for Tiffany Lazon
And most of all beware, even in thought, of assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of grief is not a proscenium, a male wailing is not a dancing bear.
– Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to My Native Land
When the Stranger says: “What is meaning of this city?
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?”
What will you answer?
“We all come together to make money from each other”? or “This is a community”?
…Oh my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger. Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
– T.S. Eliot, “The Rock”
Last month, news outlets in Albany, Oregon reported a break in a local missing persons case, the disappearance of a 37-year-old woman named Tiffany Lazon: Tiffany’s DNA was found on a circular saw that had been in possession of her husband Craig, an Albany man with a history of domestic violence and sexual assault. In 2015, Tiffany accused her husband of attempting to murder her, but her reliability as a witness was called into question due to her history of drug addiction. She later withdrew her testimony. After Tiffany’s DNA was discovered on the circular saw, local police found a large quantity of blood on the floor of a U-Haul truck that Craig rented earlier that month. Due to mounting physical evidence, Craig Lazon was arrested on January 21st on the charge of first-degree murder.
Let’s begin with a truth universally acknowledged: the majority of comment sections on the internet are riddled with trolls, unproductive infighting, and *alternative facts*. Though I certainly acknowledge this truth, I felt shaken by the prevalence of cruelty and misinformation in the comment sections of news articles about Tiffany’s death. A number of people attacked Tiffany’s character and blamed her “lifestyle” for the violent circumstances of her death, stubbornly ignoring the complex truths that establish a context for the murder. I’ll address just two of them here: 1) Oregon, Tiffany’s home state, has the highest drug addiction rates in the country but is ranked dead last for mental health treatment, a vital component of successful drug rehabilitation. 2) Recovering from a drug addiction– like opioid use disorder, for example– is mind-bogglingly difficult, which is why the relapse rate for short-term, abstinence-only rehabilitation (still the most commonly availably treatment model) is somewhere around 90%.
Okay @NancyFromDowntheStreet? Can we perhaps consider some of these things before proposing a solution as inane as “tell them to stop doing drugs”?
Comments on articles about Tiffany Lazon exemplify a disturbing set of social media habits which have nestled comfortably into the culture of community Facebook pages. In recent years, these pages have become increasingly popular as local newspapers–with their social pages, classifieds, dating profiles, and opinion articles–have fallen by the wayside.
In order to illustrate the true nature of these habits, I present to you just a smattering of the reductive and often shockingly inhumane comments that I have encountered since becoming a member of the page. All of them were posted in discussions of two of the community’s favorite topics: addiction and homelessness.
I hope it’s clear that these comments do not quite foster what one might call a “communal” environment (which is ironic, because a lot of these commenters are the very same folks constantly bemoaning the fact that the community of Albany has been summarily ruined by rapists, Californians, and other “miscreant” bad hombres). Speaking of irony, do people not understand that it is a bit hypocritical to condemn violent criminals by calling for their”extermination”? It appears…not.
And so here we are, arriving at the main event. In the following paragraphs, I will illustrate three of the most concerning trends cropping up in community Facebook pages. I prioritized these topics by way of a highly scientific methodology called *my own opinion*. Hypocrisy abounds!
1. Using (and sharing) mugshots, security footage, and candid photos as salacious forms of entertainment:
In the last year or so, I have witnessed the rise of a concerning trend in which “concerned” community members post photos of an individual to “warn” others about their alleged criminal behavior. Of course, some of these people are actual criminals, and regular mugshot-perusers aware of their crimes may photograph them in the community with prior knowledge of their records. However, not everyone cares about little ethical habits like fact-checking and verifying sources, so this habit has also become a favorite of those who have no qualms about taking an iPhone photo of some guy in the Home Depot parking lot and speculating that he is “probably” a pedophile.
In a February article for The Marshall Project titled, “Newsrooms Rethink a Crime Reporting Staple: the Mugshot,” Keri Blakinger noted that click-through mugshot galleries have been “an easy moneymaker for struggling newsrooms: Each reader click to the next image translated to more page views and the opportunity for more advertising dollars.” However, vocal opponents of this transparently shady practice have caused some outlets to discontinue posting the photos. Blakinger’s article features one of these advocates, Johnny Perez, who highlighted the fact that the galleries “reaffir[m] existing biases and create biases where none exist.” Perez is highlighting biases against people of color here; however, his analysis could also apply to the assumptions we make about gender, social class, and sobriety status–all things people seem to think they can ascertain from mugshot photos.
In my community Facebook page, I regularly see people comment on the appearance of people in mugshot galleries, criticizing everything from their hairstyles to the meth bites that dot their faces (“This chick looks about 80 years old. This is why we don’t do meth, kids.”), tagging their friends in the comments (“Remember this guy from high school? @KarenFromHighSchool), and, one of the most concerning phenomena, suggesting that that they “think” the person pictured is the same person who they saw lurking by the local playground last week. Apparently, the public cannot be sated by the mere titillating drama of an official mugshot or a clip of security footage*, but must also indulge in creating their own true crime content (a bespoke and locally-sourced mugshot gallery, if you will).
