6 Ways to Survive an ‘Internet Drubbing’

    by Dan Reimold
    June 5, 2013
    Image courtesy of TMAB2003 of Flickr.

    In February 2012, Lisa Khoury met the Internet. Foregoing a handshake, the meeting began with the digital equivalent of a slap across the face.

    As a sophomore at the University of Buffalo and at the start of only her second semester practicing journalism, Khoury wrote a column for The Spectrum student newspaper expressing her distaste for tattoos.

    "While you may not always be able to digitally mimic a print package, it is essential to still provide the bigger picture or missing links to ensure nothing is misunderstood."

    Her sentiments went dizzyingly, nastily viral. In return for immense page views, Khoury suffered withering public and private attacks from strangers worldwide. They belittled every bit of her — “personality, looks, upbringing, position on gender roles and morals.”


    The moral of the story, as Spectrum editor-in-chief Matthew Parrino wrote at the time: “Beware of what you write. It can destroy you.”

    In their first interviews since the viral dust has settled, Khoury and Parrino discussed the run-up, blow-up, aftermath and upshot of what American Journalism Review dubbed an “Internet Drubbing.”

    Their actions at the time, and their more recent reflections, form a journalistic playbook of sorts for how to handle what Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman and others call viral hate.


    Bumper Sticker on a Ferrari

    The crisis began with a bumper sticker on a Ferrari.

    Lisa Khoury, The Spectrum, University of Buffalo

    Lisa Khoury, The Spectrum, University of Buffalo

    Inspired by a spirited debate during a Spectrum editorial meeting, Khoury agreed to produce one part of a point-counterpoint for the paper on the relative merits of body ink in modern times.

    The main point of Khoury’s column: Women are beautiful without permanent body markings. She compared a tattoo on a woman to a “bumper sticker on a Ferrari,” a line she once heard on TV that scored big laughs when she repeated it in the newsroom.

    “An elegant woman does not vandalize the temple she has been blessed with as her body,” she wrote. “She appreciates it. She flaunts it. She’s not happy with it? She goes to the gym. She dresses it up in lavish, fun, trendy clothes, enjoying trips to the mall with her girlfriends … She enjoys the finer things in life, all with the body she was blessed with. But marking it up with ink.  That’s just not necessary.”

    In response, readers worldwide pounced, a majority condemning Khoury and her perspectives. Chicago Tribune op-ed columnist Eric Zorn labeled the pile-on nothing less than a veritable “Ink Stink.” The “tattoo community” reacted most harshly — cutting into Khoury with invectives that left her “flamed, blasted and just about driven out of school on a rail.”

    The headline of a post from one angry tattooed blogger: “Hey Lisa Khoury, you’re what’s wrong with this world.”

    As Khoury wrote in response soon after her column appeared online, “I woke up today and had 938 hate mails, 646 nasty Facebook comments, and dozens of mean-spirited tweets. I’m a 19-year-old college sophomore, I help run my family’s restaurant, I’m a writer and editor at my school’s newspaper, and a woman from Australia says I’m ‘sexist.’ A professor from the University of Illinois wonders about my mental stability. A man double my age is calling me ‘ugly.’ In the past 48 hours, authors, war veterans, mothers of small children have told me I’m ignorant, worthless, brainwashed, classless, disgusting, hypocritical, and judgmental.”

    She called the experience, simply, “The Day I Met the Internet.”

    In their recounting of that meeting roughly a year later, Khoury and Parrino said they learned six main lessons from the viral hate they faced and the steps they took to cope with and counter it.

    1. Context is key

    In print, Khoury’s anti-tattoo column ran directly alongside a pro-tattoo piece by another Spectrum staffer –- part of the paper’s occasional point-counterpoint series. By contrast, online, at first, her article appeared on its own.

    Parrino said it was a significant divergence. He quickly noticed that while online anger at Khoury was boiling over, no regular Spectrum readers or members of the UB community who saw the print version submitted a complaint.

    What was the difference between the two camps? Online, readers saw only one side of the argument.

