they read
In my time studying hate speech online I’ve noticed people rarely read the full articles before reacting. This is no more apparent than in the current vilification of Caster Semenya.
I can’t recall such a tidal wave of hateful opinions from people who know less than 1 percent of the science and facts behind a story. A 2016 study showed 59 percent of people share articles online without reading them. On April Fool’s Day 2014 NPR played a prank on their readers, posting an online story titled “Why has America stopped reading?” If you clicked through to the full article you discovered in the first paragraph that it was an experiment. People who read the article were explicitly told NOT to comment on the post. Yet, still, the post accumulated hundreds of comments on why Americans are now addicted to their phones and forgetting literature, thus proving NPR’s theory.
People have already decided whether to trust an article based on how they came across it, before even reading the headline. The American Press Institute conducted a study where users were shown posts shared by individuals they had previously identified as people they did or did not trust. Those posts led to the same news story on different sites – some on AP and some on a made-up news site. They found that who shared the article had a bigger impact on readers trusting the content than who published the article.
This works both ways. Katie Hopkins could share the most balanced, factually correct article, but, before I’ve read a word, I already will have made a judgement on the content. Those who support her views will have made a different call. Hence, opinion, especially divisive opinion, spreads faster than fact.
That’s an important lesson for PR professionals: there’s no point landing your messaging in the fifth paragraph. You’ve got to control the headline, and, even before that, who puts the headline in front of your audience.
Cost per engagement
What I noticed in the days following my worst brush with online hate speech is that support and attacks came in waves. Someone who disagreed with me would interact, causing the thread to appear on their timelines and reach more people likely to have similar views. They would then get involved and bring more people with them. I was witnessing first-hand how engagement breaks you out of echo chambers and into new circles and communities.
This is why media owners prize engagement over all else. They want a contentious debate that will bring people to their articles. A debate in the comments of a Facebook post brings more and more people, so why would your post sit on the fence?
Before you know it the race for engagement means we have Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists on ITV’s popular daytime show This Morning, who have taken a segment on M&S’ LGBT (lettuce guacamole bacon tomato) sandwich and turned it into an argument that trans women are in fact men who have set out to deceive lesbians into sex.
People want engagement. They want to provoke debate. But what is the true cost per engagement when it involves giving air time to people whose views put lives at risk?
If you’ve read this whole article, not just the headline, well done. It’s easy to dismiss online hate speech as the work of trolls; listen to Gimlet Media’s brilliant podcast Reply All’s episode for a fascinating insight into this. But the reality is that real people are making a conscious effort to spread intolerance online. The way in which brands and media owners enter contentious topics has a direct impact on how people communicate about them. So, next time you take your brand into an issue, think about the impact on the community. Have you got good community management to deal with the comments section? Will that broadcast segment you’re so excited about be balanced? Have you pre-briefed the right influencers and opinion leaders to share your hero media pieces before the wrong voices distort your message? Get all of that right and maybe, just maybe, it will all be worthwhile.