It is certainly possible that the alleged criminals of “What’s Up, Albany?” are guilty of the crimes of which they are being so informally accused. But if Black Mirror has taught us anything, it’s that we should wonder (and worry) about what happens when unverified gossip on social media turns on an innocent person, and ruins their mental health, their reputation, or their livelihood in the process.**
This leads me to gross internet trend #2, which is admittedly quite similar to trend #1, but with more pointed critiques of serial Yelp-ers and more serious consequences for suburbanites without a criminal record.
2. Complaining (and spreading unverifiable information) about local employees and businesses:
When I worked at an independent bookstore, someone wrote a public Google review about me that falsely summarized a conversation I had with a customer. The review addressed an incident that the reviewer had no context for or background information about (sound like a familiar pattern, yet?). The interaction involved an older woman who had been a long-time customer of the bookstore, and who treated me like I was the dirt beneath her feet. She spoke to me like I was an idiot, said nasty things about me and my workplace, and berated me constantly about things that were outside of my control (forgetting, like many retail customers, that most low-wage employees have absolutely no control over things like return policies or store stock).
After holding my tongue like a good retail Barbie for months on end, smiling gently at the woman instead of standing up for myself, one fateful afternoon–I cracked. The woman came into the store, peering around as she often did when she was looking for something to complain about. In less than two minutes, she found something: the music we were playing was too distracting, she said, and demanded that we change it to something without words, as she cannot browse if there is music playing that contains words! Admittedly, this was not the ideal moment to stand up for the low-wage workers of America, and I am not necessarily proud of my response that day, but I had reached my boiling point after months of enduring this woman’s wrath. I stared straight at her, fixing her with an undoubtedly unscary stare, and said Not everything in this store is designed for you. *** It was not a kind statement, but I contend that it’s true. And if you have been in my position, you know that you can only suffer through so many hours of human beings verbally pooping on you because they can’t use their Amex card or because the discount doesn’t apply to the item before the steam starts coming out of your ears like a cartoon character. Unless you are a saint. In that case, bravo oh blessed one!
So now you know what happened. But get this: according to the grand record of alternative facts that is the world wide web, something much more cruel and sinister went down at the bookstore that day. According to the reviewer, a fragile, innocent old woman walked into the bookstore, and I told her–apparently out of the blue, with no justification to speak of– that “This bookstore isn’t for people like you,” suggesting that I was some granny-hating millennial heady with minimum wage power instead of a depressed twenty-something who got a higher score on the “Discover Your Mental Age Quiz” than her own grandmother.
To this day, the “eyewitness account” of my alleged bigotry is on display in the glorious annals of Google Reviews. If the reviewer had included my full name in the post, her false account of events would have become an easily searchable record of my character, and this record would be visible to people, like those on hiring or admissions committees, who have a say in decisions that affect my future.
I recently observed the pitfalls of recounting injustices online after a much more serious event in our community. This January, an 11-year-old resident of Corvallis, Rhianna Daniel, was killed while passing through a crosswalk on her way home from school. Before a reliable account of the incident was available online, several members of the city’s community Facebook group decided to tell their version of events. Some of these comments suggested that the accident was a hit-and-run. When the official report of the incident was released, it became clear that this was not the case. Rhianna was hit by a local physician who stopped his car, performed CPR, and stayed with her. By all accounts, the physician was a kind, well-liked community professional. And yet, for a time, he was labeled a senseless murderer who left a child dying in the street.
Many of the comments about Rhianna’s death reminded me of the way in which the media misrepresented Susan Klebold, the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold.
Though we all know the tendency of major news outlets to play up the aspects of a story that will most capture viewers’ attention (Nightcrawler, anyone?), Susan’s memoir provided a detailed rendering of some of the particular ways in which they attempted to imbue their source materials with even more drama. For example, aerial shots of the Klebold home were shot to make the the building look like a sprawling mansion, a tactic meant to pair nicely with the developing “truth” that Susan Klebold was a wealthy, frigid matriarch incapable of rearing a bloodthirsty neo-Nazi. The reality, of course, was much more muddled, The reality was that unlike Eric Harris, Dylan Klebold was a generally kind and well-behaved child who grew up in a relatively peaceful middle-class home. The reality is that he went to significant lengths to obscure his activities and the extent of his mental illness from his parents. And no one likes that kind of ambiguity.
3. Promoting psuedoscience, multi-level marketing schemes, and fear-mongering warnings that disproportionately impact the vulnerable:
I will not waste time on why multi-level marketing schemes, chaotic-evil corporations that target poor people, single parents, and people down on their luck, are disgusting. Others have done it much better. Check out, for example, this mini-doc from VICE about the way LulaRoe scammed tens of thousands of their “consultants,” or this John Oliver episode exposing MLMs that target poor folks and immigrant communities. The masterminds of these corporations are the worst kind of human gym socks. The kind that make you question why you even wear socks, or have a nose, or go to the gym in the first place.
