“5 Things We Can Each Do To Make Social Media And The Internet A Kinder And More Tolerant Place” With Rebecca Weber-Van Gundy

Verbal online attacks can feel worse than in real life, however, knowing that the person sending the attacks may never consider saying those things to you in person is also a reminder that the statements may be reactive and should not be taken too seriously. Whether verbal or online, being the target of someone’s frustration […]

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Verbal online attacks can feel worse than in real life, however, knowing that the person sending the attacks may never consider saying those things to you in person is also a reminder that the statements may be reactive and should not be taken too seriously. Whether verbal or online, being the target of someone’s frustration is never pleasant.

As a part of my interview series about the things we can each do to make social media and the internet a kinder and more tolerant place, I had the pleasure to interview Rebecca Weber-Van Gundy. At Bozell, Rebecca serves as Senior Public Relations Strategist. Bozell is a 98-year-old marketing agency located in Omaha, Nebraska. A graduate of the University of Nebraska — Lincoln, Rebecca received her bachelor’s degree in Political Science. For twelve years, and a majority as President of Ravun Consulting LLC, she specialized in political and nonprofit development and campaign management, assisting more than 40 organizations achieve their funding and communication objectives. After witnessing how digital fundraising changed development and spending for candidates and causes, Rebecca turned her focus to digital marketing and communications strategy for small businesses. Her firm, Ravun Consulting LLC, employed a staff of three and specialized in helping businesses in the real estate and financial industry. At Bozell, Rebecca focuses on earned and shared communication through social media and its integration with paid and owned forms of communication. Her passion is working with businesses in highly regulated industries, identifying key messages and sharing them in ways that resonate with their target audiences.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?

My professional career started on political campaigns, so I am no stranger to strong opinions and attacks online or in the media. I got my first job while in college as a full-time finance director on a congressional campaign and, over the next decade, worked on approximately two dozen campaigns or causes. Since I started my career while in the middle of college, acquiring my diploma took a few years longer than average as I was moving between cities, working full-time and mostly taking online and night classes.

In the nonprofit sector, most memorable was working at a homeless shelter followed by work with an organization that provided community living for adults with severe developmental disabilities, both of which firmly cemented my belief that every human being should be treated with basic dignity.

My communications and reputation management experience from political campaign days also translated into the private sector. After a decade working with political campaigns, I offered online marketing services for small businesses and nonprofit organizations, particularly in public relations and social media. Now, I am in public relations at Bozell, an integrated marketing agency, and the passion for strategic and intentional communication continues.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

This is a difficult question to answer, simply because I’ve worked with so many different types of people and “interesting” usually described the average workday! Starting my career in political campaigns, I became known for my ability to make things happen. At the time, I had been told the average time working in the position of finance director for political campaigns was six months, yet somehow, I lasted ten years. The people I ran into during this time eventually would come back to me and ask for my help on other projects, and some of those projects were a bit wonky. I’ve worked with so many different types of clients, causes and industries that I strangely know a lot about random subjects … like fish oil, lead paint, investment vehicles, and the random list continues.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A few years into my career, I was planning an event with a well-known presidential advisor as the headliner. I made plans to have the advisor picked up via helicopter. I had many balls in the air that day to make sure this event with hundreds of people went off smoothly. I knew the pilot, so I trusted the pick-up and drop-off would go as planned.

It was an hour past the time our guest was to be picked up when I learned the helicopter had mechanical issues and could not take off. Luckily, the advisor was self-sufficient and jumped in a rental car, driving a few hours through the Midwest to make it to our event on time. Still, I felt less than stellar about having inconvenienced a world-renowned public servant.