    “I think the biggest mistake I made was putting it online without any type of context, leaving somebody to think this was just something someone wrote independently of anything else,” Parrino said. “When you do a point-counterpoint piece, you tend to write more aggressively, because you’re trying to win an argument.”

    Parrino realized that while you may not always be able to digitally mimic a print package, it is essential to still provide the bigger picture or missing links to ensure the same context is present. And he also recognized the presence of this context must be prominent and immediate.

    He learned the latter lesson through two initial failures. First, trying to halt the hate parade, he posted a brief explainer beneath Khoury’s write-up, in the comments section. But it was understandably overlooked and then quickly buried beneath hundreds of angry reader comments.

    Separately, five days after the online outrage began, editors inserted a link atop the article directing readers to also check out the counterpoint. It was too little, too late. By then, the stench of “ink stink” was overpowering.

    2. Don’t drown in the hate

    After her column went viral, Khoury did not immediately grasp the scope or ferocity of the attacks directed at her -– but she did try to take them all in. She regrets that now.

    Initially, Khoury said she read almost every email and comment, including the most venomous replies. The read-through had some benefits. It enabled her to grasp the gist of critics’ views and spot some positive and more constructive feedback.

    But it also led, predictably, to temporary sadness and a fractured soul. As she wrote at the time, “All this hate has shaken me.”

    She is not alone. Khoury recalled a campus visit by New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks. “He told us he never reads his hate mail because he gets so upset,” she said. “He said it’s unbearable. So even people at The New York Times get emotionally affected. We’re human. It’s normal. But you can’t do that to yourself. You can’t read all of them. Do not get hung up on the hate mail.”

    3. Respond — don’t retaliate

    Throughout the viral ordeal, Khoury purposefully avoided sending ornery emails to her attackers. She also stopped her family from sending similarly mean messages on her behalf –- a difficult undertaking at the height of the madness.

    She does not believe in an eye for an eye. She also did not want to give her haters the satisfaction of seeing her unraveled. But mostly, she recognized the ultimate worthlessness of individual retorts to a digital mob.

    “These people’s minds were already made up,” Khoury said. “I’m not going to alter their views by emailing them back. Some of their emails were also just disgusting. If someone could email someone saying these things, there’s nothing I could say in return. If anything, it would just fuel the fire more.”

    Screenshot of The Spectrum, the University of Buffalo's student newspaper.

    Screenshot of The Spectrum, the University of Buffalo’s student newspaper.

    Instead, she focused all her energy on a single, fully formed follow-up in the Spectrum.

    “I wanted people to see I am a professional,” she said, explaining her thinking at the time. “I’m a serious student journalist. And I’m going to write one piece that blows everyone away.”

    Khoury’s public response, produced quickly, also ensured her perspectives were inserted into the larger narrative of the controversy while it was still at its height. And it presented her with a measure of control. While she could never quell the masses, one by one, she could write from the heart -– and then gracefully exit the stage.

    In respect to the latter, the response was as much for her as it was for readers.

    “After that night, when it was published at two in the morning, I laid down in my bed and I could finally sleep,” she said. “I felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders, because for the past three or four nights I was just crying and not sleeping. I felt like it was over. Anything after that, anything anyone said about me or to me, I didn’t care. It didn’t hurt me. I accepted it.”

    4. Chart a positive course

    That acceptance soon led to excitement. Pushing aside the hate, Khoury saw massive web traffic, passionate responses, and a fascinating debate –- all of which she triggered.

    “When my tattoo column went viral, I felt this crazy amount of power,” she said. “I think any journalist wants this to happen to them to a certain extent. You want to get your name, your voice, out there … I had a revelation: What if I could start a dialogue and evoke emotion out of that many people, but for a positive cause?”

    More than a year later, she transformed her revelation into action. This past March, the Spectrum published “The Heights of Fear,” a special investigation by Khoury exploring the University of Buffalo’s lack of supervision for students living off-campus. One larger question her buzzworthy report broached: Do schools have a moral or legal liability to protect students living in areas close to campus known for being especially unsafe?

