We’ve all been there: Someone posts something online that is just so wrong or insulting that you feel compelled to set them straight.
However, regardless of whether you’re responding on behalf of a business or yourself, starting an online fight is always a bad idea. In addition to the fact that it’s almost impossible to win an online argument, participating in these disputes can ruin your online reputation.
“Going negative is never a good look for a brand. It draws attention away from the positives you want your audience to see. There may be times a brand has to defend itself, but even then, it can take the high road.” – Michelle Garrett, Garrett Public Relations
While you might assume that the evidence of your online activity quickly disappears once people scroll past your posts, these conversations never really go away. Even many years later, unflattering and controversial things you’ve said can still pop up in the following unexpected ways when someone searches for your name. Consider the following four stories of online fights gone wrong.
1. Old tweets
According to Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, “Skeletons no longer stay in the closet. Social media is a permanent archive that can be used proactively and reactively to out anyone on any subject.” As such, if your old Twitter arguments reflect badly on you, then you will gain a reputation for negativity that can follow you for years.
A good example of someone who earned a bad name for her online attacks is former child star Amanda Bynes. Known for her tendency to start Twitter feuds, the actress has publicly attacked celebrities including the likes of Rihanna, Courtney Love, and Jenny McCarthy.
Bynes went after Jenny McCarthy for misreporting that there were police at Bynes’s house. “You’re ugly! Police weren’t at my house old lady! Shut the f–k up!” She went on, “Aren’t u 50 years old? I’m 27, u look 80 compared to me! Why are you talking about me?”
When Courtney Love tweeted “Pull it together, dude,” Bynes responded “Courtney Love is the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen. To be mentioned by her at all makes me and all my friends laugh!”
Bynes also unleashed seemingly unprovoked vitriol on Rihanna
Bynes has since apologized for her nasty Twitter comments, saying that they were a result of substance abuse: “I’m really ashamed and embarrassed with the things I said. I can’t turn back time but if I could, I would. And I’m so sorry to whoever I hurt and whoever I lied about because it truly eats away at me.”
Unfortunately, the Internet record of Bynes’s remarks still exists and thus continues to color people’s perceptions of her. When you search for “Amanda Bynes Twitter,” the following are among the top results:
- Amanda Bynes’ Craziest Tweets – Us Weekly
- Amanda Bynes’ 5 Biggest Twitter Feuds: Rihanna, Jenny McCarthy
- 11 Meanest Tweets Amanda Bynes Has Ever Sent | CafeMom
- Amanda Bynes Finally Explains Her Infamous Drake Tweet | Vanity Fair
Because people tend to click on salacious content (thus signaling to Google that the content is valuable), these results will continue to rank highly in the search results for years to come—and therefore continue to influence people’s opinions of the young star.
“Engaging in conversations online that are hurtful and divisive leads audiences to question who you are, what you stand for and what you have to offer.” – Gabriela Cardoza, personal and corporate brand consultant
2. Old email threads
There is currently a large thread on Reddit discussing a heated email exchange that took place in 2001 between Mark Brazill, creator of That 70s Show, and filmmaker Judd Apatow. In the string of emails, Brazill asserts that Apatow copied his concept for a rock band comedy and used it on The Ben Stiller Show. The emails were published in Harper’s in March 2002, yet a search for both their names still returns numerous mentions of the feud.
The Reddit discussion is not kind to Mark Brazill, who comes across as boorish. Most of the comments are pro Apatow.
“I don’t know for sure who’s in the right, but either way, you can tell Apatow is way smarter than Brazill.” – Reddit user GreatWallOfGina
The gossipy nature of this exchange is so appealing to Google’s algorithms that—even 17 years later—a link to the complete email exchange still appears on the first page of Mark Brazill’s search results. As such, it still affects people’s first impression of him when they look for him online.
3. Archived Facebook posts
One of the most extreme examples of old Facebook posts ruining someone’s online reputation is Amy’s Baking Company. In 2013, Amy and Samy Bouzaglo, the owners of the restaurant, had a meltdown on Facebook after receiving negative comments from Yelpers and Redditors after appearing on an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares.
