Internet gossip sites hit hard in small cities

By Jennifer P. Brown
Kentucky New Era

In a courtroom, news reporters ought to be seen but never heard, so I had to resist the urge to stand and clap earlier this month at the Christian County Justice Center when I heard a judge offer his opinion of the internet site called Topix.
Special Judge Phillip Patton was presiding over the selection of a jury in the Oak Grove massage parlor murder trial and he needed to determine if any potential jurors had been exposed to pretrial publicity that would disqualify them from serving. He cited several sources of information, including news media and social media, where a potential juror might have read or heard details of the murders of Gloria Ross and Candace Belt at New Life Massage Parlor in 1994. But Patton mentioned Topix in the most unfavorable light and said “99 percent” of what is posted on the site’s forums is false.
I think the judge nailed it.
Topix, if you didn’t know, is an internet site that hosts community forums across the United States and overseas. It is a free-wheeling virtual world because nearly 100 percent of the people who comment on the site choose to be anonymous.
Of course, anonymity is a free pass for bad behavior.
People who must account for their words would never say or write much of what appears on the Topix threads.
Topix is the place where gossip runs rampant and where racism, misogyny and bigotry can thrive unchecked.
Although this column is attached to my name and photograph, I’m not being particularly brave in saying that I think there’s not much to admire on internet sites like Topix. It’s obvious to anyone who like factual and humane writing.
But there’s something about Topix that makes it more harmful in communities like ours, which is why I am writing about it. See, the funny thing about Topix is the way it takes hold in smaller cities and towns but not in metropolitan areas. The smaller the community, the bigger the wallop from the gossip machine on Topix.
I first learned about the impact of Topix on small places from a public radio program segment on “This American Life” a couple of years ago. It featured the story of a man who was the subject of malicious lies spread through Topix. He was accused of offensive sexual behavior by people who did not reveal their true identities. But with the help of a lawyer he unmask his critics and learned who was behind the gossip.
He was surprised to learn that “the nastiest posters were actually just one person,” the program described. One woman, who had disliked him when they were co-workers 10 years earlier, had created three different identities on Topix, which she named “Calvin, Mouth and Bugs.” She had her three fake characters carrying on conversations about the poor guy.
Sound like anything you’ve seen on anonymous internet discussions of Hopkinsville?
People who defend anonymous commentary will say that it is sometimes the only way to criticize powerful people and elected officials without suffering retaliation. That’s true in some cases, but that’s only a small part of the anonymous posting that I’ve seen on the internet. In fact, there are dozens of examples every month of anonymous internet talk about Hopkinsville that doesn’t qualify as anything that even resembles a public affairs matter.
Like others who have been the subject of a Topix thread, I’ve gone to the site occasionally to see what was being written. And I’ve seen outrageous posts about friends and colleagues. Some of the conversations by the brave anonymous commenters were just silly. Others were cruel.
I’m sure it must be tempting for anyone who is the victim of a pack of lies on a site like Topix to jump into the fray and throw a few verbal punches — either in self-defense or as a diversionary tactic to put the dogs on a new scent.
I’ve avoided that temptation because it just seems indefensible. I wish I could also say that I resisted the temptation to read Topix at all. The fact that I have makes me part of the problem.
Maybe the only sensible way to dilute the harmful punch of anonymous lies and online bullying is to stay out of the neighborhoods where it lives.
I bet the good judge would agree with me.