Freedom of Reach: how our local news landscapes have changed

When Facebook arrived I thought that having to reveal your identity would make things better. Boy, was I wrong.

Back in 2006, when The Hook, a now defunct alt-weekly I was working for in Charlottesville, Virginia, began putting all their stories online, one of the most dramatic changes was how the online comments under the stories grew. Sometimes there were as many as 400 comments under stories, with a greater word count than the story itself, and often the discussions got so unruly and abusive that we had to begin moderating them. What struck me at the time was how willing people were, often under anonymous handle names, to abuse and attack each other. Granted, much of the discussion was also intelligent and healthy, but far too often it was mean and combative, and questionable information and accusations were shared. I remember thinking at the time that interacting with other people this way was problematic, as the lack of intimacy online seemed to allow people to be far more harsh than they would be if they were interacting with someone face-to-face. This began to soften a bit over time, as people began to acknowledge and understand that there were real people sitting at their computers on the other end, and I had some hope that we would evolve in a way that our online behavior might mirror the same behavior we adopted in person. When Facebook arrived I thought that having to reveal your identity would make things better. Boy, was I wrong.

I didn't realize it at the time, but what we were experiencing at The Hook when we moved online -- besides the destruction of the local newspaper business, of course -- was a change in the way information/news is published/broadcast and consumed by people that historians will likely identify as a major technological/societal turning point, equivalent to the invention of the printing press, which has given every individual on the planet with internet access the potential power to reach millions of people. Now everyone has their own printing press. As comedian Sacha Baron Cohen negatively characterized it, "the freedom of reach."

Today, in Charlottesville, local news and information appears on social media platforms before it does in the media. In fact, media stories are often generated by what first appears on social media. The kind of people who used to comment on Hook stories, who developed an online presence, now have thousands of followers and can influence much of the narrative. When Nikuyah Walker became mayor, the first Black woman to be mayor of Charlottesville, she bristled when I suggested she try to build a better relationship with the press, explaining that it would help with the accuracy of the reporting on her, but she rejected that and said she preferred to communicate directly to people on her social media platforms, and on the city's own broadcast network. Likewise, independent journalists no longer associated with publications are finding large audiences of their own, developing followings that rival and even exceed the reach of traditional local media.

Today, you could argue that the public narratives that inform our daily lives in Charlottesville are generated by social media influencers, not the media. What traditional local journalism does still do, however, is provide context and gather the narrative information into detailed, single stories [under duress, I might add, because their jobs seem constantly to be under threat] that still have an institutional authority as publications of record. But often those interpretations clash with public narratives that have already been formed and shared online before those stories even go to press.

Unfortunately, to my horror, what I first noticed in the online comments at The Hook has since grown into the biggest public propaganda machine in human history. Jonathan Swift wrote that “falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late," and that was long before we had technology that allows a single human being to easily deliver falsehoods and incendiary comments to millions of people at the touch of a button. While there is much good, even great and truthful information out there, this unbridled flow of "news" across the planet has demonstrated a capacity to agitate and inflame public discourse. Even in our own small town. And has, and could again, sway a Presidential election.

As I tried to explain in a story I wrote about the lead up to the violence here in Charlottesville on August 12, 2017, what happened online, for better or worse, was largely responsible for inflaming the discussion our community was having about race and monuments. Unfortunately, various factions would cherry pick information to assign blame for what happened, overlooking the fact that the internet and social media, where information can suddenly "go viral" in ways no one seems to completely understand, simply amplified certain narratives. Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right Rally, was virtually unknown before he discovered some problematic old tweets by then Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy. Indeed, you'll find virtually nothing about Kessler online before he published Bellamy's tweets on his blog on Thanksgiving Day in 2016. After that, Kessler was mentioned repeatedly in the national media as the "local blogger" who discovered the tweets -- which were indeed vulgar, misogynistic, and disparaged white people -- and he very quickly attracted the attention of white supremacists groups. Then Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe would even end up admonishing Bellamy for his old tweets, giving Kessler's nut job racist views a kind of legitimacy, and providing "evidence" for white supremacists across the country to confirm their own nut job beliefs. At the Unite the Right Rally some of Bellamy's old tweets were displayed on giant placards.

As a result, the largest group of racists idiots I've ever seen in one place gathered at a downtown park, wielding make-shift shields, clubs, and body armor like middle-schoolers at a Middle Ages-themed birthday party, along with a host of other characters - self-described anti-fascists warriors, gun toting militia members, clergy, BLM activists, pacifists, a guy in a white beard holding up a bible, a street painter, a guy selling water for $2 a bottle, and, of course, the state and local police, who passively allowed the mayhem to unfold. It was like the mayhem of those old comment threads on The Hook, with their venom and conspiracy theories, agendas and ideologies, had finally materialized in real life to do actual physical battle. With disastrous and tragic results.

Where are we now? I sometimes wish we could put the internet/social media genie back in the bottle, and go back to a time when people wrote stern letters to the editor and argued and gossiped in the local bars; when getting the news didn't involve scrolling through a cacophony of two sentence takes and short, clever replies that make the world seem so overwhelming. When I didn't feel the necessity to compartmentalize all this for the sake of my mental health, and the frequent impulse to add my own outrage and confusion to the mix. When engaging with people wasn't so easy, so brief, so trivial, and often so cruel.

Maybe for those who grew up with this, like my sons, it will be different and they will be able to incorporate all this in healthy ways. Indeed, younger journalists and writers on social media have developed an understanding of the medium, it’s combative, unwieldy nature, and have adapted language for it, complete with razor sharp half-sentence replies, e.e. cummings grammar and punctuation, and the deft use of emojis, memes, hashtags, and tagging.  Maybe, like it is most of the time, nostalgia for the way things used to be is something stupid old farts say. But I have my doubts.