Separate the rotten from the ripe

Community pages can do better to spread information, and not libel

  • Saturday, June 15, 2019 1:30am
  • Opinion

In the middle of May, while having a beer at a brewery in Tacoma with my husband and some friends, someone decided to break into the back of my car and steal my backpack.

Inside the backpack was my Bluetooth headphones, my e-reader, sunglasses, a check book, an iPod and my brand new work laptop. According to my insurance my items cost roughly $500 and the adjuster estimated the car damage at $1,300. It was not the greatest day.

It was the first time I had ever had my car broken into and have something so important stolen from me. Another couple came up to us and said their back window was also smashed open and their backpack was missing too. We called the police but were asked to file an online report and that we’d be contacted within a week (we never were).

I was so angry I went to every nearby business and asked about security cameras and I asked other brewery visitors if they saw anything. Then my husband and I drove around just in case we saw my backpack lying around. Our search was fruitless.

I could have stayed really angry, I could have blamed the homeless staying in the nearby shelter, or I could have gone on Nextdoor and raved about the crime in our neighborhood. Instead I took a breath, called the insurance, called my boss and decided to take it as it is.

This is all to say I understand where a lot of people are coming from when they call for people’s heads on community Facebook pages. But even being able to relate to another person’s anger doesn’t make me understand why we as a community have let the rotten parts take over our conversation.

This last week I was perusing a Renton crime / neighborhood watch Facebook page. As a reporter I try to look at these pages to see what the community is talking about, for story ideas. As an editor, I like to see if people are sharing our information with their neighbors and friends.

Among the police reports, missing pet posters and more was a series of photos of a young woman and her purse. Someone decided to take photos of this woman and suggest that she was likely up to no good. The poster wrote that the woman was walking around cars before going to the McDonald’s nearby with another woman.

Was anything stolen? No. Was anything busted or broken? No. Did any actual crime occur? Not according to the poster. But she was apparently suspicious, so did that made it alright to post her face all over social media without her consent? Definitely no.

There is one clear thing we can describe this type of post as, potentially libelous.

For those who didn’t spend four years in journalism school, I can explain this term for you easily.

Libel is when someone publishes a false statement that is “damaging to a person’s reputation, a written defamation,” as defined by Webster’s Dictionary. If someone recognized this woman, it could hurt her reputation. She probably has a job, she has family, she has friends. She deserves to live her life even if she’s walking around your neighborhood. By posting her photo and even suggesting she is up to criminal activity without any proof is libel.

“One cause of action that may arise from posting information on Facebook is a defamation of character claim. To prove defamation of character, the victim has to show that you made a statement that was published, it caused the victim injury and it was false and was not a privileged statement,” an article from HG.org, a legal resources website, states. “While many people may look at Facebook as a private medium to share information, Facebook is actually considered a public forum by many. Furthermore, multiple courts in various jurisdictions have found that there is no legitimate expectation of privacy on Facebook, even when users take precautions to keep certain content ‘private.’ The victim has to show that someone saw the post. Successfully winning a defamation suit does not require that many people saw the communication, as even an email sent to one person has provided justification for an award in other libel actions.”

I spent a couple of years having the definition of libel, slander and defamation hammered into my brain by professors. In this job we have to be careful what we say and do. So when I see these types of post, not only do I feel sympathy for the person in the photo (who was inherently doing nothing wrong and then was mocked for their appearance), I wonder what would happen if they knew what had been said about them on the post (which was seen by at least 50 people).

This post is just one of many I see on these Facebook pages, and I’ve seen hundreds. Between photos of people’s cars parked in neighborhoods, photos of other’s license plate numbers, to posts claiming crime or ill intent without many hard facts. These posts can easily make these pages toxic, and they drag our community down into swamp territory. I could write another 1,000 words about how this harms minorities in our community more than anyone else.

They also make people feel like its OK to express violent things elsewhere. This week I had to delete a few comments off of a crime story because someone claimed they would use their gun if they saw the portrayed suspect. On another crime story, people were calling to hang a suspect. It had become out of hand quickly.

Are these community and neighborhood watch pages then inherently wrong? No. I think they can serve a great purpose. If there is a lockdown at a school, parents can easily get a hold of each other. When someone is robbed, neighbors can be aware. Police can reach hundreds of community members within minutes.

For example, take what happened with Foley’s fruit stand in Maple Valley. After the owners truck was stolen and their stand was vandalized, a group on a community Facebook page created an event to support the owner. It was a great event and helped cement what it meant to be a Maple Valley resident.

I wish someone had saw the guy who stole my backpack. And maybe if they had information that was accurate, they could have shared in on a community page and helped me locate my stuff.

We have to do better as Facebook users, readers and especially as page moderators to clear away the rotten from the ripe. If not the whole page turns into a spoiled pile of poisonous posts.

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