What happens when you go viral? Digital self defense for progressives

What happens when you go viral? Digital self defense for progressives

There’s a lot of advice out there on how to become “internet famous”, but not a lot of people talk about what happens next. Here’s some real talk for progressives to get you through it and make the most of what happens when you go viral. I know because I lived it.

A year ago, I was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Even though I’ve said those words and written those words many, many times by now, it still feels faintly unreal to me. But it happened, and as part of my method to cope, I joined in the fight to save Obamacare (which was saving my life). I did lots of local events in Las Vegas, was on the local news bunches of times, and even wrote a national op ed for US News & World Report, at the urging of a friend. Several times we defeated various versions of TrumpCare in the nick of time, by the barest of margins. Anyways, at the end of September as yet another fight in the Senate was gearing up, President Trump blocked me on Twitter. Then I became an international story, as the cancer patient blocked by Trump while he was trying to take away my health care. My original interview with a reporter got syndicated, and my story appeared in publications from Newsweek to People. We won that legislative fight, but I kept up my local activism. When I found out about the public event my Senator, Senator Heller, was doing in Las Vegas, I registered and attended. And was then thrown out while asking my question. This became another national news story too. So that’s my backstory.

Here’s what you don’t know:

Being a digital consultant, I’m at least somewhat aware of digital privacy and that anything you post can potentially wind up in the news. I keep my accounts public, because I made my peace with that. But if you’re a private citizen and you’re telling your story publicly, be aware that people can and will go through your past history. Don’t let yourself be milkshake ducked. What this means is that anybody who briefly steps into a spotlight will be dissected, and their past may come back to haunt them. (ex: the debate red sweater guy Ken Bone turned out to have an unsavory reddit past, the bullying kid mom likes the Confederate flag etc. etc.) My best advice to you is don’t be problematic. Don’t say or do sexist racist homophobic things, and then you don’t need to worry about your past becoming public. Don’t say things in public — and consider social media to be public — that you can’t stand behind in the light of day.

Do protect yourself though, before the fact — prevention is the best way to keep yourself safe. If you are stepping up and likely to be attacked for whatever reason, make sure your email address, your phone number, your home address is not public information. Swatting (somebody maliciously calling the cops/SWAT team on your address by spoofing a dangerous situation) got an innocent person killed. High profile people have had to change numbers, and/or move to protect their own personal safety. It’s better if you can make sure that info is not public in the first place. But you don’t particularly want or need to be spammed or have random people calling you and delivering nasty messages either, so go through the steps it takes to get your personal info removed from public directory sites and so on. You can start by doing a google search on your name, your email, your address, your cell # and see what comes up. Then you know who to go to when trying to remove it from the public record. I had been trolling Trump on Twitter all year, so I had already had all kinds of abuse and threats heaped on me by his supporters online. But the good thing about this is that I had become inured to a lot of it, while shoring up my defenses too.

Protect your digital self as well as your physical self. Make sure you set up Two Factor Authentication on all your internet accounts that support it. What this means is that you need to enter a code on your mobile device in order to change your password — which makes it harder for hackers to hack your accounts and get in. Use good anti-virus software, make regular backups of your computer and phone, don’t use weak passwords, set up a firewall on your computer and keep the operating systems on your devices up-to-date. Don’t put anything into writing that you wouldn’t want to be published: you’re going to be under a microscope right now so be aware of that. Don’t click on dodgy emails, and do consider using a secure messaging app (like Signal) for privacy.

Don’t read the comments — unless you have a very thick skin. People are going to dump hate all over you, and it can ruin your day/week/life if you let it. When you first go viral, there’s going to be a flood of responses, good and bad, and you probably won’t be able to keep up with it all. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it. Your friends can tangle with the trolls so you don’t have to (unless you want to).

You can only be shamed if you accept shame. Donald Trump can’t be shamed, because he has no shame. Stormy Daniels can’t be shamed either, because she chooses to reject shame. If people are going to troll you, calling you ugly or stupid or a slut etc. (and they will come after you in particularly nasty gender-based ways if you are a woman), you have a few choices: You can ignore them by muting them, blocking them, even reporting them if their content is against terms of use on social media (I do like to report trolls, because sometimes you can even get their accounts disabled for abuse). You can push back with them directly (sometimes I like to dunk on trolls, it’s probably not my best feature I admit). Or you can refuse their premise, like Stormy Daniels.. when people call her a slut, she says “Yes, and?” If somebody had pointed out I was ugly or grotesque, I would have said “Yeah, I have stage 4 cancer & am going through chemotherapy, your point is?” Whatever people insult you with, consider whether it actually is an insult, and whether you even care. Nothing irritates a troll more than you agreeing with their premise and not being bothered by it at all. They’re trying to make you mad, or sad, or ashamed. So, reject that. (If you can.)

Do be prepared for your moment. Your story will probably not be in the news forever, so take this opportunity to use your viral fame to accomplish whatever it is you’re trying to accomplish. Make sure people (especially press on deadline) know how to get ahold of you for their stories. Have an email address on your social media profiles perhaps, but be prepared for hate mail. For when you do press: you know how candidates have talking points and whatever question reporters ask them, they say what they want to say instead? Have talking points for yourself (at least in your head), so that every interview you do gets you closer to whatever you want to achieve. Also keep track of every reporter and publication that reaches out to you, because when you’re no longer “hot” you may still want to be able to reach out to them as need be. Feel free to pitch yourself too, when your story is big — why not try and write an op ed from your perspective and get it in a local or even a national paper?

You don’t have to go it alone. Don’t be afraid to reach out to friends, that might have connections at those media outlets and get you to a real person instead of a general submission inbox. Also if you get overwhelmed with trolls, let your support network know. They may want a way they can get more involved and help you out: swatting down trolls could be a perfect way for them to contribute. Reach out to advocacy organizations that you’d like to work with too. Do not assume they will automatically reach out to you. I wish we were that organized in the progressive movement!

Own your own story — if the news talks about you, comment on social media so people know you are a real person, and they can follow you on social media to stay connected and updated with your story. (If you want the public attention. If you don’t, then lock down all your social media profiles before you start speaking out. But attention is a good thing — you want people to be able to find and get ahold of you if you want to be a force for change going forward.)

Be prepared for the letdown. It’s scary and exhilarating at the same time when you’re “famous”. But all 15 minutes of fame eventually end, and then you have to go back to the normal day to day. So don’t let your time on CNN or whatever go to your head, don’t forget us the little people!, and try not to get too used to it. It does not last.