    “’The Heights of Fear’ may have not changed the world,” said Khoury, who was recently named managing editor of the Spectrum. “But so many people around Western New York now know how many students are scared or suffering in their own homes.”

    She said others have told her it is the piece that will land her jobs and be a talking point for years to come in interviews — a “clip for life.”

    While the report may never eclipse her “bumper sticker” on Google, it was inspired by it.

    As Khoury confirmed, “My tattoo column lit this fire in me that I can’t put out. I want my job to be parallel with being a good person, and I can’t imagine practicing a more fulfilling and necessary job than journalism.”

    5. Don’t fully retreat

    A review of the public reactions to Khoury’s column –- the comments, blog posts, and quotes in related news stories –- shows some of the fiercest feedback was valid. Other replies bordered on insensitive. And some comebacks were simply out of line.

    As Khoury shared about the latter, “My inbox was flooded with dozens of men and women who called me a dumb bitch, and one man only sent me two words: ‘stupid cow.’ These people I have never met attacked my family and how I was raised. They accused me of trying to play God, and one woman even told me I reminded her of Hitler during the Holocaust.”

    In separate write-ups, Khoury, Parrino, and Managing Editor Edward Benoit decided to call out these more offensive and off-kilter responses.

    Parrino and Khoury said they understood it would have been easier to simply say “I’m sorry” and pull back. But they saw the more bizarre and intense animosity as an opening to larger conversations about tolerance and the limits of Internet expression. To them, the conversations were extensions of their larger journalistic mission with the Spectrum.

    As Parrino’s Twitter profile currently reads, “Being a part of the conversation is what it’s all about. Take advantage of it.”

    “I’m not going to lie,” said Khoury. “I contemplated, at first, writing ‘I’m so sorry’ and being all sappy. But nowadays, if you don’t have the accepted opinion in society, you’re the close-minded one. That’s not fair. I wanted justice to be served. Why is it unacceptable for someone to think a certain way? I mean, we’re supposed to be tolerant of all different views, right? That’s the thing these days -– tolerance, open-mindedness. And I think there’s a two-way street to that. So I said that.”

    6. Keep the billions at the back of your mind

    From “The Heights of Fear” to the lows of “Ink Stink,” one last resonating lesson for Khoury: Recognize how fast and wide everything you produce online can spread -– and the untargeted audiences it can tap.

    “I don’t know if college commentaries have a place in the outside Internet world,” said Parrino, who currently serves as sports editor of Tonawanda News in upstate New York. “I love college journalism. It was the best couple years of my life. You’re never able to be more free or learn as much. It’s OK to push the envelope in that ultimate goal of learning, but there’s a different conversation going on in college than outside the walls. When you take that conversation off campus and put it out there for the whole world to see, you’re going to run into a lot of situations where people misinterpret and take offense.”

    An anonymous commenter beneath Khoury’s response column put it most candidly, if insultingly, “Wake up, idiot -– its the 21st century! Big brother is watching! Your stupid, uninformed, lame article isn’t just for the consumption of your fellow college students anymore –- it’s being consumed by BILLIONS OF PEOPLE!!!!!”

    Or as Khoury reflected more gently about the experience, “We need to all be more prepared with how we put journalism out there. We have a larger audience now –- whether we like it or not.”

    Dan Reimold is an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Tampa. He writes and presents frequently on the campus press and maintains the student journalism industry blog College Media Matters, affiliated with the Associated Collegiate Press. His textbook Journalism of Ideas: Brainstorming, Developing, and Selling Stories in the Digital Age was published in April by Routledge.

    Tagged: college media internet drubbing lisa khoury tattoos the spectrum trolls university of buffalo

    41 responses to “6 Ways to Survive an ‘Internet Drubbing’”

    1. William Read says:

      Only cows get branded GO LISAAAA

    2. Lisa says:

      Impressive young woman. I wish her the best.

