Luas accident or Facebook storm. Which is worse?

The media treat their Facebook pages as part of their brand but don’t always take responsibility for what other people post on them

Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Photograph: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

Sat, Aug 30, 2014, 01:00

When Maja Dabkowska slipped between a Luas tram and a platform on Tuesday morning it was about as much drama as anyone would expect or want in a week. The 16-year-old was lucky to be alive, although injured, and it took the help of several Dubliners to free her. It was filmed, of course, and found its way online very quickly.

Then, after she wrote about it on her Facebook page, complete with a photograph of bandaged and bruised legs, lax privacy settings were exploited so her post became raw material for newspaper articles. An old profile selfie was plucked out for use by a national newspaper.

Most of the comments wished her well, some of it concentrated unfairly on the pose in the picture, and a few criticised the Irish Independent’s use of her photograph, among them Maja herself.

So, having been through one drama, she found herself only hours later engaging with a national newspaper. That conversation was subsequently deleted from that thread.

But she’d had to wade into a mass conversation about herself, in which people were discussing her culpability for the accident or how appropriate her pout was. That took guts, and she emerged from a traumatic week having displayed a strength she shouldn’t have needed to.

Invasion of privacy

But this didn’t become just a lesson in how people use Facebook, or even, with questions about intellectual property rights and the invasion of a minor’s privacy, about how the media uses people’s Facebook pages. Instead it added to a growing problem with how newspapers allow their own Facebook pages to be used.

Maja’s story became just another to be tossed around among the commenters, and it became just another day in jaw-dropping Facebook threads on media websites, where the many positive or thoughtful contributions from people find themselves going elbow to elbow with the nasty and the horrible.

These, it could be argued, are of a piece with the comments below news stories, or what some dismiss as “the bottom half of the internet”. Nevertheless, within the confines of a news organisation’s website there is at least the promise of control, of red flags and moderation.

It doesn’t mean comment threads don’t descend into shouting matches in which the same voices too often drown out the discussion, but when the website knows there are legal ramifications there is a better chance of keeping things civil and weeding out the abuse.

Twitter is different in that it’s a standalone social network that no media organisation can control. When a story is published on a news website, people can discuss it as they wish on Twitter. Sometimes there will be prolonged and harsh criticism, which some will see as the result of a “Twitter mob” mentality and others will see as a genuine groundswell of opinion that the article just wasn’t very good.

A media organisation can try to influence sentiment on Twitter, but it can’t impose limits on the conversation.

Facebook sits halfway between the two. News sites set up their Facebook pages to use as tools in their social-media strategies, a chance to highlight a range of stories, competitions and features, and to give their readers a voice. And yet, while Facebook gives top billing to the most-liked comments, the pages’ owners largely allow blobs of nastiness below to go untouched.

This week The Irish Times’s Facebook page posted a piece about Claire Grady leaving her role as editor of the Irish Independent, and the crass sexism of a couple of commenters was still there a day later.

Back on the Irish Independent’s Facebook page, two reports about tragic deaths were followed not just by sympathy from the majority but by hurtful and insulting comments distressing to anyone close to those involved.

On The Irish Times’s Facebook page there were horrible comments under the story about the gay-pride flag that will fly at Limerick Garda station.

On the Indo’s Facebook page a commenter said that a missing teen “looks like trouble”. (The commenter subsequently withdrew and apologised for the comment after a barrage of criticism.)

Facebook comments are not anonymous, and abuse is inevitably tackled by other commenters. In the main, though, the organisations running the pages tend to keep a distance, because Facebook is the publisher, and that is an important legal protection.

The result is a dichotomy in which media organs treat their Facebook pages as part of their brand but don’t always take responsibility for what others post on them. It not only erodes the genuine value in allowing the public a say but, surely, causes reputational damage too.

shegarty@irishtimes.com @shanehegarty

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