Standing up to the online bullies

When I was growing up, I was frequently bullied. I had all the stereotypical markers for bullies to pick on: I was overweight, socially awkward, a klutz in sports and inevitably last to be picked, bespectacled and brainy. It didn’t help that my first name could be twisted to spell out the very insult that my peers from four decades ago refused to release.
Even when I eventually thinned out in high school, my tormentors clung to that image of the stocky nerd, and I did little to disabuse them of their cruel notions. There was name calling, books and body parts kicked when I was least expecting it, the kid who punched me in the face and broke my glasses, and the way I had to sneak up from a distance to the bus stop to school in order to make sure Rick L. and his posse were not waiting there too.
The bullying stopped when I got to college where most of the attributes that had been so disparaged during my teen years were now in demand. I was popular (enough) and finally happy. I graduated, met my wife, got married, had kids and moved to Israel. With bullying banished, it’s been a good ride for the last 30 years.
But now the Internet has caught up and the bullying is back. Two of my recent columns in The Jerusalem Post Magazine generated some surprisingly ugly talkbacks and letters to the editor. I’m no pollyanna – someone who thinks good things will always happen – and I have read enough of the hateful speech that usually accompanies anything about Israel on social media to know that the web can be a scary place. Not just about Israel of course – cyberbullying, of teens in particular, is a serious scourge that can and has had fatal consequences.
So I’m almost embarrassed to even write about my own feelings towards the nastiness directed my way. No one has cursed at me or used anti-Semitic language. Suicide is certainly not on the agenda. But I’m still in shock by how personal the writers have been, going for what they perceive as my weak spots and making me question the value of vulnerability.
Both my friends in real life and long time readers know that I am very open about my life, sometimes to a fault. Over the years, I’ve shared inside information about my family (much to my kids dismay), about sex, about losing a loved one to terror, about my health, about religion and the importance of blazing your own truth. I have always embraced the public exposure that is concomitant with writing from the heart.
Still it can hurt. One writer lashed out at my column “In praise of datlashim,” calling it “a sad reflection on [my] parenting skills” and adding that I act as if I am “proud of the fact that [I have] failed [my] children.” Another writer shockingly warned me to keep my children “as far away as possible from [his] children.”
For my follow up column, “Pick and Choose-daism,” the letter writers continued with the personal failure theme, with one calling my approach “a recipe for failure, as is painfully evident from the author’s personal experience,” while a talkbacker online hiding behind the pseudonym of “Shel Zahav” called me “an idiot trying to justify his failures” and that The Jerusalem Post ought to drop me “like the hi-tech industry did before.”
Now, I can deal with comments about my parenting skills – I know I’m a good father and no anonymous Internet hater is going to convince me otherwise, But that last comment was particularly stinging, because whoever Shel Zahav is, he or she seems to know me personally. I never indicated in either of those columns that, before I began writing full time, I used to be a startup entrepreneur. Was this talkbacker an investor who lost money on one of my companies, or maybe a disgruntled ex-employee still holding a grudge? Should I be worried in real life?
I wondered if any of my writing colleagues had been similarly bullied and how they related to it? I asked and the response: all of them had been on the receiving end of nasty comments.
Many, like Jerusalem Post Managing Editor David Brinn, say they have stopped reading the talkbacks entirely. “Or more accurately, I stopped paying attention to them,” he says. “Sometimes I still look at them because they’re so strange and interesting in what they reveal about the writers. But I have never responded to a talkback and don’t intend to.”
Jerusalem Post and Israel21c writer Abigail Klein Leichman says that before making aliyah, she wrote an op-ed in her local paper and got “some very nasty feedback. It was upsetting and the experience made me think twice about writing on personal topics ever again.”
Freelance editor and writer Eve Horowitz, who writes only about personal topics in her “Therapy in the Holy City” column over at The Times of Israel, says she’s received “just one outwardly negative reaction…if I were recipient of a lot more reactions like that one, it might make me shut down.”
Another colleague says that he makes a distinction between a talkback online and a letter that appears in the print edition of the paper. “Talkbacks are like the plague. Anyone can write what they want, it’s an anonymous note,” he says, adding that, like David Brinn, he doesn’t read them anymore. Letters, on the other hand, are another matter entirely. “I don’t think that there’s an inherent right that everyone who writes a letter has to get in print.”
Some websites edit talkbacks before they go online, deleting the most racist, sexist or anti-Semitic diatribes. But most don’t, embracing the ensuing slugfests as opportunities to increase page views. And with no nuance online and anonymity the norm, it’s easy to go straight for the jugular.
It’s not just newspapers, either. Last year, a petition was sent to demanding that the online bookstore remove the ability for reviewers to comment anonymously. Best selling novelist Anne Rice (of Interview with a Vampire fame) was one of nearly 10,000 signatories who decried the world of book bullies who mercilessly attack authors on sites like Amazon and GoodReads when they don’t agree with something the author has written (or stands for personally).
The Internet works both ways, of course. After I posted about the comments I received on my articles to my Facebook friends, I was overwhelmed with support – both against the trolls and in favor of the actual content of what I wrote.
The truth is, I’d really like to steer clear of both the talkbacks and the letters to the editor entirely. I know that the writers are just acting out on their own insecurities or narrow-minded fears. But part of being a proactive citizen of the social web is staying on top of what people are saying about you. It’s true for politicians and brands, and it’s true for columnists as well: ignore what’s being written about you at your own peril.
Jerusalem Post columnist Lawrence Rifkin takes a different approach. “I positively love letters that berate me because very few, if any, agree with me. So at least it means people are indeed taking the time to read me. I’m of the school where it’s taught, ‘Say what you want about me, just spell my name right.’”
I’m not planning to let the bullies get to me. I’ll keep on baring my soul – I don’t know how to be any other way. And, to borrow a line from one of my more notorious commenters, if I didn’t, then I’d really be a failure.