The show didn’t present the owners in a good light—revealing that they pocketed the servers’ tips, made customers wait up to 90 minutes for their food, and had fired more than 100 employees. Upon concluding that the owners were beyond his help, Ramsay gave up trying to improve the restaurant—a first in the show’s 82-episode run. This sparked an onslaught of comments on social media.
The Bouzaglos fought back on their Facebook page, calling their accusers “trash,” “pathetic,” and “OPPRESSORS.”
The Bouzaglos’ story demonstrates the power of social media to ruin someone’s life. Although the couple deleted their Facebook page, their archived posts remain easily searchable online, thus giving them a permanent virtual “black eye” in the public’s perception.
As a result of the extensive negative publicity, the restaurant was forced to shut down and Samy Bouzaglo was deported due to his criminal history. The couple now lives in Israel.
“Given that premise—if you start a #socialmedia battle intentionally—it’s never just with one person or account—it’s with their networks. Theirs & yours, actually. Not sure how many employers want to hire ‘pot stirrers’ that can activate networks against them.” – Julia Hengstler, technology, privacy, and educational specialist
4. Deleted Strava comments
In 2017, Australian cyclists Scott Bradley and Brendan Edwards got into a fight on Strava, a social network for cyclists and runners. Bradley accused Edwards of targeting his KOMs—Strava awards (meaning King of the Mountain) for earning the best time on a ride.
Edwards accused Bradley of being obsessed with smashing his KOMs, and lashed out in a viral thread that still lives on the Internet today. In fact, it is the top result when you google his name + Strava.
This means that potential employers and others who assess people based on their online activity will most likely encounter Bradley’s harsh comments. And this might negatively affect his ability to get a job or a promotion.
What to do if someone picks a fight with you online
Nearly half of people have gotten into an online altercation at some point. Thus, it makes sense to know what to do when it happens to you.
“Sometimes, no matter how careful, you can find yourself in an online ‘fight’ unintentionally. What I’ve learned is that when it happens, you have to be prepared for strangers (typically those who don’t follow/know you here) to make negative assumptions.” – J. J. Cannon, social media professional and author of Sophie Takes a Selfie
First, you should avoid retaliating. According to many branding and marketing experts, engaging in an argument will probably only lead to reputation-damaging vitriol on both sides.
- “I’m a fan of the DM (take the fight off the public stage). If that’s not possible, I find it’s important to assess if you’re dealing with a customer or a rando. If it’s a customer, try to solve. If it’s a rando, I agree with the others and ignore.” – Jeremy Miller, brand strategist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Sticky Branding
- “Replying generally adds fire to the storm whether objective or not. Signals to end the debate work well such as an agreement to allow each other’s opinion. A call to others for support generally backfires though.” – Paul Burke, associate professor in marketing and deputy director, Centre For Business Intelligence & Data Analytics (Bida) at the University of Technology Sydney
- “In these instances, silence can be a very effective means of communication.” – Fred Stuvek, entrepreneur, CEO, and author of It Starts With You
- “I have zero tolerance policy on my feed for trolls & politics. I let people know this in a nice way. If a troll appears or people get political, I will typically ask them to remove reply and point to policy. If they don’t respect me and my feed, I mute or block them” – Ryan Foland, personal branding expert, keynote speaker, author of Ditch the Act: Revealing the Surprising Power of the Real You
- “I was abused by someone on Twitter a few years ago. I didn’t respond and merely reported the behaviour to Twitter who immediately acted and permanently blocked the user.” – Craig Badings, author of four books on thought leadership and partner at SenateSHJ
To counteract any negative chatter generated by someone dragging your name into an online fight, you can use reputation management techniques to control the conversation about your name. Basically, this involves creating positive content that presents the image you want people to associate with your name and then linking to it through your social media profiles and other owned properties.
For more information about protecting your online reputation, feel free to call us for a free consultation.