Anonymity leads to atrocious behavior 

click to enlarge District 38's school board placed a single-issue bond (no mill levy override) for a new elementary school on the ballot this November. - COURTESY OF LEWIS-PALMER SCHOOL DISTRICT 38
  • Courtesy of Lewis-Palmer School District 38
  • District 38's school board placed a single-issue bond (no mill levy override) for a new elementary school on the ballot this November.

The digital world can be an ugly place.

When safely hidden behind a digital device, shielded from real-time, non-verbal reactions of other human beings, many people give in to anger, meanness and cruelty. Since the dawn of chat rooms and social media networks, people have hypothesized that anonymity leads to atrocious behavior. That is, until social network Nextdoor came along …

Nextdoor is a private social network for neighborhoods. To participate in discussions for a specific neighborhood, your phone billing address must match the address you use to join. That means each account is verified and tied directly to a neighborhood. When someone comments on Nextdoor, everyone knows exactly who the person is … and the neighborhood in which they live. It’s the furthest thing from anonymous.

And, yet, Nextdoor consistently proves to be one of the ugliest digital spaces out there.

Take, for example, the digital discourse happening right now on Nextdoor in Lewis-Palmer School District 38. The District is growing rapidly — a fact supported by Metrostudy data as well as a 7-percent increase in residential parcel count and 1,085 new construction single family residential permits within the District since 2017, according to El Paso County Assessor Steve Schleiker. To accommodate the growth, the school board attempted to pass a bond and mill levy override last year (both failed), and, after listening to community feedback placed a single-issue bond (no mill levy override) for a new elementary school on the ballot this November.

With any ballot issue there will always be some people passionately for it and some people passionately against it. I deeply believe that civil discussion of differences of opinion are vital for building community, and I’ve made a point of seeking out and listening to opponents on every school funding issues I’ve worked on. But I’ve never seen anything like the vitriol, personal attacks, cyberbullying, cyber-harassment and digital intimidation tactics being used by opponents of 4A.

In every meeting, conversation and volunteer training I’ve had in District 38, at least one person (more often two or three people) express fear about being identified as a supporter of the bond. They’ve witnessed incessant, malicious personal attacks leveled at anyone who dares to speak up. This intimidating, bullying behavior shows up across digital forums including comments on District social media accounts and community-focused Facebook groups. But the worst of it happens on Nextdoor.

The behavior has been so vicious and non-stop, many positive, polite people ceased engaging on Nextdoor or other digital media regarding 4A. Unfortunately, this only served to embolden the trolls because they became the loudest and most frequently posting voices in these spaces.

While I fully understand the desire to retreat from digital spaces filled with ugliness, digital media can be a powerful force for community-building when used purposefully, collaboratively and positively. It’s time to reclaim Nextdoor and every other ugly corner of the digital universe by regularly confronting trolls with exemplary kindness and collective action.

We don’t have to be forum moderators to take action when trolls invade digital spaces. We all have the power to cultivate civil discourse and digital etiquette. When we encounter ugliness online, we can say “Insulting, inflammatory content isn’t welcome here.” We can publicly demonstrate sympathy for anyone being attacked by saying, “I’m sorry this is happening — it’s completely inexcusable.” We can explain why a given post is unacceptable and call on the author to edit or delete.

We can also take ugly digital behavior as an opportunity to see the humanity of the person trolling. We can look at all the other things they post to find things we share in common. We can attempt to build bridges and find solutions that are mutually beneficial. At the very least, we can remind ourselves that, no matter how cruel their comments, there is some reason this matters so much to them — something going on in their life or from their past experience that leads them to act this way. And then we can look at them with compassion instead of anger, anxiety or frustration.

Purposeful, thoughtful, proactive social media use can transform ugly digital spaces into beautiful human places.

—Lauren Hug, J.D., LL.M. is a community engagement strategist and author of Digital Kindness: Being Human in a Hyper-Connected World. She worked on the 2017 Colorado Springs School District 11 mill levy override campaign and 2018 Harrison School District 2 bond campaign. She is currently working on the Lewis-Palmer School District 38 bond campaign.


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