The social media burn

Informative or tactless? 

Recently, a video of a person, presumably, using drugs in a public space was posted to a popular North Okanagan social media discussion forum. 

The face of the person being filmed is clearly visible. The person is sitting on the stoop of a downtown Vernon business attempting to inject something, presumably illicit drugs.

The video also had narration. In it, a person can be heard expressing their disgust at the sight being filmed. 

The inflammatory video was almost immediately deleted, but not before the users of the Vernon Rant and Rave social media discussion forum weighed in on the post. The comments were not overly pleasant for the subject of the video or for the person who posted it. 

The Vernon Rant and Rave is one of two popular Facebook pages used by people in the Greater Vernon community. Those pages provide the community with a voice. Users share opinions, write positive comments or vent frustrations.  

Frustrations are boiling over in Vernon when it comes to its street-entrenched population.

"Anything that can be considered illegal activities, for example, shooting a homeless person with a paintball gun (posted to a Vernon forum but was deleted) would be prohibited on our page," said Alister McLellan, administrator of the Vernon Rant and Rave Facebook page. "We recognize that these people are people too, they have families and at some point, they've had lives."

But, the banter that looms on Facebook forums often gets out of control and shames the street-entrenched population rather than helping to find a solution.

Hurtful, hateful, racist or bigoted comments shared on social media don't often make it to a face-to-face conversation, according to UBC sociology professor David Tindall.

"Sometimes what people say on social media gets magnified because of the polarizing effects of social media," he said. "Very often what people do is they construct their Facebook connections or their Twitter connections, they mostly connect with people who think in a very similar way to themselves.

I think that's one of the things that fuels the lack of discretion. They are used to talking to people who mostly agree with them already, so it tends to amplify the things they say."

Lately, the posts made to the Vernon Facebook forums that guarantee a significant response are about the street-entrenched community.

Tindall says there is a reason that those posts always attract a lot of feedback.

"It's a combination of things," he said. "It's partly novel but at the same time, it resonates with what people think, believe or want to believe."

"If there is a story or a post and it reinforces what someone believes then they are more likely to share it."

Others, he says, just post negative comments on social media because they are looking to argue.

"Some people, to a certain extent, are trying to provoke a response. The more outrageous you can be, the more likely you are to get a response," Tindall said. 

The people who generally have nothing good to say, the people who hide behind their keyboard are often referred to as 'cyber bots.'

Monitoring a Facebook forum for cyber bots or destructive comments can be a lot of work.

Facebook forums often have thousands of members, all with different opinions. Many like to voice those opinions and others who like to bash almost any post made on a page.

"We do sift through our pages and we try to eliminate as much of the problem material as we can. Of course with all the volume that we're getting, we can't deal with it all at once," McLellan said. 

"We do seem to have a following of people that are engaged and like to keep up in the community and if they wish to be part of our page they're welcome to do so as long as they follow the same expectations as everybody else."

"It's very cut and dry with our rules and Facebook rules," says McLellan of the Vernon Rant and Rave.

The other Facebook page used in the North Okanagan is called the Vernon & Area Community Forum.

"It's Facebook, nothing is personal to me," said Dawn Tucker a forum moderator. "I mean, it's not just this [street-entrenched population] topic but there are many topics that people are passionate about and we have to keep things in perspective, nothing is directed, people may make personal comments and that kind of thing but we have standards to maintain."

Being a moderator or administrator means you are reading through almost every comment that is posted to the page.

Tucker says she has even had to delete articles posted to the forum which were written by the mainstream media, including Castanet because at times they've gone against the rules of the page.

"We monitor any type of threads that may be problematic," she said.

"Sometimes we give warnings out and sometimes people have to be removed from the page."

But where is the line drawn?

Both the Vernon Rant and Rave and the Vernon & Area Community Forum have guidelines posted clearly on their page.

Does everyone read and follow the rules?

Both McLellan and Tucker say they do the very best they can at keeping their pages community friendly.

"I know it's an emotional issue [street-entrenched population], there are lots of emotional issues that often come up on the page," Tucker said.

"There is a lot of things people need to remember when they are talking online. For me, it's not emotional, it's not something I get upset about, it's just something we need to maintain.

We need to do it in a matter that's civil and we need to do it in a matter that respects all people of our community regardless of their social economic position, regardless of who they are," she said.

"We don't welcome taking people and dehumanizing them and creating stigma."

It is not just the responsibility of social media moderators to ensure civil discourse.  

From the stories and images selected for publication to the words and terminology used, the mainstream media plays a role in shaping public's views on a subject as well. 

Castanet Media has standards when dealing with comments that are getting out of hand.

On the Castanet website, the comments section is automatically disabled, it is the discretion of the reporter or news director to enable the section for any given story. 

"All our stories used to default to allow comments; now they default to comments off unless we choose them to be on," said Castanet's director of content Jon Manchester.

"As well, we receive an email confirmation of every comment and can delete them immediately with a simple reply email to our comment software provider.

We changed our comment policy on Castanet because of rampant trolling and name-calling,"

Castanet stories that are posted to the Castanet Facebook page are monitored. If comments get out of hand the post is deleted.

"On social media, we are less involved, but we do monitor what’s going on," he said. "Facebook also monitors for offensive content, and users can report such posts."

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