Things have been a little crazy at the office lately, especially since the college I work at became part of national news trend pieces for a few days last week. It’s a situation that has continued to build tension on campus over the past month and, for me personally, as an employee and alum of the college, it’s been sad to see how much the negativity and anger that has arisen from the situation quickly became louder than voices looking to find solutions and make change.
Of course, just walking around you’re only mildly aware of the level of frustration people are feeling. Public demonstrations, posters, and signs from the many voices vying for attention have ebbed and flowed across different public spaces on and off campus, but nobody’s camped out on the quad in protest, and most classes and schedules have continued as usual.
But things are much different if you pay even a little attention to social media. One quick search for our school on Facebook, Twitter, or YikYak and you’ll see just about every opinion people have, often followed by flame war comments going back and forth about who’s more ignorant or why people want to see our president resign. You’ll see individuals sharing moving stories of their own experiences as targets of racism, marginalization, or violent speech. And you’ll find posts filled with passionate opinions, arguments, and links to all kinds of longer rants that all seem to be strongly for one thing or strongly against another thing.
Sadly, few of these are kind to the people they see as against them. In fact, several posts or comments have been messages of outright hate, and that has been the most disturbing part of this whole experience for me.
As a member of the college’s central communication staff, I’m always prepared to lend support to our social media manager and communication director when a crisis situation arises on campus. I have served as the interim social media manager for months at a time in the past, and I know how overwhelming it can be to monitor all the conversations that can explode on our accounts during events like this, especially when so much energy is already focused on helping the college respond and communicate clearly and effectively with our campus community, sharing updates on our website, in emails, and on Facebook.
But even as we provide the official voice of the college, we are also tasked with providing its eyes and ears; with so many voices wanting to be heard at once, you have to add more eyes and ears to keep track of it all. I lent mine to help out, monitoring and moderating comments on our Facebook pages, and it turns out that’s where a lot of the ugliness of social media was lurking.
We know social media is different. In its most idealized version, it is vox populi, open and free for any one to use anytime, and that is both its power and its burden. Just as these web platforms and apps allow previously filtered voices to be heard, the speed of the internet means all these feelings and frustrations spread a lot faster than ever before, making it easier for anger and misinformation to crowd out the helpful conversations. But the very tools that allow our campus to share thoughts within our community also invited literally anyone to share their opinions about what was happening on our campus even if it had nothing to do with them personally.
I suppose I wasn’t surprised, but more stunned and dismayed at how quickly and freely individuals used these incidents on our campus to justify sharing offensive messages of blatant racism, intolerance, ignorance, and downright stupidity. Comments often pushed their own agendas by linking racial incidents here with larger “threats” to their way of life, blaming everyone from heads of state and government officials to religious leaders and hip hop artists.
As moderators, we prefer to let people be heard, but there were still posts that crossed the line. Our policy has always been to delete and report Facebook content “that harasses, abuses, threatens, or in any other way violates the rights of others.” We had at least a dozen one morning that contained nothing but racial and sexual slurs, accusatory threats, and downright cruel attempts at jokes.
It didn’t even have to be our own social media channels—any news organization that published coverage of this story online and left room for comments from readers had no problem getting comments, and often they were misguided, annoyingly self-gratifying, or sometimes outright racist. Unfortunately those threads were beyond our control to moderate, and we could only hope that their owners were paying attention.
It’s times like these that can bring out the worst side of people who fear ideas contrary to their own. Some just love to spread hate, others seem to get off on the attention and sense of power or control over another person that being a comment troll gives them. There others who are probably have genuine mental issues, or just suffer from complete ignorance and a lot of time to spend reading about things they’re afraid of.
In one sense we’ve been lucky, though. Of the dozen or so comments that we might have to remove from our pages, none of them were direct threats of violence or specifically targeting individuals. None contained videos or photos depicting horrific acts. I don’t know how much of that we could have stomached even glancing at just to remove it.
There are some out there whose job is to remove the most darkly evil content from our feeds every day, and we should all be thankful that those moderators are there. They don’t have a happy job.
We’re also lucky that our community exists in a place—a country, a society—where the freedom to express outrage and fear are just as welcome and encouraged as the freedom to express joy and love and photos of our food.
Yet even amid the surreal protests and shouting matches among different groups on campus, all I can think is how much of it would probably have been prevented if parties on both sides had taken the time to actually listen to the other side first. Dialogue, organization, and clear communication on a broad scale would have made this a lot easier for all involved and ultimately made it easier for those who are upset to be heard.
I know it feels good to shout, and shouting gets you attention, but if shouting is all you do than the faster you’ll lose your voice. It’s time for speaking softly, face to face, eye to eye, heart to heart. Human to Human.
Once we start listening as much as we talk, the easier it becomes to moderate ourselves for the greater good.