This morning in my social media notifications was a badge from a local news station as a “Top Commenter,” which is funny, because I spend more time reporting comments on their threads than wading into arguments with people I don’t know.
I have an argument to make in this column, and it’s that all pages on platforms like Facebook should employ paid or volunteer moderators.
In the summer of 2017, the triennial gathering of the Episcopal Church considered options for revision to our Book of Common Prayer. The last version of the book was published in 1979 after several trial books were sent out for use within the church. A friend of mine started a Facebook page that addressed this revision. At first, it was filled with scholarly resolutions and updates on the gathering. It has become a place where ideas, questions and polls about eventual revision have become the norm.
This may not seem like a hot topic issue; it’s not abortion, it’s not immigration. But for our denomination, it can be a dividing issue as we seek to use more gender-neutral language, to be more intentional and theologically correct in the ways that we talk about God. Changing the Prayer Book means loss for many people who are so used to saying our rites by rote (which doesn’t make it less meaningful, by the way). And we all know how easy it is to post comments, things we wouldn’t say in person, in a quick moment of anger or self-righteousness.
Three of us moderate this page of almost 4,000 members, scrolling through every thread, insisting that all commenters are held to the norms of the group which they must agree to before being added to the page. Our norms don’t call for fraternity of thought, or felicity of feeling, but they do require decency when disagreements arise. They require all of us, moderators and members alike, to be intelligent and respectful to one another even when we’re disagreeing over things that are as important to some people as the entirety of the church and her teachings.
We meet as needed, when a question arises. As moderators we can mute commenters, ban them altogether and delete comments that are out of bounds. We always communicate with the rule breakers, letting them know which rule they’ve broken, kindly insisting on an abidance of who we are as a group.
I belong to several groups like this, ecumenical groups where we don’t make nasty comments about things we disagree with, groups where we support each other as people, even when disagree.
Our local television news stations, particularly WOOD and WZZM, need to seriously think about the harm they do when they drop a story on social media and never come back to it again.
Just this morning, a piece about immigrants suing the government for terrible conditions on the border produced dozens of comments that should have been marked as out of bounds. People said things like, “Well, if they don’t like it here maybe they should go back where they came from.”
This is an opportunity for these news stations to do more than drop big stories and then leave us all to muddle through what is actually true. There were arguments in this thread about whether or not immigrants on United States soil have the same protections as these commenters under our laws – a moderator could have commented that this is, indeed, true. It isn’t an opinion, it’s a fact. It was made to be a derisive opinion as less-informed voices shouted louder than voices of reason, and so actual facts, the backbone of journalism, are left in the dust as people just keep believing what they’ve always believed – to hell with whether or not it’s actually true.
If our media is to begin to right the ship of true and unbiased journalism, it must begin with being more than shocking stories left for the masses to devour and decide on. It must begin with our media deciding to report facts and then to defend those facts as moderators on social media platforms, bringing sorely needed (very sorely!) education to those who read (or not) and comment on the stories posted.
I’ve tagged WZZM-TV a couple of times, asking them if they’re just going to leave a story and all of its disgusting comments. I’ve messaged them and never had a response. If the point is only to stir up social medial engagement, these stations should be ashamed of themselves, because they certainly aren’t any better than the National Enquirer in their journalism tactics at this point.
Our current environment is one where yelling “go back where you came from” from the highest office of this nation is somehow OK. It’s up to local news stations and their social media pages to enforce community norms that command respect and cultivate communities that can engage on very divisive issues in a way that opens the path for listening and understanding one another. It is a way forward focused on a our very humanity, our ability to be decent people.
I know this is possible, because I am part of these communities. We are all richer for diverse opinions and people, for generous conversation, and a willingness to communicate in a way that is dignified and civil.
I call on WZZM-TV and WOOD-TV to hire or otherwise engage Facebook page admins to moderate their stories and their posts according to the community norms they must create.
— By Alicia Hager, Tribune community columnist