It’s devastating to watch a community tear itself apart. But that’s what people who visited the Times Citizen’s Facebook page last week witnessed. Current and former residents, and people who’ve never lived here ripped into each other in the comments section of a post linking to a newspaper article about a planned Black Lives Matter protest.
Our news staff knew the subject was likely to be controversial here in rural Iowa. Recent protests demanding equality and justice for Black Americans have been a lightning rod for arguments since George Floyd died in the custody of four Minneapolis police officers on May 25.
But the ugliness that showed itself in the comments exceeded our most cynical expectations. Name-calling, threats, outright lies and misinformation were rampant among the nearly 500 comments the post has amassed in the last week. Our staff deleted the most egregious, but that didn’t prevent or fix the damage that was done.
Facebook can be a great tool for connecting us with others. High school classes use it to plan reunions, families track the growth of children, and news organizations are able to reach their community with headlines and vital information. But at what cost?
Social media, at its best, is an equalizer, giving voice to people who otherwise may never get a platform of that size. But when a comment section takes a turn, it can make an observer believe that the overriding theme of the comments is the general feeling of an entire community.
Our newspaper is left wondering what role we play in this equation. We look for ways to meet our community members and our readers where they are. For many years that’s been on social media – especially Facebook. We’ve used it as a tool to direct readers to our website to read our stories. We’ve crowdsourced stories there. We’ve announced disruptions in newspaper delivery or community announcements like a road closure. Those uses are benign. But the other things that happen there – to put it bluntly, the garbage – has to be confronted.
While our organization looks for ways beyond Facebook to reach our readers – because Facebook itself has made it clear it has no interest in improving the climate on its platform – you can count on us taking a harder line on the comments that are posted on our business page. Just as we wouldn’t allow a group of people to yell at a person on the street, we won’t allow a similar situation in the comments of a post. Racism, bigotry and other forms of discrimination have no place there.
We want Iowa Falls to be an inclusive community where different ideas are welcome – and can be expressed freely – but not in ways that hurt others. We know that most of our community didn’t participate in the vitriol of last week, but it takes all of us – including this newspaper and its staff – to step up and confront the loudest bullies. And that’s what we’re pledging to do.