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Social Media Blackmail | Dealing with Old-Fashioned Shakedowns

Social Media Blackmail Shakedowns

Image Credit: 20th Century Fox

Michael Avenatti, Stormy Daniels' former attorney, exemplifies the dangers stemming from express or explicit threats of public disclosure and publicity against an adversary unless the threat maker is compensated. Avenatti, facing three separate federal indictments, including one involving Nike, might well become the 2019 poster child for defining the line between settlement negotiations and extortion.

The facts, delineated in The National Law Review's April 1, 2019 article "Extortion vs. Settlement Negotiations" read like a John Grisham novel.

"In a federal court complaint filed in the Southern District of New York, the government accuses Avenatti of extortion by threatening to publicly release, through a press conference and otherwise, damaging information about the misconduct of Nike employees unless Nike made multimillion-dollar payments to Avenatti and a significant payment to his client.

According to the complaint, he demanded that the monies be paid quickly, and announced a press conference on his Twitter feed at which time he would expose Nike. Among even more colorful and profane language, according to the complaint, Avenatti allegedly stated, 'I'll go and I'll go take 10 billion dollars off your client's market cap... I'm not [bleeping] around.'"

One of the alleged extortion methods was an unsolicited offer that Avenatti and an unnamed co-conspirator would conduct an "internal investigation" for which Avenatti and his co-conspirator would be paid $15 to 25 million. If the demands were met, he promised confidentiality and that his client would 'ride off into the sunset.' Federal prosecutors called this conduct "an old-fashioned shakedown."

"An old-fashioned shakedown" - those are interesting words.

"Massive digital misinformation is becoming pervasive in online social media to the extent that it has been listed by the World Economic Forum (WEF) as one of the main threats to our society."

While Avenatti's alleged extortion is headline worthy, businesses and professionals throughout the United States regularly face shakedown tactics that might border on blackmail. They may not be threatened with losing billions in market caps, but they are threatened with economic loss.

So, how does media blackmail work? An interesting blog post titled "This is Social Media Blackmail" makes some interesting points. The blog distills the threat to its essence: "Give me what I want, or I'll give you a bad review or write a negative blog post about you." The essential threat is that if the concessions or special treatment are not accorded, the threat maker will lash out via social networks.

Businesses and professionals have a variety of ways to respond to bully efforts against them. Author Adam Toporek observes:

"Two good options here ... 1) ignore it, simply don't respond to the threat and stay focused on problem solving or 2) address the threat in a way that you can turn for the positive."

Some experts advise that if "the complaint is vile, do not lower yourself to the same level and use name calling and a derisive tone. If necessary, just agree to disagree." We are all human beings; we are fallible. At times criticism is well deserved and other times not.

Poet John Lydgate, sums it up well:

"You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can't please all of the people all of the time."

Social media is ubiquitous, as is the reality that you can't please all of the people all of the time. Some of the people who aren't pleased will use scathing reviews attached to every available public forum to express their displeasure. For those of us who regularly access social media reviews, it is important that our judgment not be suspended. Such reviews might be like political campaigns - full of charges and counter-charges.

In the end, whether the reviews be positive or negative, discernment is essential. Discernment "is the ability to judge well." In the words of Proverbs 18:15,

"The heart of the discerning acquires knowledge, for the ears of the wise seek it out."

Social media is getting a lot of attention these days. Part of this attention is Pope Francis' foray into its benefits and burdens. His comments are a worthy close to this commentary.

"All people of goodwill see great potential in social media when the 'net' and 'networks' bring people together, help them share useful information and educate one another..."

But, the pope wrote, people's "social web identity is too often based on opposition to the other, the person outside the group: We define ourselves starting with what divides us rather than with what unites us, giving rise to suspicion and to the venting of every kind of prejudice -- ethnic, sexual, religious and other."

That's good advice - social media at its best is the sharing of useful information to educate one another. At its worst it is "the venting of every kind of prejudice ..."

Those of us active in social media should hope for the wisdom to know the difference.

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