Smear tactics will discredit perpetrator, not reputation of target

July 7, 2011 § 1 Comment

“Swift justice demands more than just swiftness.”

When U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart penned those words from the bench in 1958, there wasn’t much chance he could have envisioned how quick “swift” could be 53 years later. Nor could he have imagined that swiftness — not necessarily in a legal sense, but in one every bit as important: Reputation.

The fact is, throughout history, it has always behooved people to rectify misconceptions or misrepresentations of their character or reputation as quickly as the message spreads. The longer a falsehood permeates the public discourse — even if the truth eventually comes out — the more likely the false perception will stick. Better to stamp out the rumors as soon as possible than wait for the vindication that comes when a charge, as ridiculous as it may be, dies of its own weight.

While critics may fault Social Media (or at least its misappropriated use) for the rapid ruination of reputations, the flip side is that the same speed and swiftness not only can clear one’s name more effectively, but also affords the opportunity to expose — and discredit — the smear artists.

A great example from about a week ago involved conservative radio and television commentator Glenn Beck. He took his family to a popular New York City outdoor movie series in Bryant Park. Sitting behind him were some people who apparently wear their liberalism on their sleeves and found Beck’s presence distasteful. After an instance of alleged taunting subsided, one of the antagonists, Lindsey Piscitell, “accidentally” spilled a glass of wine on Beck’s wife, Tanya.

The incident precipitated a media uproar. Beck had his megaphone while Ms. Piscitell had hers in the mainstream media, including what seemed to be a very rational, detailed description of what happened in a letter she wrote to New York Magazine. All very innocent, you understand. No harm intended. Just a peaceful pack of clumsy girls.

Perhaps, in the old days (five, 10 years ago?) this would have ended it. Not today.

In some online gum-shoeing, Beck (or his people) discovered tweets from Ms. Piscitell that sought ideas from her friends on how to aggravate the Becks. One reply suggested “kicking” or “spilling wine” on him. They also found corroborating evidence from the Twitter account of one of Ms. Piscitell’s friends. So much for “peaceful” and “unintentional” — and that only scratches the surface of the evidence uncovered.

Suddenly, a wannabe activist celebrating her 15 minutes was discredited as a liar. The whole event is masterfully retold here by Scott Baker at TheBlaze.com.

One of many smoking guns. 

Lessons learned? It’s bad enough to be uncivil, but if you want to create and spread mischief, think twice. Online “fingerprints” have a longevity and an even longer trail that a determined, aggrieved party certainly will find. Maybe DNA is a better description. There are screen captures and Google caches, for example, that preserve messages, despite deletions. Then there’s evidence from accounts on the receiving end. Cleaning up one’s own table is one thing, but wiping up after others may prove too arduous.

Even though speed of communication is considerably faster today, permanence still exists, whether it’s a broadside or a tweet. Then justice will be served to those who instigate misconduct as their reputations take a hit. Swiftly.

- Stephen J. Rossie

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