finan column

A Pleasantville High School student holds a sign during an April 20 walkout outside the school.

The internet is an amazing place where people go to hope and hope goes to die.

Pessimistic as that sounds, it seemed true as I refereed social media comments about an online story regarding students who left class Friday to protest gun violence in schools. That story appears on today’s front page.

I don’t love moderating social media. Many people post thoughtful comments, but just as many border on thoughtlessness. A good thought to begin with is found in the top corner of this page. It’s the First Amendment, which says, among other things, that Congress shouldn’t limit people’s rights to speak freely, assemble peaceably or publish a newspaper. Those points are pertinent.

Social media gives us ways to express ourselves that the Founding Fathers never imagined. Those guys didn’t see radio or TV coming, much less the internet.

All the same, they gave us rights, and rights come with responsibilities.

My local concerns seem dwarfed by the bigger picture, which Facebook addressed Tuesday when it updated its community standards. Facebook’s approach boils down to a simple truth: “People need to feel safe in order to build community.”

Technology enhances our ability to build community. While I love to see folks gathered for coffee around town, social media has become a global coffeeshop of sorts. Facebook has more than a billion users and employs more than 7,500 content moderators around the world. They don’t catch everything, however, and it can take them 24 hours to respond to offensive content.

We have similar standards and, for that matter, local skin in the game. For example, I not only know parents of students who peaceably assembled Friday, but I know that some of them disagree with their kids about how to respond to gun violence in schools.

The point, though, is what we say and how we say it. The “rights and responsibilities” argument calls to mind “just because we can doesn’t mean we should.”

Moments after that walkout article hit Facebook, one commenter called the students “sad little sheep.” Soon others were calling them “snowflakes,” a demeaning term that I initially allowed because I didn’t want anyone (myself included) to look like, well, a snowflake. Degrading things were said about these teenagers and their teachers.

Eventually, lines were crossed. Obscene names and words were hurled from both sides of the argument. Intervention was necessary. The options include hiding or deleting a comment or banning the commenter. I chose the least invasive. There’s a balance between fostering a safe place and limiting freedom of speech. People were invited to clean up their comments and re-post.

I couldn’t help but think about some folks who are new to our community. They come from Somalia and Ukraine and they’re learning English so they can express themselves better. They already appreciate their freedom of expression here.

For now, these newcomers speak in simple, mostly positive sentences. When they’re ready and able to voice their concerns, my hunch is that they’ll do so with great care.

I’ll end with a thought I’ve treasured since my own school days: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Of course, the internet nearly ruined that quote for me by questioning its source, but the wisdom remains. Let’s not only defend free speech, but honor it by using it responsibly.

Pat Finan is the managing editor of the Journal-Express. He can be reached in the newsroom at 641-842-2155 or via email at pfinan@journalexpress.net.

Recommended for you