That instance taught me to be clear about expectations and to be a persistent communicator. The devil is truly in the details and muddy communication, or not establishing proper communication channels, can throw an entire plan.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

Yes, I am a part of the Bozell team working on a campaign to promote awareness of 529 College Savings Plans. The conversation around student loan debt is everywhere; we hear about it from our friends and neighbors, we hear about it on the news and now we’re hearing about it in the presidential debates. Because of the burden graduates and their parents now carry, much of what we hear on the subject is negative. However, there are solutions available to help parents prepare for their child’s future. With this project, our goal is to share the message that 529 College Savings Plans, offered by 49 states, are for everyone, not just the wealthy. So, we’re trying to shift the focus to the solution — the positive message that there is hope and a vehicle out there to curb this crisis. We’re doing this by inserting ourselves into current and trending conversations and sharing the stories of everyday Americans from various walks of life utilizing a 529 College Savings Plan to help their children receive an education.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the main focus of our interview. Have you ever been publicly shamed or embarrassed on social media? Can you share with our readers what that experience felt like?

Working for candidates and causes, one of your goals is to stay out of the public eye. But a well-known midwestern political blog wrote a story about a candidate and their campaign staff, and I was one of the individuals mentioned in the article. And a reader chose to make a negative comment about another consultant and me. Initially, I was a bit hurt given that it could have harmed my professional reputation. However, not long after that, I realized that anyone doing anything worthwhile was bound to receive criticism at some point, whether it is true or not. And, everyone has an opinion. So long as your conscience is clear and you can hold your head high, you cannot worry yourself with every opinion out there — especially since they can change so quickly.

What did you do to shake off that negative feeling?

I was able to quickly shake the negative feeling, knowing that everyone has opinions and it was coming from an anonymous commenter. For all I knew, it could have been from someone who didn’t like me in childhood! Point being, it wasn’t worth letting it get to me.

If you are the subject of someone’s negativity, you need to remind yourself that their frustration is often indicative of an insecurity or bias on their part. And that opinion doesn’t change who you inherently are. If you feel there is some truth to it, it can be worth reflection, but otherwise, you’ll wear yourself down trying to be everything to the nearly 8 billion people on this planet.

Have you ever posted a comment on social media that you regretted because you felt it was too harsh or mean?

I’ve prided myself on trying to be thoughtful in my communications. I try not to post anything that could be considered “mean” or would constitute a personal attack; however, I have posted political opinions/articles that incited a negative response. And, I firmly replied to those who responded negatively. If, after posting, I realized that it was instigating extremely negative responses (especially those that caused my friends/followers to go at each other’s throats), I consider deleting that post unless I am able to diffuse the conversation with a response. One negative comment can snowball, and I don’t let my Facebook page become a place for people to hurt each other.

I also don’t like bullying. I remember calling out bullies in high school when they were taunting those they didn’t think would stand up for themselves. When I see personal attacks on social media, my instinct is to come to that person’s defense with a response. But I force myself to really think twice before replying and hitting “send.” The reality is that if someone is willing to go extra negative on social media, you will likely have a difficult time trying to change them or even reason with them. Over time, my grandmother’s sage advice of “pick your battles” usually wins out.

Can you describe the evolution of your decisions? Why did you initially write the comment, and why did you eventually regret it?

People post controversial comments online for a few reasons: usually they’re experiencing high emotions and want to express them or they’re hoping to convince someone of something. What’s fascinating is that much of this is psychological. Ever heard of amygdala hijack? It is an overreaction with the later realization that your initial response was stronger than what triggered it. Basically, your neo-cortex, or “thinking brain”, is short-circuited and bypassed, and a signal is instead sent directly to your amygdala which is part of your “emotional brain”. This is similar to what most know as the “fight or flight” response. Luckily, we can learn to control this response, and it explains why we may respond to a situation emotionally, later realizing that we took it too far.

But sometimes, commenters are just looking for a moment of satisfaction. Social media gratification is directly linked to the release of dopamine and a few likes on a comment or knowing that we’ve posted our opinion to the world triggers that release. In a moment of amygdala hijack, we post before mulling over potential ramifications. Thank goodness for the edit button, right?!

