When Netizens Attack! Five Most Common Tactics of the Opposition & How to Handle Them

Tony Ahn
Tony Ahn Chief Digital Architect, Tony Ahn & Co.

Posted on April 4th 2011

Everyone person knows how to broadcast a message online, and in this day and age, many know (or are learning) how to start a conversation, but do you know how to handle oppositional responses? This article will teach you some of the more common tactics that may be used against you and how deal with them, keeping your message (and image!) intact in the face of the forces out there attempting to destroy, discredit, or malign it or you. Oppositional mention management and handling is an essential skill for public relations, marketing, and social media professionals.

Rhetorical Rulesetting

A common technique used by the opposition, rhetorical rulesetting is the act of dictating what someone's behavior will signal or mean. For example, a commenter might makea critical or disparaging comment, then end with “If you don't respond to my comment, it shows you clearly don't care what your customers think.” Or “If you have nothing to hide, then you'll post a copy of the executive board meeting minutes.”

Comment Management: While some people may think “You should ignore this kind of bullying,” many online reputation management professionals think you should at least respond and clarify what you actually think. In the first example, I would respond by saying “We respond to all the comments we can, although it is occasionally possible that we may not see one. Our customers are our lifeblood and we are committed to their continued satisfaction.” For the second example, it is important to explain why such a request cannot be honored: “While I value your concerns, unfortunately we cannot post copies of the executive board meeting minutes, as we talk about personnel performance, matters which can affect our stock prices, and other things which are either inappropriate to release, or prohibited by law. However, I do understand your concern and can tell you that at the last meeting, it was not on the agenda to cancel the frequent rewards program.”

Corollary Interpretations

While rhetorical rulesetting precedes an action, corollary interpretation follows one. In its simplest form it is “You said X, and that means Y.” For example, “You said you were not recalling 50,000 car seats, and that means that your poor quality assurance department let 50,000 defective car seats slip out into the market.”

Comment Management: When corollary interpretations occur, it is important to respond to them quickly, because a corollary interpretation followed by 20 comments of agreement and support is much harder to address. Further, some people won't read far enough down to see your response; they'll assume you've been trounced by the 10th comment and surf elsewhere. When responding, it is important to say what X really means, if not Y. Even better is to state why it doesn't mean Y.

Straw Man Arguments

Another form of “You said X, and that means Y,” except in this case, you never actually said “X,” you said “S.” A Straw man argument is when your opponent misrepresents your position with a superficially similar yet weaker position, then refutes that position, creating the illusion of having refuted your position when in reality he or she has not. The term comes from the idea that your opponent is not attacking you, but attacking a straw man that looks like you, in the hopes that if done artfully, everyone will think you've been defeated. A common example is a person saying “We should increase funding for social programs to help the homeless,” and the person's opposition saying “Handouts just teach people to stay dependent on the system. That money is better spent elsewhere.” In reality, the original position was not to give handouts, but to increase funding. However, “handouts” is an easier argument to refute.

Comment Management: When a straw man argument is made, again it is important to respond quickly, before others see it and believe it. Point out the differences in what you said, and what your opposition is saying you said. Always be polite, even if the commenter is clearly being belligerent.

Undue Scrutiny/Potshots

A person or company under fire may become the subject of undue scrutiny, a.k.a. potshots. This occurs when the opposition begins to become critical about things that have nothing to do with the message or topic originally broadcast, oftentimes with the intent to distract, embarrass, or catch the person/company in a compromising situation. It is also a way to direct and control the conversation. One example from a couple years ago was a new NGO that had launched amidst some controversy. Its detractors asked the spokesman on an industry forum if releases had been obtained from all the individuals in a photograph on the NGO's website. Then they asked to see proof of the NGO's legal status, copies of financial statements, and later even the Chairman's resume!

Comment Management: Silence runs the risk of looking like you have something to hide. Sometimes a polite refusal is in order (we're sorry, the Chairman's professional resume is not available, however his bio is on our website) and sometimes a referral is best (Please contact our legal department with any intellectual property questions, although bringing the referral to them is really outstanding ("Hi, I'm general counsel for the company, and I can assure you that all images on our website are properly licenesed from companies that take care of such things as releases. Thanks for your question"). However, we find that often, setting boundaries works well ("We're here to talk about our new product launch. We're happy to answer other questions, but you'll need to contact us via email if it isn't about the new product"). Often people engaging in potshots are grandstanding, hoping to publicly embarrass their targets, and thus will not be interested in an private exchange.

Summary Misrepresentation

Most netizens will not read a document longer than 500 words online unless they have a major interest. I know a number of people that say “I don't read the news anymore. Just the headlines.” In this age of microblogging and soundbites, people prefer summaries. If you release a document of more than about 800 words in length (shorter if overly technical), someone will read it and post a summary on a forum or blog, and that summary will be treated like gospel, because 98% people reading the summary will not read the document.

Comment Management: Stop this before it starts by releasing your own summary at the same time you release the document.

A couple other notes on dealing with comments:

Don't use socks. Socks (short for “sockpuppets”) are fake online identities created to praise, defend or create the illusion of support for one's self, allies or company. This often takes the form of marketing or PR people commenting on how much they like a product, service or company. Under several different aliases.

Don't do it. If you can't find people that actually like your product, service, or company, then socks won't help. In addition, exposure of a sockpuppet means a total loss of credibility for the company. If the company or marketing/PR firm demonstrates a willingness to lie, then they won't be believed about anything. Methods for sock detection can include:

  • IP address lookup (in a case where IP addresses were hidden so only the site administrators could see them, a community moderator outed a company using socks anyway)
  • Account creation date comparison
  • Account activity comparison
  • Even a disgruntled employee (or ex!) dishing dirt.

The take home message for use of socks is that the risks outweigh the rewards.

Emails are not private. Do not treat them that way. Any email you write to anyone could potentially be posted online for the whole world to read, so please write them as if the whole world is reading.

If you moderate comments, create and post comment rules. On your own site, forum or blog, you may choose to moderate comments, deleting those that you don't want to have on your site, or preventing them from appearing until approved. If you choose to do this, make sure you set rules beforehand, have them posted somewhere, and follow them to the letter, because it will be reported elsewhere on the net that you're deleting comments. If you outline groundrules in advance, people will respect them more (because they don't want to waste time writing a comment that will never see the light of LCD) and also be more understanding if a comment is deleted or not released.

Tony Ahn

Tony Ahn

Chief Digital Architect, Tony Ahn & Co.

Tony Ahn’s unique blend of education and experience makes him one of the most highly sought after social media evangelists in Asia.

Tony’s baccalaureate degree focused on ethnography, a branch of anthropology that studies and describes contemporary human cultures. Ethnographers capture and communicate “webs of meaning,” defining the interworking of cultures from an inside perspective. This equips Tony with a deep understanding of the culture of social media networks and communities.

Tony holds a master’s degree in counseling from Penn State University, giving him rich insights into human motivation and behavior. Simply put, Tony knows what consumers want and why. He has used this knowledge to reshape online customer service practices on two continents.

In 2009, Tony reunited with his baccalaureate discipline when he was hired as CEO of a Manila-based management consulting firm that utilized anthropologists to study consumer behavior. A year later he poured his knowledge of ethnography, human motivation, and social media into Sterling Rep Social Media and Reputation Management, the first independent reputation management agency in the Philippines, which he directed until it was acquired by one of the largest public relations firms in the country. In 2012, Tony Ahn opened the doors on Tony Ahn & Co., which he directs today.

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Comments

Excellent post--well written and to the point.  I particularly liked that you gave examples.  I'm forwarding this on to the folk at my company that handle social media.

Paul