    3. thinkoutsidethefox says:

      Some people just can’t handle the truth. I’m glad she had the courage to write the truth even though it offended several ugly people that think everyone should mark up their body and be just as ugly as they are. The girl was right. Tats are just plain trashy.

    4. mrmiyagi says:

      Or maybe a better idea would be to learn the seemingly lost art of non-biased journalism and stay away from meaningless “point/counterpoint” drivel. If she wants to be taken seriously as a professional journalism she needs to understand the finer points of objectivity.

      • BlueSkyLA says:

        Editorials are a respected form of journalism, or at least they were at one time. The issue being illustrated here is that our culture has gone so tribal that it has become acceptable to belittle, insult and even threaten people who are simply expressing opinions. The internet has enabled the summoning of a tribe on any given subject for a hate bombing campaign against the speaker. The fact that this entire “controversy” was about nothing more significant than tattoos should tell us that the problem isn’t with journalism, it’s with people, and their growing lack of tolerance for the views of others.

      • Katy says:

        “Lost art of non-biased journalism”? One of the very first newspapers in our country was created – underground & in fear – during the Colonial period with the goal of having a publication different than those heavily influenced by the government (The New England Courant, printed by James Franklin, Ben’s big brother). As the above article points out, “Nowadays, if you don’t have the accepted opinion in society, you’re the close-minded one.” Case in point.

    5. Izzy says:

      Glad to know she’s doing well and had a positive outcome from this ordeal. I wish you the best in your career. Don’t be afraid to voice your opinions.

    6. Junebug says:

      Those who tattoo resist the inevitability of change. They try to achieve permanence in some part of their bodily existence.

    7. Big Beat says:

      This is also the result of publishing opinion vs fact based reporting on an issue. Anytime someone publishes an opinion, others are going to post theirs. A real journalist focuses non publishing facts and letting the readers form their own opinions. Something I don’t think is even taught in publishing schools today.

      • BlueSkyLA says:

        It was an editorial and published as such. You can argue the value of editorials, but can you seriously argue that they aren’t journalism? They have been a big part of newspaper writing for centuries.

      • Katy says:

        Exactly, BlueSkyLA. Editorials, and personal journalism, have been considered by some for nearly 200 years to be the most vital part of the country’s greater papers, and on-line sources. Since the early 1800s, editorials have played a great influence in shaping and directing public opinion, and demonstrates how American journalism is relatively free from political control.

    8. McHunt says:

      Girl writes opinionated article, gets insulted. Why is this news worthy?

    9. Kenny Chaffin says:

      Excellent! I’m proud of her!

    10. Cindy K. says:

      I read this with much interest because I am also a writer and once considered – and ultimately decided against – writing a column for a small town paper I worked for about my intense dislike of tattoos. I knew it wouldn’t go over well, and thanks to your column I now know just how much! Mostly, though, I am appreciative of this column explaining the lessons learned, they are lessons for all writers in the digital age. I heard a celebrity recently say she never reads about herself on the internet and I wondered if that is standard for most people ‘putting themselves out there,’ whether actors, writers or anyone else. The world is waiting to pounce.

    11. Irene says:

      It is so sad that we have lost the ability to disagree with respect and by presenting valid opposing arguments. The point is not whether or not you agree with what Lisa wrote. But that personal attacks on anyone because of their expressed views is counterproductive and small-minded. We should all be engaged in vigorous debates about everything around us, but name-calling only serves to divide us and bring our whole society down.

      • Philbert De Zwart says:

        I really think that in general, people have not lost this ability. I personally always take care to consider how my words will arrive at the human being on the other side.
        It’s just that the people who have lost this ability are much more vocal and can distribute their bile at the click of a button. They don’t realise and/or care that there is a human being at the other end, and probably immediately go on with their lives with this annoyance off their chest.

    12. Cynthia Parkhill says:

      These are valid suggestions for the individual who is targeted by harassment and cyber-bullying, but I hope “The Spectrum” examines the role of its comment platform in creating a hostile environment.

      I examined both the initial piece and Khoury’s follow-up commentary. While people who chose to comment through Facebook had their comments tied to a known account, those who left comments directly through the site were able to do so anonymously.

