CITY BEAT: ‘SOCIAL MEDIA HAS BECOME A CESSPOOL OF FAKE NEWS AND TOXIC MISINFORMATION’
The headline on this column is from a quote written by Columnist Rob Tornoe in Friday’s edition of Editor and Publisher, the trade magazine of journalists. Based on what happened in our community last week, Tornoe’s comments seem especially relevant.
Tornoe’s complete sentence stated: “It’s obvious social media has become a cesspool of fake news and toxic misinformation, and it’s the job of credible news organizations to sort fact from fiction to keep readers properly informed.”
It didn’t get any more toxic for the lives of some of our community’s successful men than having their names smeared in Facebook posts accusing them of heinous acts against young girls which were shared on thousands of users. The lies and misinformation became so toxic that Deputy Police Chief Shane Brandel had to do something to inform the public that what was being circulated on social media was not true. Brandel issued the following statement regarding what the police department is investigating and the status of that investigation.
Here’s the exact wording from Brandel: “On 5/20/2021, the Decatur Police Department received a complaint from an individual alleging sexual assault that had occurred over 10 years ago by a subject known to them. The case was assigned to a detective and an investigation into the allegations immediately commenced. The investigation has involved serving multiple search warrants at different locations seeking evidence of the allegations. At this time, no other individuals have been named or identified as being involved in this allegation or other criminal misconduct. This case is complex and involves significant man-hours to ensure a thorough investigation. It is unknown how long this investigation will take to complete.
“The Decatur Police Department does not typically comment on sexual abuse or sexual assault cases. Doing so can risk further trauma to the victim and also jeopardize the investigation. However, this case has become a focus of rumors and false information within the larger public realm. As such, the department feels it necessary to make a statement. “For example, a rumor circulating social media regarding police finding children locked in a storage shed is completely false. In addition, allegations of other citizens of the area being involved in this investigation are false. These types of rumors are dangerous and can shatter lives and reputations, and potentially jeopardize the investigation.
“I encourage the public to allow this investigation to continue without such false and dangerous information being spread. The Decatur Police Department will make further comments as this case continues and information is able to be released to the public.” Reread the statement: “allegations of other citizens of the area being involved in this investigation are false.“
• OBVIOUSLY, I am not naming any of the people who had the terrible lies told about them because it would only spread the lies further and cause additional harm. As I am writing this column, no other members of the news media have mentioned their names for the same reason.
• I HAVE been editor and publisher of this newspaper for well over a half century and I have seen and heard a lot of false information spread in the community with the perpetrators indicating they “have the facts”. Believe me, I have never seen a more damaging lie spread in our community, and beyond, about some people who were totally innocent of what was being written about them. Those innocent people have not been charged with anything or are even being investigated. Despite the information that was sent out by the Deputy Police Chief, there are people who still believe the lie and think the police are probably involved in “covering up” the truth.
• THE DEFINITION of libel is “the publication of writing, pictures, cartoons, or any other medium that expose a person to public hatred, shame, disgrace, or ridicule, or induce an ill opinion of a person, and are not true.”
I am not an attorney, but I am a newspaper editor and understand the meaning of libel. If I had printed in this newspaper the lies told about innocent people, as was the case on Facebook last week, I would be sued — and rightly so. No one believes in freedom of speech and freedom of press more than I do, but there is a responsibility, and accountability, to what we say and print.
Social Media apparently has no such restrictions, so anybody can write anything about anybody and get away with it regardless of the damage such lies do to innocent people and their families. Although local news media covered the rumors and misinformation after the lies spread like wildfire and debunked what was posted on social media, the damage to reputations had already been done and that can’t be completely erased.
One way to stop such heinous lies from being written and spread on social media is to take legal action against those who write and spread such garbage. Facebook should also be held to a higher standard and have the same accountability for what is contained on their platform as broadcast and print media. Using the word “alleged” in spreading rumors about someone being arrested doesn’t even apply in what happened last week — because innocent people mentioned had not been charged with anything or were even part of an investigation!
I don’t know if those people who were defamed by the lies on Facebook last week are going to take legal action to put a damper on such misinformation being spread about them, or others, in the future and seek damages for what lies were already spread. (Some of the false postings have not been removed even though declared untrue by law enforcement.)
Facebook should have the means to trace this lie to its origin and that person, or persons, should be identified and, at the very least, banned from social media. (My “Viewpoint” column this week on page 3 of the online and print editions of the Decatur Tribune is about using social media to ruin a person’s reputation and not being held accountable for it.)
• ON a lighter note: I turned my car into the parking lot on North Woodford where the Secretary of State’s Driver’s License facility is located and followed the arrow showing which way incoming traffic was to go. Coming towards me was a car heading the wrong way against the arrow. I figured the car was being driven by someone who had just failed his driver’s license driving test — by driving the wrong way on a one-way street! I guess that is not quite as bad as the lady who drove to the Driver’s License facility in another town near Decatur several years ago, to take her driver’s test — and drove through the front window of the facility! I have a feeling the lady did not pass her driver’s test that day!
• I COULD not help but notice a significant milestone that was achieved in the life of Lucille A. Lanzotti, 98, of Springfield, formerly of Decatur, who died July 20, 2021. (Obituary on page 20 of print edition.) Mrs. Lanzotti and her husband, Victor, who passed away in April of this year, were married for 80 years!
That’s certainly a remarkable achievement and I don’t think we’ve ever had an 80th wedding anniversary printed in our newspaper. We’ve had a lot of 50th, 60th and some 70th anniversaries, but being married for 80 years is a rare achievement and even though Mr. and Mrs. Lanzotti have both passed on, they certainly had a remarkably long married life.
• I JOIN Brian Byers on WSOY’s Byers & Co. every Thursday morning at 7:00 for the “City Hall Insider”.