About 3 years ago I met a guy named Randy through a dating website. We met up for our first official date and things went well so we set up a second date. On our second date we walked our dogs through Washington Park and my dog barked excitedly at a woman with a dog in a baby carriage. The woman was startled and said her dog was very weak and had cancer. I pulled him back and apologized and no harm was done but the woman was distraught and she began to follow us as we kept walking. We stopped walking when she began to scream at us. She said we needed to control our dogs so we apologized again and kept walking. She began to take photos and we just kept walking unsure what to do. A few days later I started hearing about how a photo of Randy and I had appeared on Facebook with this caption:
“Denver Peeps. Do you know who this guy and girl are? His dog attacked a lab in a stroller today at Wash Park. The dog has end stage cancer and that’s why it’s in the stroller. He screamed at her and told her her dog was not a baby. When she told him her dog was dying of cancer he said he was happy for her. Someone needs kicked in the balls.”
I hoped things would blow over but they didn’t. The photo was shared thousands of times and people wrote the most heinous things about how someone should murder us with machetes, run us over with a car and some other totally outrageous things. I couldn’t believe people were writing such awful things about something that wasn’t even true. People assumed that we had done something wrong because someone claimed that we had. Eventually as I read through the comments I came across my own student’s names identifying me in the photo by name. I was so scared that people would come and find me at home or work that I called a lawyer and she wasn’t sure what to do. We contacted Facebook and asked that they please remove the photo because it was clearly putting Randy and I (and our dogs) in danger due to the threatening comments. They finally took it down after I sent screenshots of the comments to them (and this was after three separate requests to have the photos removed). Here is a sampling of some of the thousands of comments made about Randy and I.
“I have gas an room in my SUV who wants to hunt the POS down and break his bones?”
“Maybe a little extra lead in their diet! I will volunteer…”
“This asshole needs to be found and brutally beaten!”
I learned so much from this experience, especially about how we perceive things online. Everyday we see things posted from photos of people who have supposedly done something wrong from cutting someone off in traffic to being rude in a supermarket line. We see these posts in neighborhood groups on Facebook and apps like Nextdoor. As for my personal learning from this experience I have learned to take everything with a grain of salt and not to jump to conclusions. Though I like to pretend I didn’t jump to conclusions before this happened, there were times that I believed something without looking into it. Professionally I have used this knowledge to teach my students to use the same lens when looking at online information and to question things that don’t seem quite right. I have used this story to discuss public shaming and online bullying with my students, too. Randy and now happily married and we still chuckle about this story from time to time but it was quite terrifying while it was happening. So the next time you see something online, think twice about the content. There are two sides to every story.
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