Control the message

Someone posts on the social media platform Snapchat that a male student sexually assaulted a dozen female students and that it was reported to the school but they didn’t do anything about it.

The high school students share the post multiple times. The information, now in wide circulation, is addressed in a letter to parents and police start investigating. Everyone takes the disturbing allegations seriously, and start looking for the victims and the perpetrator in a school of more than 3,100 students.

The allegations are posted on a local, private Facebook group with more than 15,000 members. Within hours there are hundreds of comments from upset parents theorizing about what happened, who could have done it and who is ultimately to blame.

Upset students plan a protest at school the following day. The Division of Children, Youth and Families is contacted. The media picks up the story and the story takes on a life of its own.

When I was a high school student, gossip only spread so fast. You had to pass a note or use the phone at home. At best, you could tell a group of friends between classes.

Because the delivery system was slow, a rumor would usually lose steam, or another one would replace it, or if you were in a different circle it would just never make it to you.

Fast forward to the social media era — click “share” and you’ve told hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people at one time.  The amplification of the story is immediate.

But what if you share a lie — or worse, one that is slanderous or harmful or creates chaos? The scenario I outlined above actually happened recently at Pinkerton Academy.

Within 24 hours, the Derry Police concluded that what the post alleged never happened, and nothing had been reported to the school.

One social media post managed to upset and upend the largest high school in the state and several communities.

And while the person who initiated the post might think this is a harmless prank, it isn’t — just ask any sexual assault survivor. Any time a false allegation of sexual assault is made, no matter the context, it takes away from the actual victims who often deal with doubt and disbelief when reporting the crime.

But much can be learned from what happened, which is a microcosm of what’s going on every day on a much larger scale. Who of us hasn’t seen a meme, or a news item on Facebook, and without giving it too much thought or maybe even reading it, shared it with our “friends?” We’ve all unknowingly spread false information.

In real life, if someone told you a disturbing story, you would ask questions and think about what you were told then decide what action to take. If you thought a crime was committed or someone was harmed, you would tell the authorities, and likely not run off and tell another friend first.

Social media is not going anywhere and communication technology is only going to improve, which leaves the onus on us to think about what we are sharing before we click. Take a minute to think about if what you are posting is true and if there are potential consequences to posting it, and teach your kids to do the same.

We can’t control the medium but we can try to control the message.

Categories: Edit Note