When one reads the comments on Youtube or Instagram, or the trending topics on Twitter, a great percentage of them are critical, harsh, and hurtful. The people writing the comments may feel like they are simply tapping buttons on a keyboard, but to the one on the receiving end of the comment, it is very different. This may be intuitive, but I feel that it will be instructive to spell it out. Can you help illustrate to our readers what the recipient of a public online critique might be feeling?

Our initial reactions revert us to our primal nature — feeling hurt and becoming defensive. We move into survival mode. After those moments pass, our rational brain kicks in and our emotions die down, allowing us to think more long-term about our next actions.

If one has been in the public eye for a long time, they may be accustomed to negative feedback and the impact can lessen over time. But, at the end of the day, the comments can still hurt.

Regardless if one is used to receiving such attacks or not, I think it is our human nature to take them personally to some extent, even if just for a moment. It could cause you to question who you are, your value, the impact of your actions, etc. Sometimes, this is a positive. Other times, it can be demoralizing.

Do you think a verbal online attack feels worse or less than a verbal argument in “real life”? How are the two different?

Verbal online attacks can feel worse than in real life, however, knowing that the person sending the attacks may never consider saying those things to you in person is also a reminder that the statements may be reactive and should not be taken too seriously. Whether verbal or online, being the target of someone’s frustration is never pleasant.

What long term effects can happen to someone who was shamed online?

If that person is in a leadership position and they are used to confrontation, they may develop what I call “Teflon skin.” The personal attacks don’t affect them as much; they’ve built up an armor. Over time, if the same barbs are continuously thrown, they may start to question their truth, regardless of the legitimacy of the statements.

Or, if the individual on the receiving end is not accustomed to such treatment or being in the spotlight, this could cause them to retreat or fight back, which most often only aggravates the situation.

Many people who troll others online, or who leave harsh comments, can likely be kind and sweet people in “real life”. These people would likely never publicly shout at someone in a room filled with 100 people. Yet, on social media, when you embarrass someone, you are doing it in front of thousands of even millions of people, and it is out there forever. Can you give 3 or 4 reasons why social media tends to bring out the worst in people; why people are meaner online than they are in person?

1) You are not directly facing your recipient and do not make the personal connection that they are a fellow human and part of your community. Much of human communication is non-verbal, which one can’t experience online. Psychological research shows that when you look someone in the eye, it immediately triggers increased self-consciousness allowing you to identify with the human whom you are facing. You’re much less likely to inflict verbal assaults on someone whom you’re able to empathize with.

2) Technology makes it easy for us to express ourselves to people throughout the world. Often, immediate reactions and responses to posts that we see are based on emotion and not reason. Think amygdala hijack. Left brain vs right brain. So, we type away, press “send”, and a few minutes later, possibly regret what we wrote and edit our response.

3) We view rudeness from another online and want revenge. The quickest and fastest way to do this is to peck out a response with the same level of disdain or worse — you’ll show them! Right? All you really did was stoop to their level. Rudeness can easily become like a disease, psychologically infecting those witnessing it and easily inciting a similarly aggressive response.

If you had the power to influence thousands of people about how to best comment and interact online, what would you suggest to them? What are your “5 things we should each do to help make social media and the internet, a kinder and more tolerant place”? Can you give a story or an example for each?

1) Identify the purpose of your comment — what is it that you’re trying to accomplish? If your red flags pop up with a caution to proceed, verbally say out loud what you were planning to type. Does it accomplish your desired objective or are you still unsure whether you should hit “send”? Write out, by hand, your statement and read it out loud again. You can throw away the paper; you can’t always permanently delete the comment. Just like diamonds, your digital footprint can live on forever.

2) Employ self-awareness. Are you offended or are you trying to prove that you are right, and they are wrong? Take stock in why something is upsetting you. It could be an insecurity bubbling to the surface or a truth that you’re wanting to deny. Or, you may be confronted with your need for more information. If this is the case, consider this an opportunity for you to grow and better yourself.

