Having been in Lebanon a few years after the Prime Minister’s assassination and bomb attacks to represent the banks seeking investment from the west; into Sanaa, Yemen, not long before the fall of the Saleh government; followed by spies in the Emirates and sending teams into Islamabad seeking proof of inert fertilizer to reduce the risks of IEDS and into Lagos, Nigeria, seeking a way to help negotiate the release of 300 school girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram, we are often asked, “What is the thing that keeps you up at night?”
It’s the decline of the civil town square and the anonymous “Internet courage” that Twitter and social media have unleashed, which has turned differences of opinion into an echo chamber of horrors, escalating false accusations and using name calling as a form of prior restraint to eliminate the free exchange of ideas. “You’re a racist, sexist, homophobe, carbon junkie, thief, evil doer, etc.” Take your pick: such slander shuts down all dialogue and becomes a monologue for the pious.
I’ve met with countless executives whose careers and families were ruined under the weight of this Deus ex Machina in reverse. Everyone is now elevated to “public figure” status so that they can be insulted without fear of libel followed often by self-justified doxing – the release of personal information such as home addresses – fully knowing it will put the person in harm’s way. Death threats and worse follow.
How do we maintain civil discourse in an age of instant rage and Internet bullhorns? We hosted back-to-back programs on What’s Working In Washington (originally aired on WFED) to try and find out. Hosted by Jonathan Aberman, the first show included me, Alice Stewart, CNN political commentator and communications consultant, and Michael Zeldin, CNN legal analyst with experience stretching back to the Clinton impeachment proceedings. Next week, we include two executives falsely accused by the media and then excoriated in social media. Truth never made an appearance in their situations.
Just a few years ago, even in the Internet Age, we could halt the rise of false narratives before they took hold, keeping them on the periphery of conversation. Today, as Charles Spurgeon said, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”
In the next week we will be releasing a Forbes article recommending Internet etiquette, not so we can all win Ms. Manners awards, but so that our democracy and civil discourse have a fighting chance.