Moving toward civility and mea culpa

Posted 7/8/20

The Wild Wild Web is giving up one of its core values. The tech industry is abandoning the concept that it exists to provide a forum for all ideas, no matter how toxic. It is giving up its …

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Moving toward civility and mea culpa


The Wild Wild Web is giving up one of its core values. The tech industry is abandoning the concept that it exists to provide a forum for all ideas, no matter how toxic. It is giving up its decade-long experiment in unregulated growth and anything-goes platform governance.

Now the industry is maturing and understanding that some speech—hate, harassment, bullying—prevents others from speaking, and that a no-limits platform culture often empowers those least committed to civil conversation.

This new position reflects a more mature understanding of the dynamics of online communities and the many ways a powerful platform’s inaction can be weaponized.

We saw that on Facebook recently where it was posted that Krissy Smith, proprietor of the Callicoon Theater, went into Peck’s Market and demanded that the flags outside of the store be taken down. We caught up with Peck’s Manager Jeremy Guinan a few days later and asked whether it was true. He said “That never happened.”

Untrue or not, the damage was unfolding. There were comments flying all over with people promising that they would never go to the movie theater again. Others felt wounded by what they saw as disrespect for the nation’s flag.

Smith put the rumor to rest on the theater’s Facebook page, saying it was a blatant lie and that she had supported the Callicoon Business Association Flag Initiative as it was being developed. Against the threat of theater boycott, she asked people to please consider the jobs of the youth who work there.

There was harm done. A false posting on Facebook was weaponized and caused damage.

Social media is an unregulated platform. Even with changes on such sites of Reddit, Twitter, Twitch and others, individual incivility will not be affected. That civility is regulated by us with a page administrator and tighter bounds on our own posting.

This takes setting ground rules. This is deliberately creating a place where there is thoughtful consideration of how we are communicating with and about each other.

But thoughtful consideration is sometimes a hard place to find. We live in a heightened time where there are three disasters superimposed on top of one another: the pandemic, the economic fallout and civil unrest. It is a time when anger is growing all around us. We are on edge. There is more to do and less time to do it.

And it is into that landscape that the River Reporter stumbled recently in our Letters to the Editor column.

It was a cascade of missteps.

It started with the June 18 publication of a short letter by Charles Petersheim. He wrote taking an Eldred School Board member to task for responding on Facebook about an individual’s right to fly the confederate flag. Pointedly, he wrote that the action disqualified the member from being on the school board.

The following week, we received a well written letter defending the school board member and taking Petersheim to task for his behavior in the community. Again, we printed the letter without proper consideration whether it was an ad hominin attack (to the man) rather than an argument about the ideas and positions.

It slipped by us. We broke our own rules.

Then to make matters even worse, Petersheim’s original letter was inadvertently omitted on our website. What that did was leave the questionable ad hominin letter directed at Petersheim without the context of the original letter.

Several harms were done, which we take seriously and  apologize for.

In this time of heightened energy, of course, we will make mistakes. The best we can do when those happen is to take responsibility and pledge to learn from our missteps.

Additionally, we can take steps to correct this wrong. To that end, we have taken the letters exchange off of our website.

And speaking of correcting a wrong, I urge readers to pay attention to the changes that are being proposed to the Sullivan County Human Rights Commission’s organizational structure. The legislature is proposing to strip the commission of its independence and make it accountable to the legislature. At this time of heightened energy, especially around the rights of minorities and a growing awareness of systemic racism, this proposal needs to go back to the drawing board for thoughtful consideration. For more on this story, click here.) Let your voices be heard.

And do it without any ad hominin arguments; just argue the points, ideas, and concepts. Be well researched. Be civil.


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