3) Pay attention to your emotions and physical response. If you feel your emotions heightening and blood pressure rising as you’re typing out the message, step away from the keyboard for a few minutes. Take several long and deep breaths — like 10 of them. Get the oxygen flowing to your brain. Now, revisit the comment. Train yourself to avoid the amygdala hijack.

4) “Would I want my children/spouse/employees/parents to hear me verbally say this to another human being?” If you would be embarrassed to have those who look up to you and respect you witness you say what you’re about to type, move away from the keyboard. Similarly, check yourself to make sure you’re actively engaging in relationships with others. In the last few years, many elected officials and journalists are publishing books on how to get along and appreciate different viewpoints. One common theme is to go out and talk with people — build relationships in your community and realize you may have more in common with others than you initially think.

5) Practice gratitude, daily. Be intentional with positivity. How does this relate to negativity online? You’re retraining your brain and increasing activity in your neocortex, your “thinking brain”, which will help lessen over-reactions and those regretful, hurtful comments.

Freedom of speech prohibits censorship in the public square. Do you think that applies to social media? Do American citizens have a right to say whatever they want within the confines of a social media platform owned by a private enterprise?

A company does have a right to regulate or allow certain speech to exist or be censored on their platform. And, according to the Communications Decency Act Section 230, websites are not legally liable for the comments made by their users.

In 1997, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Reno vs ACLU that speech on the internet receives the highest level of protection. However, that does not mean that you can say whatever you want online and get away with it. While some forms of speech are protected, others, such as fraud and child pornography, are not.

If you had full control over Facebook or Twitter, which specific changes would you make to limit harmful or hurtful attacks?

As part of the platform brand, I would encourage specific uses of the platform. For example, Facebook is promoting its Facebook Group feature to encourage people to build relationships based on their interests. They’re also sharing updates in users’ news feeds that promote what they consider to be the purpose of Facebook — sharing stories of how people have connected using the platform and its specific features and how those translated into actual relationships. With Facebook’s 2018 algorithm change, those of us in the social media industry hear the term “meaningful relationship” often.

Additionally, on social networks, you can report what you consider to be abusive behavior. The platform investigates the issue and determines if that content should be removed or if the promoting user should be allowed to share content at all, depending on the level of seriousness.

While I understand the reasons for monitoring the platforms and enforcing policies, I would focus on the positive uses of the platform. As the owner of the network, I would have the power of the platform to amplify any message I want, so long as I could keep subscribers. I would use that power for good and to make the world a better place. Lead by example and that light will spread to others on the network.

What one feature would I add? A pop-up notification that, before you post a comment or reply, asks you if you really want to send what you typed out. Those additional few seconds or even minutes of consideration may provide enough time for you to give additional thought to the nature of your post.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

As a child, my mother always reminded me: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” We are a blessed people right now, compared to previous periods of history. That we have an opportunity to connect with others we don’t know, may have never met, or only met once, is quite incredible when you think about it. With the breadth of technology, we have the power to influence others regardless of geographic location. It’s an opportunity for the average person to shine their light on others. And that starts with conversations and setting examples through posts, comments or reactions to negativity. Let’s spread dignity, kindness, thoughtfulness and respect.

We are blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I would love to meet with Peggy Noonan, former presidential speechwriter and current columnist for The Wall Street Journal. I’ve read her column for more than a decade; it’s the first piece I turn to when I open up the weekend edition. I appreciate her thoughtfulness and the unique expressions of her observations, beliefs and principles.

In a recent column, Peggy shared a piece by Edith Wharton, Pulitzer Prize winner, on the need for more politeness in American culture and one of her quotes fits perfectly on this subject: “There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

How can our readers follow you on social media?

They can follow me on LinkedIn and Twitter. You can also keep up with Bozell on Instagram.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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