When news broke last week of a possible sexual assault against a student at Pickens County Middle School, it spread through our community like wildfire. Facebook posts from people claiming knowledge of the event – and its horrible impact on the student – were everywhere.
Social media like Facebook can be helpful in getting information out quickly to a large audience and it can be a place of support for friends and family, but it also has the potential to do far more harm than good. Social media can be extremely hurtful when used without ample consideration of the consequences of what is posted.
And it also provides the fastest way to spread inaccurate information to the greatest number of people with the least restraint.
In many situations, online posts - even well-intentioned ones - can create distractions to people already dealing with a tragedy.
Last week just moments after we posted Superintendent Perry’s letter about a possible assault at the school, there were comments – which we deleted – that gave specific information about the sex of the victim and the physical injuries. These comments came too close for comfort in identifying the child and presented very personal aspects of the assault. No one has the right to post to thousands of followers on a Facebook page what the child went through as a result of the assault and the ensuing medical trauma.
Remember, we live in a small town and even narrowing down the victim’s gender and age goes a long way towards letting people know who was hurt by this outrageous act. Authorities were extremely careful not to release the fact that the student was a special education student at PCMS because there is such a small pool of students, compared to the larger school population, who would fit that description. Ultimately the victim’s father provided that information in a television interview with the Atlanta media. Parents may have that right to divulge such information to the world about their child, but no one else does.
True community journalists, the school system and the authorities working this case are held to higher standards regarding what statements are issued. Anyone with a keyboard, unfortunately, can say whatever they think without facing any scrutiny in the real world.
Anyone with an internet connection can spout off any thing, any time, but keep in mind, “with much power comes great responsibility.”
Law enforcement and school officials went to great lengths to prevent the identity of the victim from becoming public, not only to adhere to the law but also because they were trying to do the right thing in this small community.
False rumors can spread quickly and complicate an investigation, requiring police to take extra time to set the record straight. Their jobs are further complicated when interviewing potential witnesses and they have to decipher whether the witness knows something firsthand or only because they read it at Facebook.
In addition to disseminating unintentional information about victims of crime, Facebook postings can also lead to straight up false information. While not just online, the Saturday rumor that an arrest had been made had no basis and was not accurate at all.
Remember, just because you think you “know” something to be a fact, doesn’t mean it really is. And if you do know a bona fide fact, please think before you share it.