As regular readers will know I’m somewhat addicted to people watching on social media. Spotting the people that are forever hankering for ‘likes’ and ‘followers’, the ones that pop on once in a blue moon when they’re bored, or are really miffed about something, the ones selling a lifestyle (but who are not, and never will be, influencers), the ones surfing around the popular opinions of the days, in our industry the ‘likes’ and support which are clearly networking, the genuine people that are bemused by all the hate that goes on, and over the course of the last year I’ve become fascinated by the people using the various platforms to share (knowingly or not) misinformation to people that are already struggling.  It’s like my private town centre bench where I can watch the (cyber) world go by.

Here’s the bit that I’ve never grasped though – the people that simply lie. Now the chances are that they lie in life too, but online the gift of anonymity allows those lies to be ever bigger and potentially more damaging.

In life, just like online, I can’t abide liars. I understand the theory that the people lying could be crying out for help etc, but there’s no excuse for trying to rob someone of their reputation, and these words online count for a lot more than people realise. In fact just this week I was banging on to my students about the importance of your reputation, and how we should all be fighting to protect ‘ours’. 

As Trump proved so brilliantly (and alarmingly) using various social media platforms, say something enough times and with enough conviction and people will start to believe you. We all saw Trump say X at a press briefing one day, then swear that he didn’t say it the next day. This gaslighting forces us to doubt ourselves.

Which leads me to the point of the blog – how bloody dangerous some of these people truly are, and leaves me questioning if they actually know what they’re saying when they’re saying it? Is the kick the fact that they’ve successfully stolen the most precious thing from us . . . our good name.

Recently I’ve been in the sad position of watching a friend get their name trashed online.  I was made aware of the situation when their partner contacted me asking me to speak to them as they were so distraught there were real concerns for their safety. Now this is one of those friends that I’ve known for decades, the type of friendship that has grown up and weathered a lot of dumb behaviour on both sides. Importantly the type of friend that you know would give you an alibi if you suddenly needed to ‘bury the body’. So if they had done anything wrong, they 100% would feel safe enough with me to let me know.

In fact my first indication of my friend being so unwell was when I contacted them directly to find out what was going on, only to be sent a novel in return explaining the circumstances around the ‘drama’ that they were embroiled in. However in reality the situation was absurb. Somebody was trying to ruin the reputation of my friend’s business. This person had posted an inflammatory and indeed libellous post up on a local community group’s site. This post had descended into alleged stories of other people being unhappy with the service that my mate was providing too. Hell they were even posting photos of ‘proof’ of my mate’s appalling trade. Here’s the rub though. . . .all the pictures were fake, the people posting in agreement were not my friend’s customers. My friend was devastated. 10 years to build up a successful business and one piece of malicious tittle tattle had descended into something much more sinister and potentially damaging. Here they were swearing blind to me that they didn’t know the people posting – they were not their customers!

Of course, I’ve already been there and bought the T Shirt so I was pre-armed knowing quite how devastating the fake news was going to be. I tried to tell them to stay calm as this storm would be over within a few days, I noted (from experience) that this major news event in their life was probably barely registering a glance from the rest of the world. It doesn’t matter though – your mind races, you think that everybody is talking about you, it just drives you bonkers.

The thing is when people lie about you online you have no choice but to let if play out. If you try to defend yourself the pile on gets higher. Your truth was not the first thing that people have heard, therefore the majority of people will assume that you’re the one that’s lying. We assume that nobody in this world of ours is malicious enough to just . . . well . . . lie. However they are, and we don’t actually hear that much about it.

How many times have I read the smart comment of ‘if they’re lying. . . sue them’? Have you checked out the cost of a libel or slander case? They are notoriously hard to win . . . as the person that ‘lied’ is protected in law if ‘they’ believe their own story to be true. To prove that somebody maliciously lied takes a small fortune, so the large majority of people just suck it up and hope that it’ll pass. 

My friend was devastated and beside themselves. It didn’t matter how much ‘common sense’ and previous knowledge I threw at them, they couldn’t see a way through the mess that these people were creating.  The chatter died down, but for my friend all that noise was still in their head. The paranoia gets to be very real. You assume that everybody is as obsessed with this story as you are.

Thankfully my friend realised that they were getting to be really ill because of it all and booked an appointment to see their GP and booked themselves into a therapist to chat it all through. Some 6 weeks later they’re slowly getting back to themselves after a clinical and chemical intervention. 

What about the person that start all of this? Well they disappeared into the cyber universe taking all their lying minions with them too. I dare say that none of them have given it a second thought. 

In the current climate of “I believe the victims” we must attempt to do due diligence around stories shared so freely online. We must remember that we’re only ever hearing one person’s viewpoint with no context. I’d be the first in line to join the lynch mob for some of the stories that are coming out at the moment, and around 99% of the time I really do just ‘believe’ what I’m reading. . . but I also remind myself to try and keep some objectivity and curiosity around the fact that it might not be the whole truth. 

I followed the thread that libelled my friend – and it was very convincing. I’d be calling them asking if they’d heard of ‘so and so’ as their ‘story’ was really convincing. I kept to my own mantra of remaining curious – but with an increasing regularity the answer would come back – I swear they’re just not customers of mine, swiftly followed by a long discussion where I witnessed my friend losing themselves.

I know that the person that’s creating ‘the list’ in our industry is being really careful around this difficult subject – which probably explains why ‘the list’ is still being compiled. They’re staying curious at all times. Please though . . . next time you read somebody’s truth online, or hear their truth in the media, also keep in your mind that some people literally . . . lie.

Check in on your friend – trial by social media is harsh, the ‘perpetrator’ literally has no right of reply. You become the spectre at your reputation’s wake.