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The power of social media

Jan 13, 2014 05:58AM ● Published by Community News Service

By Lexie Yearly

Nearly two months after the “War on Christmas” in Bordentown dominated headlines in local news, the issue has finally subsided enough that many residents can take a step back, examine what happened and look more closely at the facts rather than emotion behind the issue.

When comments on the MacFarland Intermediate School winter concert songs first surfaced on Facebook Oct. 18, many residents were bombarded with information, most of it untrue or exaggerated.

The original post and following comments to the Bordentown City Facebook page alleged that two families had threatened a lawsuit against the district to remove all Christmas-themed songs—even Jingle Bells—from the performance.

As the debate picked up steam, outrage began to spew from many of the early posters who demanded to know the names of the individuals responsible and suggested bringing a lawsuit against the school to reinstate the songs. And the longer the posts continued, the more comments and personal attacks ensued.

Many Bordentown locals, like city resident Dan DeRose, said they wouldn’t even have known about the issue if it hadn’t incited so much commentary on Facebook. But DeRose also said that the nature of Facebook, as a public forum for everyone to share everything, likely contributed to the misinformation and aggressive responses from others sitting behind the safety of a computer screen.

In the end, the only truth to the initial Facebook statements was that two families had brought their concerns about the concert to the administration. The concerns, though, had been about three overtly religious Christian songs. After the families had approached the school principal privately about the songs, the decision was passed up the chain of command to the superintendent, who consulted the district’s law firm and was advised to remove the songs. The winter concert was performed as scheduled Dec. 3 with four new songs substituted in place of the original three, and in the end included both secular and religious songs.

But amidst all the hype, the “truth” was something that was hard to come by, said Bordentown City resident Sara Applegate, who noticed the posts on Facebook about the issue early on, and voiced her own opinion in support of the superintendent’s decision to remove the songs.

“I never really saw what I thought was the truth,” Applegate said. “It was always somebody’s perception of what was going on or based on rumors.”

But in an evolving society that demands readily accessible information at all times, Facebook and other social media has become a news source for many people, who often don’t consider that the forum provides no filter to decipher what’s fact or fiction.

“We take everything at face value and I guess some of that’s based on the lives we live,” said township resident Rob Delaney. “We live extremely busy lives, people don’t necessarily have the time to sit down and read the news or do their own research, so when somebody posts something online, they take it—until somebody proves it false—as the truth.”

A growing number of incidents have shown the readiness of Internet users to accept anything posted online as fact.

And the phenomenon certainly is not limited to Bordentown. It’s not difficult to find any number of stories originated on Facebook that have eventually been proved false, and a look at any comment section on most social media sites usually shows uninformed or unkind posts directed at other social media users.

But what’s different about Bordentown’s social media situation is the fact that it’s not a political debate over candidates at the national level, or an abstract argument about policy and change—there are real people at the center of these accusations whose lives were affected, Applegate said.

During the Oct. 18 postings on Facebook, Mike Dauber and Melanie Kunkler were eventually named as the family members who had approached the school. Kunkler started to become active in the Facebook dialogues in an effort to share what the real issue was with the songs and the reason she approached the school.

Meanwhile, Dauber was running for a seat on the school board at the time, which sparked additional commentary about his position.

Applegate, who had been very vocal in the debate before even knowing who was involved, said many of the responses from some people lacked empathy, which was one of the difficulties of the issue—while it was not true of all people following the debate, many people seemed unwilling to hear another side of the story.

“One of my major concerns was diversity, and when I saw people being what I consider to be persecuted because of their faith, and their choice to discuss something that was very private with administration, and then were courageous enough to actually stand up and say ‘Yes it was us, and here’s why we did it,’ and everyone’s reaction was ‘You should move away.’ I was horrified,” Applegate said.

“I think it was specifically people who were saying they should move away if they didn’t agree with the way that the school was set up. They should have researched it before they came here that this was part of the tradition, and if they didn’t like the traditions, that they should go away basically, that there was no place to bring up these types of concerns with the administration…It was just so blatantly hateful.”

While the two families were at the forefront of the debate, plenty of others were also targeted with direct comments and questions.

Steve Heberling, who won a township seat on the Board of Education in the November election, got involved because he was running on the same campaign ticket as Dauber and current board member Mark Drew.

Heberling also received demands to state his own positions for the campaign and questions about whether his views aligned with Dauber’s on the issue. Once he became involved, though, he was concerned that it might affect his own school-age children, and said he talked with them about what they might hear at school and cautioned them not to let it upset them.

Applegate was shocked also, she said, at how quickly she received comments directed at her personally because she didn’t agree with what appeared to be the majority belief.

DeRose noted, though, that the Facebook comments eventually strayed from the Internet, resulting in mail decked out with “Merry Christmas” stickers sent to one Jewish family and plans discussed to leave religious objects on the family’s property.

“The retaliation, the making it public the way it was made public, that was the wrong way to handle it,” DeRose said. “If you want to sign the petition to keep everything the same, yes you have to do that publicly, but the naming of names, just the attacks, was the wrong way to do it…Have your opinion, express your opinion, but that’s getting to a realm of personal that should be off limits.” While the debate continued, other Facebook pages began surfacing, too, including an “uncensored” private page where residents, after gaining approval to join the page, could talk about the issue.

Township resident Erika Millemann followed the issue closely on Facebook, which is primarily how she stayed informed about what was happening. But she chose not to get involved because she’d witnessed how others were treated when they spoke up in defense of the families, and questioned whether the people ranting on social media would have said the same hurtful comments had the debate taken place outside of social media.

“I don’t care what side of this you were really on, because people are going to disagree or maybe not have as strong a feeling about the issue, but the hate that came out was really disturbing to see, that people could be that hurtful,” Millemann said. “And…it was really disturbing to see the amount of people that were not necessarily disagreeing with the issue but that joined in on this bash campaign.”

“I would be curious what people would say if we were in a room together and having that (discussion), if people would really have said those things,” Millemann said.

Delaney—a township resident who had been vocal throughout the debate and campaigned as a write-in candidate for the school board election to keep the traditions of Bordentown, including the songs in the winter concert, intact—said that many people were passionate about their arguments, but that there was no one in the community who really meant to hurt or harm others.

“I do think that social media did play a part in this, but unfortunately I think it was something that had a negative connotation on both ends,” Delaney said. “I think the families affected as well as people in the community that were affected, were adversely affected by a group of people that didn’t necessarily have any sort of negative intention. I don’t think there’s anybody in this community that wanted to go out and attack a family or attack children.”

Heberling also acknowledged that the Facebook forum doesn’t allow for interpretation the way an in-person conversation would.

“It’s just like reading or misinterpreting an email, there’s not a lot of context, there’s no voice inflection,” Heberling said. “I type one thing and you read it in a different way, and there’s no way to stop that and tempers flare.”

But the fact that so much discourse could start in Bordentown and be attributed to Facebook is an unusual thought, said DeRose, who noticed the social media site’s impact when he attended the December school board meeting and heard community members stand up to speak about the issue of Facebook chatter.

While the initial Facebook fury has died down considerably, other incidents on the social media site have had similar, albeit smaller, effects. Recent posts were made about a potential threat at a school pep rally that was eventually proved not to be a danger, and still more posts continue regarding the winter concert and people involved.

The quickness to spread stories and rumors is something that people need to consider, Millemann said, especially after how heated the discussions were as a result of the concert issue.

“People are very defensive right now,” Millemann said. “It’s one thing to be concerned and share concern, but we have to figure out how to do that on Facebook where it’s not causing all this.”

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