      Bill Keller wrote recently in “The Bullying Pulpit,” his piece for the New York Times, that anonymity is license to be vicious.

      Speaking from first-hand observation of the “Topix” comment platform, a determined user can rapidly inflict as much damage as possible. As rapidly as viewers flag an abusive post for removal by a moderator, the user can reinsert the allegations across multiple threads of dialogue.

      Since the user doesn’t have to leave a name, there is no accountability requiring the user to back his or her allegations with facts.

      Comment platform hosts can send a powerful message that cyber-abuse will not be tolerated by insisting that all comments must be tied to an identified account. The host can then actively block abusive users from being able to persist in online bullying.

      • OneWhoKnows says:

        Anonymity is important to some people. People who aren’t abusing the system. People who need to remain anonymous, in order to protect themselves from bullying. In order to protect some people we expose others. I would rather have the ability to be anonymous, when needed, than to be forced to use my real name and subject those around me to public ridicule.

        • Alex Humphrey says:

          While you’re statements are true, they are invalid for the context: a college newspaper’s website. No one posting in the comments of that website (especially on an article about tattoos) needs annoninimity and the school shouldn’t feel obligated to provide it.

    13. Mike Copeland says:

      The great thing about this story is it illustrates how the internet and social media allows large numbers of people who are offended by a journalist to answer back. That wasn’t possible for most people in the bad old days. Granted this is a story about a huge fuss over a very silly subject. Still, it generated real passion in those it offended and gave them an outlet to express their passion. Journalist need to be prepared for this. They can no longer hide behind Sullivan vs New York Times and their control of meaningful access to the consumers of information. Now days, when a journalist stomps on somebody’s toes he/she should be prepared for someone to stomp back.

    14. blastedgoat says:

      I was more offended by the way she wrote about women in general. In her mind it seems fine for women to dye their hair, wear ridiculous high heels and be “lavish” with fine trips to the mall but that tattoos (are seemingly) only for men. Does she really believe that having any tattoo makes a woman less womanly or unattractive? Maybe if you are completely covered but seriously? Do we not live in 2013? I have several tattoos and I feel at home in my beautiful skin, so much more so than ladies who pack on make-up and accessories to hide THEIR true beauty. I think she is just young and made a mistake but I can still take issue with her ideas, that is the whole point of writing in the first place. She was silly to think she could basically classify a whole subculture as trashy or less feminine. Someone needed to call her out on how wrong that is. I thought we weren’t supposed to judge anyone but somehow “alternative” people are often immune to that.

      • Maggie Brown says:

        I was in the middle of typing my comment when this popped up. I agree completely. I don’t have a problem with her opinion, but the way she expressed it was extremely judgmental and closed-minded. Instead of getting a tattoo, join a gym? Please. Did it not occur to her that many women’s choices don’t revolve around making themselves look pleasurable to men?

      • me says:

        HOWEVER, She had a right to write the article without being called names, without being attacked by other people, without fear!!
        IF you wish to disagree with her that is YOUR right. Do so with RESPECT NOT by being an ignorant, disrespectful, nasty, horrible, (insert any and all insults you can think of here……) person!!!
        NO ONE DESERVES to be treated in that manner – not even YOU!!!

        • Brigid says:

          Relax. Take it easy. The two comments you just replied to were exactly the kind of respectful responses needed in online discussion. Why are you yelling at them? Why are you saying that ‘even’ THEY deserve respect? Respect is exactly what they’re showing. Jesus.

      • Philbert De Zwart says:

        The big difference is that you take care to compose a coherent objection to the contents of her piece without calling her a dumb b*tch.
        I don’t think she minds objections to her work when done respectfully.

    15. Charlie Horse says:

      “Professional.” “Student journalist.” Pick one and only one. Anyway, she got precisely what she deserved. Can’t handle the consequences of your stupid opinion? Then don’t shout it through a megaphone.

      • Philbert De Zwart says:

        She is a student journalist who aspires to be a professional one. Therefore she tries to act professionally.

