A discussion at last week’s Twisp Town Council meeting got me thinking – again – about how the simple act of communication has so often become treacherous in the digital age.
Newspapers had a role in that, through what started as a noble experiment in elevating and expanding public discussion. When newspapers first developed websites, many gave away their valuable content, creating the expectation of free information that has plagued them since. At the same time, most papers allowed wide-open online commenting on their stories, in hopes of creating a productive dialog and helping newspapers tap into their audiences.
I thought from the beginning that allowing commenting was a bad idea. I figured that opening our websites to unfettered input would unleash every aggrieved troll with a computer, would not appreciably build print readership, and would become a huge drag on staff time and effort. Leaders in the industry thought people like me were newspaper Neanderthals who had no faith in the public’s sense of civility and purpose.
We all know what commenting turned into instead – a roiling cesspool of invective, hatred, misinformation, name-calling, threats and endless back-and-forth exchanges between people who had no intention of actually listening to each other. It is a chaotic and unproductive way to probe public sentiment.
Soon, newspapers were hiring or reassigning people to do nothing all day but monitor comments, enforce rules for participation and explain to people why they were being banned. It was like trying to oversee a playpen full of screaming babies – a terrible waste of resources that were needed to actually cover the news.
My own experience as editor of a daily newspaper that allowed commenting was disheartening. It soon became apparent that engaging people only exacerbated the barrage of abuse. Before long, nearly every commenting stream quickly devolved into racist screeds and political warfare. Our research showed that almost none of these “contributors” even subscribed to or read the print newspaper. They were freeloading and unloading, at our expense.
Over time, newspapers’ attitudes toward commenting began to change. More newspapers began to limit commenting, and quite a few have banned it altogether. Editors around the country wrote explanatory columns expressing pretty much the same thoughts: commenting was broken and could not be fixed.
The chaos continues. Out of online commenting, and the explosion of websites, blogs, Facebook and myriad social media platforms, emerged what I call “response entitlement” – the expectation that you have the right to say whatever you want in any forum you can access, and not have to answer for its credibility. Response entitlement has turned the internet into a vast radioactive battlefield where truth is losing in the information wars.
I’m afraid we are stuck with response entitlement. The public generally asserts an affirmative right to say whatever it wants, and demand that somebody listen. Dialog is not part of the equation. Try to honestly explain yourself, and see what happens.
That’s the dilemma for the Town of Twisp, it seems. At last week’s council meeting, discussion revolved around how various social media sources have been, according to Mayor Soo Ing-Moody, misrepresenting the town’s actions, policies and intentions. Lots of bad info and unfounded rumors are bouncing around out there, apparently – another byproduct of response entitlement and its accompanying absence of accountability. How to respond is the town’s challenge.
Twisp residents do have opportunities for direct contact with their elected officials. They can submit comments to the town council, and those are read at council meetings (before the meetings went online thanks to the coronavirus, residents could show up in person to address the council).
The town has almost no social media presence aside from its website – where there is contact information for all the town’s staff and elected officials – but the council wants to look into taking advantage of some platforms to get the town’s message out, accurately and consistently. I think that is wonderfully proactive.
At the same time, the council’s inclination is to make it entirely one-way communication, with no opportunity for feedback or online exchanges.
I understand the council’s thinking. The intention is good: provide reliable information that residents can act on, without turning it into an online debate that drains staffing resources.
My observation would be, “good luck with that.” I suspect that response entitlement would be invoked immediately, and the town would be on the receiving end of some criticism for limiting communication. It’s a dilemma I don’t have an answer for other than to make your best decision for the town’s residents, and get ready for some unhappy feedback. Elected officials and newspaper editors are used to that.