Like most reporters, I love Twitter. Since joining in early 2009, I no longer send out my stories on long email lists. I just tweet a link. In 2010, when the Arab world was turning out to demonstrate against their dictators, I followed many of the revolutionaries by subscribing to their Twitter feeds. Many of my favorite rappers now use it. No more scanning the pages of Pitchfork for news about The Kid Daytona, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar I just follow their tweets.
But for all of Twitter’s benefits, there is also a downside. It has empowered cranks and haters. In the days before websites, a crank’s contact with a reporter was largely through the post office. We all know the type. An old guy who is just absolutely convinced the fluoride in the drinking water is part of some Soviet mind-control experiment must correct a story that ran on A7 of Saturday’s paper about the town aqueduct. This guy would bang out these concerns in an ALL CAPS type-written letter!!! or a clipping of the story, with his notes scrawled in the margins.
Today’s crank is using the same social media that was supposed to bring democracy to Egypt. Believe me, I have had my run-ins with them. There is a guy on Twitter whose avatar is a portrait of Thomas Jefferson. He is always asking me why I haven’t disclosed the role played by the Council on Foreign Relations in my stories. The best way to deal with the crank is to just ignore and move on.
This is not the best advice, however, for dealing with the hater. The crank is obsessed with an issue, while the hater is obsessed with a person. For some reason, I have attracted quite of few them. Haters on Twitter like to tell me that I am bald; that I am fat; that I look like an egg; that I am really a stealth agent for Israel or the Republic of Georgia; and that I am responsible for the murder of innocents in Iraq, Gaza, and Syria.
When I was new to Twitter, I made the mistake of engaging the haters on their own terms. I’m a clever guy. I can dish with the best of them. But this was a mistake. The hater is validated when the target responds in kind. It tells the hater they are making a difference. And since many haters conceal their identities, it’s never a fair fight. If I lose my cool, I could lose my job. Also the hater stands to benefit from my engagement. Everyone on Twitter knows that you sometimes follow the feeds of people who you can’t stand just to gather social intelligence. Why would I advertise a fellow hater to the Eli Lake haters who already follow me?
My next tactic was simply to block and ignore the hater. This is effective to a point, but haters will troll you whether you block them or not. Plus, I have to admit that I like knowing there are people who actively despise me.
So here is what works. Retweet the hater’s tweet, appending the phrase “I love your passion,” or some variation. This may seem counterintuitive. After all, the hater has just insulted you and you respond with a compliment. But “I love your passion” is no compliment at all. It’s what you hear from someone who is about to disappoint you. It’s what you hear when you don’t get the job.
For example, if you have just proposed that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation fund your museum tour and folk concert to raise awareness about the negative portrayal of Eskimos in the Canadian media, you will likely find the phrase baked into a polite rejection. “It is so refreshing to hear someone talk with your energy about the plight of Greenland’s Yupik population. We all love your passion. But right now the foundation is focused on more tangible projects that are closer to home.”
I was on the wrong end of “I love your passion” right out of college when I briefly worked in Democratic party politics. I was hired with no experience to be the field director for an ill-fated congressional campaign in Oklahoma. I was terrible at the job. At one point, I told a room full of volunteers that I was pleased to invite them to a campaign where we are all sons and daughters of the Cuban Revolution. Viva Fidel! No one got the joke but me. When the candidate’s brother finally delivered the bad news and fired me, he made sure to tell me how much he loved my passion.
I am now using the phrase myself on Twitter. It’s been so much fun that I am thinking of trying out other fake compliments in response to ad-hominem tweets. “Promise me you will never lose your energy.” “Thanks so much for your input.” “If you keep believing in you, I know I will.”
You should do this yourself the next time you are attacked on Twitter. And to any of my haters reading this who feel compelled to tell me that I am a Zionist, neocon egg man who feeds on the blood of the innocent, please know that I really do love your passion.