Social media kangaroo courts do more harm than good

When the social media lynch mobs have their way, nobody wins.

Monitoring social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter, is an important part of my job. The Fort Sask Informed group is a good avenue to find story ideas, as well as to gauge the community’s interest in various topics and issues. But it can also present a distorted view of people’s priorities (if we solely reported items based on social media interest, you’d see a lot more stories about stray cats and dogs).

The stories on today’s front page and last week’s page 3 were both prominently discussed on social media, and I want to take an opportunity to address both.

First, the library car featured in last week’s poll. This was an interesting story, as there’s no obligation for a local organization to “support local” if it doesn’t fit with their purposes. The library says nothing locally worked. Fair. On that note, I don’t believe the library buying a car in the first place is the most effective use of funds. I understand the vehicle serves multiple purposes but I would argue that much of that could be accomplished with staffers being compensated for using their personal cars. There are many ways to promote an organization in 2017.

This week, a story about Coun. Sheldon Bossert is on our front page. Some may question the placement of the story considering Bossert has dropped his lawsuit against the province for what he alleged was wrongful termination. To me, the story is newsworthy regardless if Bossert has dropped his lawsuit, because the allegations from Alberta Education do overlap with his role as a city councillor. The allegations from Alberta Education are disturbing, but the city says Bossert’s claimed expenses are valid. However, they’re not in a position to probe the allegations from Alberta Education. Something tells me this isn’t the last we’ve heard of this.

To get back on topic, a post about the lawsuit received a lot of comments on Facebook. From what I read, the comments mostly leaned towards supporting Bossert. I would reckon this is because Bossert has a lot of friends in town, maintains an active social media presence and is generally a nice guy.  More importantly, the comments were on Facebook, which  requires you to have a real name. The group is private, and likely doesn’t accept accounts with fake names or troll profile pictures (for those who are not Web 2.0 literate, a web troll is someone who makes comments online to specifically incite people and cause trouble).

Which brings me to Twitter. Twitter has proven to be extremely ineffective in monitoring troll/vitriolic/hateful accounts, and the trolls have embraced it with gusto. This week, a social media frenzy erupted after Rebel Media reporter Sheila Gunn Reid (who also happens to be a local resident) said she had been punched by a man at the Edmonton Women’s March on Jan. 21.

The story quickly took on a new life. The accused emerged on Twitter and said he actually punched Gunn Reid’s camera (which is irrelevant, considering that could still constitute an assault, or at the very least, damage to property or intimidation). There’s also the sad irony of a woman being targeted at a women’s rally, with no women coming to her defence.

But what’s more disturbing is how Gunn Reid, as well as the man who allegedly punched her (now identified as Dion Bews) both starting receiving death threats online. She for apparently crying wolf about the assault, he for apparently punching her. Rebel ‘commander’ Ezra Levant bizarrely escalated this witch hunt by registering a domain name in Dion Bews’ name and posting a $1,000 “bounty” on his head.

The problem with stirring the proverbial pot is it can lead to much more than trolling, into actual assaults, such as when American white nationalist Richard Spencer was punched in the face last  week (I am in no way condoning Spencer’s views or rhetoric, but I also don’t believe people should be punched in the face for their ideas, no matter how vile or unsavoury).

The fact that we live in a time where people  can so quickly go from defending a woman to threatening her accused assaulter with death should be deeply disconcerting to anyone who values an open, transparent society that encourages open dialogue and discussion.

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and this applies both in the situation of a councillor accused of wrongdoing or an activist accused of assault. The individuals using a megaphone online to accuse people of misbehaviour only manage to drown out the voices that matter.

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