Monday, May 17, 2010

Virtual Witch Burning

Is it just me or is there a lot more mean-spiritedness going around the internet than usual?  I'm beginning to suspect that the media isn't doing us any favors by opening up news articles for comments. It seems like it is attracting a crowd of angry people who, for whatever reason, want to see someone punished--the reason is almost immaterial. They simply want to wave their pitch forks and set fire to something with their torches.

This is the story  that sparked this train of thought. It's a tragic situation and not all the facts have come to light yet, but this family lives in a duplex and it appears that law enforcement had the wrong apartment. What's worse, it was clear from the toys in the yard that there were children on the premises, and they issued a no-knock warrant anyway--which meant throwing a flash grenade in through a window near a sleeping child at twelve thirty at night. Then with a house filled with smoke, they burst in through the front door carrying guns. One thing led to another (law enforcement's story keeps changing, the most recent being that the grandmother might not have so much struggled with the cop as collided with him) and the sleeping child was accidentally killed in the process. What a night mare for both the family and the cop welding the gun.

But my thoughts this morning don't rest so much on this terrible event as they do on the public's response. The nasty, hate-filled comments from people rattled me a little, if you want the truth. I saw the statement, "So what? They got the guy. She was just collateral damage." more than once. There were racist slurs and people pointing out that the family lived in the inner city and only drug addicts and prostitutes live there so consequently they are all drug addicts and prostitutes and deserve whatever they get. (By the way, they don't live in the inner city, but the facts aren't nearly as important as the crowd's anger is).  Checking back a day later, I find that the thread of comments had continued to disintegrate as the crowd whipped itself into even more of furious lather as people who clearly don't know how to read for content put their own spin on the facts. Then the people who don't read the articles, but the comments, take it as the truth and begin demanding blood--the grandmother's, the criminal's, the parents of the child, even the cop's.  

 And I've seen it everywhere. When Arizona announced that they planned to give law enforcement permission to stop Hispanic people on suspicion that they might be illegal aliens protesters emerged from every quadrant. But on the internet a crowd appeared in every comments' section  screaming profanity and telling the "Wet backs to go home!" and "You're ruining our country!" and so on.  My "favorite" one had to be the crowd that stated that we should send all Hispanic immigrants (even the legal ones) back where they came from. Anyone that disagreed with them, no matter how civilly, was dog-piled and shouted down, called all kinds of foul things and told that they should just pack up and go live in Mexico if they love the Mexicans so much.

Then, in a related story, then when the twenty-one year old Hispanic college student in Georgia was stopped and it was discovered that she'd been an illegal alien since she was ten, it got worse. I read comments like "She should spend the rest of her life in prison for stealing from us" or how she should be put in front of a firing squad and made an example of to teach all illegals to stay out. The more "tolerant" said she should have turned herself in at eighteen. Others said she should have returned to Mexico the minute she knew she was here illegally. It didn't matter that her expired passport (probably the one that got her here as a kid) would have stopped her at the border and sent her to jail anyway, or that once she'd been declared illegal she'd never be allowed to come back here again, much less see her family (and, assuming her parents still aren't legal, they would be sent back too--leaving behind her siblings who were born here).  And when the authorities decided to let her stay long enough to finish her degree before deporting her, the comments grew angrier.

If these comments were in the minority, I'd be able to blow them off to it the standard number of racist hot heads you find in every crowd. But it was better than half of them. And, the thing is, it doesn't even take something controversial to trigger it either. In local news, I read about a woman who "collects" animals violating her probation and collecting more of them, within a matter of two months of the court's decision. It is obvious (to me at any rate) that this is a mentally ill person (her mug shot kind of says it all) who should be in a supervised living situation, at the very least, and not left to the care of her family who even help her by bringing her more animals (some serious enabling in action). But the comments this article produced? People want to see her in prison for the rest of her life, want her to suffer the way the animals she abused did, and so on.

I know that the internet allows us the luxury of probably too much anonymity. And I know that people will say things online that they would never say in real life.  But it concerns me.  Is this what's lurking behind people's eyes these days?  Or is just this the equivalent of virtual road rage? Perhaps some anger management classes are in order?

Or perhaps we should all just take a chill pill before posting anything. Use the power we've been given to voice well-balanced, compassionate thoughts. And when we can't think of anything nice to say practice the age old adage of saying nothing at all.


Debby said...

Mary, I have to say, I feel the same way. I have quit reading the comments at all after reading comments on the Chinese mine collapse (all 100+ people were rescued). People were commenting on the fact that this was one way to control the population. Just made me sick. Yeah. I don't read the comments anymore, and I wish that they didn't have allow comments on news stories. It just gives a stage for the stupid people among us.

Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

I do support stricter enforcement of immigration laws, and I do support law enforcement being able to carry out a warrant. Obviously something went wrong with the arrest process and a CHILD was killed... that's all we really know right now.

The story of the young woman at the college, however, provokes much less sympathy. She was driving without a license. Think I could get away with that? She gave officers the wrong address initially. She was in fact here illegally. There consulates and embassies and that sort of thing that help their citizens with problems like the expired passport.

I am also bothered by these stupid comments on news stories. I think often, though, that these are trolls looking to stir up trouble and say provocative things for fun. Just the spelling alone on these comments tells you they're not serious.

Scotty said...

I often despair for us as a species; it seems the stories of mean-spiritedness, discrimination, self-centeredness, the baying for blood, etc seem to outweigh any good stories by a disproportionate factor.

Dennis Bryant said...

I don't know if society as a whole is more mean spirited or if we're just able to see the ugly side of people more readily via the miracle(ahem)of the internet. I think what worries me the most about the loss of civility is that it has become almost impossible to have a reasoned discussion about issues that are important. Sadly it is easier to, "flame," in anonymity than to engage in the arena of ideas. I don't think this bodes well for society.

Bandersnatchi said...

Well said, mary.
Based on your report and my limited experience of these online comments (I don't follow news articles) my best explanation for the stupid behaviour, if that is what it is, is that half the population are below average intelligence. The level of competence with language is a reasonable indication of the intelligence, education of the poster, other things being equal. The sort of abbreviated language, "ur 2 gud 4 me" lets people into the conversation that have no business in a serious conversation in the first place. If that sounds snobbish, I am merely saying that being informed should precede complaining and logically, if you can't read well, you can't inform yourself. The result is knee jerk reactions and ill-formed reactions to half-understood reports.

Oh well, the price of unfettered social networking.

Mary O. Paddock said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Mary O. Paddock said...

It looks like it's letting me post comments again.

Debby--I've stopped reading comments as well--after this particular series of articles. It's a waste of time and energy.

Mrs C--I can appreciate your feelings on all counts. Frighteningly, I think those people with the bad spelling are often serious.

Scotty--Me too. It's pretty clear to me that too many humans revert to their worst selves when placed in a panicked crowd.

Dennis--I agree. See my comment to Scotty above. The internet can be such a good thing when it works the way it's supposed to and for good reasons--bringing people of like minds together. It's just that it so often doesn't.

Geoff--That really didn't sound too snotty. And I hadn't thought about it quite like that--as in providing ill-informed people with access to conversations they aren't equipped to contribute to (because they don't really car as much about the truth as they do the excitement).