        This article is about how she _has_ handled the consequences, and attempts to help future victims of internet rage.

    16. Edith Carolyn Kuechen says:

      If you were not afraid to write

      you should not be scared of negativity as feedback.

      Within the past week, during the times
      when most people & children are off from work & school
      in the late afternoon, I myself witnessed
      with my very own eyes on my journeys around

      the city where I have been living since I was born

      the majority of the people

      with a lot of skin showing sported tattoos, yes.

      Good luck with your endeavours :)

    17. guest says:

      what a retard

    18. guest says:

      Step 7: Go back to 1950. You’ll love the social stature of women and stance on tattoos.

    19. NURREDIN says:

      If you are a Jew,Christian,or Muslim,tattoos are forbidden by whatever “Holy” book you ascribe to.Other than the fact they make you unemployable except for the most menial of jobs,by all means get a tattoo and let the world know you want to be doomed to mediocrity forever.

      • Willis says:

        So your saying that my job as a Chief Engineer on a research vessel making $150,000 a year is menial? I’m tattooed as are some of my shipmates and I can assure you none of us are “doomed to mediocrity”.

      • Hilah Parrot says:

        I wasn’t aware that my times working as a trail builder, in a rehab clinic, as a Girl Scout Leader and in my future as a social worker were all mediocre.

        • Norbert Tao says:

          There are jobs out there that you cannot get if you look like a captain in a shipwreck.

          • Hilah Parrot says:

            Then I guess it is a good thing I don’t. Unless you have your entire face tattooed, pretty much every industry still has a job for you. Also any where close minded enough to not hire me for my tattoos is the kind of place I would be miserable working.

    20. John says:

      I’m not anti-tattoo or the people who get them, I just don’t think most of them look that good to me. They simply don’t appeal to “me.” I agree with the notion that someone can be beautiful without makeup, hair dye, hair removal, or any of that.

    21. J. V. Anderson says:

      I personally disagree whole-heartedly with just about everything that Lisa Khoury said in her initial article. I don’t believe in the policing of bodies she talks about nor the way she presents gender in her article. These notions are incredibly limiting because they deny the complexity of men and women and prescribe that only one way of presenting oneself is acceptable. If tattoos make people happy and if they are a way one can show their personal creative expression then I don’t see the problem. Lets let people make their own choices. Obviously, if you don’t like tattoos, don’t get them. Etc.

      That being said, Lisa Khoury should absolutely be allowed to express her feelings. I disagree with them, but in no way do I think she should be targeted by internet mobs. I’m interested in open discussion, not outright attacks on the person presenting an idea you dislike. What does this kind of “drubbing” really accomplish? Did it make her change her opinions? I doubt it.

      Come on, this is the internet. There will always be people who disagree with us and who we disagree with. Maybe we can try, just a little, to show some respect and get along.

      • Brio says:

        I wont argue on your whole idea on this matter. One does not have the right to limit or halter other people’s expression of themselves all the more that other people do not have the right to say these things against her. Yes, maybe they could react, but the way they reacted was inappropriate. For me, you just have to be mature enough and have respect for yourself and for others to know when to respond to what other people say to you.

        It’s just this little part here that i wanted to comment on,

        “What does this kind of “drubbing” really accomplish? Did it make her change her opinions? I doubt it.”

        I really agree that it wont change her opinions but beyond that, this “drubbing” accomplished to make her a better journalist, emotionally and professionally.

    22. Richard Friedman says:

      Everything gets old eventually, even tattoos. This topic is worthless, just sayin’

    23. Stephanie says:

      I disagree with her thoughts on tattooed women… but I would never attack her for her opinion. To each their own. She wasn’t saying that women who have tats are stupid, ugly, or worse… she just simply stated her opinion, which last I checked was called freedom of speech. I am glad she is smart and strong enough to ignore the hate and I hope she continues to empower women by speaking her thoughts. We don’t have to agree with her or like the point she is making… but she is certainly entitles to do so.

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