I work in a library, and I have learned a lot through my job about how misinformed I was about computer literacy in middle America. I used to assume that most young Americans, for example, are able to successfully navigate tasks like checking email and conducting a Google search. However, I am reminded on a daily basis that this is not the case, and that there many people of all ages and from a variety of backgrounds who struggle with the digital skills that more privileged folks consider basic. All that is to say that it can be difficult to determine the reliability of the source of a Facebook post without a sufficient level of computer literacy, and that–technological devices aside– a lack of education can make parsing the rhetoric of advertisements, scams, fake data, and alternative facts extremely challenging.
Some recent examples of fake news-y warnings and alternative facts on my community Facebook page include “why North Korea’s next target is the mid-sized suburb of Albany, Oregon” and an advertisement for a lesson in iridology, a “not useful and potentially harmful” pseudoscience. (<- “Hi!” says this hyperlink, “I am a peer-reviewed article! You should consult sources like me instead of @LilyfromSpinClass”). When you see these posts, they might seem so laughably fake or scammy to you that you assume most people will arrive at the same conclusion. But sadly, this is not true. While there are definitely some willfully ignorant people on this planet, those who have the money and resources to access better information, you might be surprised by how many people lack the tools critically analyze marketing, propaganda, and lies. And if I have learned anything from my sojourn into this wild corner of the internet, it’s that this vulnerable population makes up only a fraction of those who “communal” Facebook practices hurt the most.
Do I have all the solutions to these problematic phenomena? No, of course I don’t. I’m just an underemployed millennial with a WordPress account. I do have some suggestions, though:
Reporting a crime? Contact your local P.D. directly.
Want to accuse someone of pedophilia, drug trafficking, or child abuse? Contact your local P.D. … directly!
Want to disseminate information associated with fields of study you have no expertise in? Please don’t.
Want to learn some cold, hard facts, and become a better voter, consumer, or neighbor in the process? Visit your local library. Conduct research by reading a variety of unbiased sources, perhaps with the assistance of an information professional (like a librarian).
Want to recruit a poor single mother into your more-than-vaguely-cult-like MLM? No again. Please put the Rodan & Fields down.
As I conclude this little essay, I would like to call attention to the following short video, which summarizes all that is terrible about community Facebook pages in a much more concise (and ultimately more memorable) manner than I do here. Thanks, Nicole!
Notes & References
My thinking in this piece was informed by Dr. Safiya Umoja Noble and Amber Jamila Musser, two scholars whose essential work on the ways in which racist attitudes proliferate online informed my graduate thesis. Noble is known for illuminating the ways in which search engine algorithms reflect (and produce) problematic and violent biases. In her essay “Teaching Trayvon: Race, Media, and the Politics of Spectacle,” for example, she demonstrates how your search terms end up reflecting your prejudices, which ultimately leads you to more content that confirms what you already think. So much for doing “research”…
* Dear reader, you should know that the local police department has gotten in on this too! Just like in ye olde Wild West, the Albany Police Department has been posting mugshots and screen caps of security footage on their Facebook page, occasionally with their own jokey witticisms attached as captions. While again, I understand that these posts might help to solve crimes, it seems that they also serve as forms of gossipy entertainment. The APD’s tone in some of these posts strikes me as remarkably unprofessional, but that could be due to the fact that I am a decidedly un-fun person.
**And look, I am not just spouting off at the mouth here. I know this stuff is bad. And even if it doesn’t seem immediately harmless now, it contributes to crueler, more ignorant biases in communities both digital and geographical. How do I know this? Well, because I wrote a whole Masters thesis about it (sort of). My project investigated the ways in which violent “spectacles” circulate on the internet (think police brutality videos) and how online trends and memes (think Pepe the Frog) evolve into racist, white supremacist hate symbols. There is some boring literary theory in there, so I will give you some highlights relevant to this article: social media, with its personalized algorithms, paid-for “top search results,” and made-for-you echo chambers, is not a great place to gather information and images and think about them critically. It’s better for staring at things we already agree with and nodding profusely, getting enraged by hateful or misinformed opinions from “the other side” with no hope for meaningful dialogue, and laughing at memes we may never know the origin of.
***Though my work experience in Disability Accommodations has shown me the myriad ways in which we must make spaces more accessible to those with disabilities, I am speaking primarily about customer preferences here, and particularly those that employees simply do not have the capacity or authority to alter at a customer’s whim.
Citizen by Claudia Rankine, a mixed-media masterpiece that grapples with racism, misogyny, loneliness, and identity.
Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble, a book that expands upon the principles I summarized in “Notes & References.”
Betting on Zero (2017), a Netflix documentary about the big yikes international MLM we know as Herbalife.
A Mother’s Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Susan Klebold, an empathetic, well-researched memoir that highlights some of the ways in which news outlets manipulate complex truths in order to market more scandalous and digestible stories to American audiences.
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America by Beth Macy, a powerful and well-researched history of the opioid crisis which focuses in particular on Central Appalachia and the parts of Virginia that Macy covered throughout her career as an investigative journalist. A text that– by virtue of its empathetic storytelling and masterful takedown of Big Pharma corruption–allows the reader to connect more deeply with the humanity of addicts and their families.