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​When Facebook attacks

by Rob Port | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Say Anything | July 22nd, 2015

Here's something to make you think about how you use social media.

On Thursday night last week I found myself talking to a man who told me that I’d made his mother cry.

The man was Fargo resident Kirk Ludwig, who found himself the target of hundreds of Facebook comments calling him a pervert and suggesting he be arrested and even physically harmed. The reason I made his mother cry was because she saw me defending her son on Chris Berg’s 6:30 Point of View program on Fargo’s KVLY television station.

“I wanted to thank you,” Ludwig told me. “Nobody else was sticking up for me.”

The genesis for this controversy was Ludwig’s decision to spend a weekday lunch hour in Fargo’s Island Park snapping some pictures near the public pool. Ludwig is a photography enthusiast who says he sometimes even gets paid to take pictures, but that day he was confronted by a man who accused him of photographing women and children in the park and demanded to see his camera.

That man, who I also spoke with, was Jed Felix. He told me he was convinced that Ludwig was acting inappropriately. After taking photographs of his own of Ludwig’s face and vehicle, Felix posted them on Facebook with an angry comment, saying he told Ludwig he would “smash his camera” if he continued taking pictures.

Felix then said he went to a movie with his wife only to come out a couple of hours later to find that his post had gone viral.

It was shared over 4,500 times and garnered hundreds of comments from people assuming the worst of Ludwig’s actions. They called him names. They suggested he was a sex predator. They suggested that he be beaten up. Even a law enforcement officer got in on the hate.

“Somebody should have stomped his guts out,” Clay County (Moorhead) Deputy Jason Hicks wrote. Hicks is currently under investigation by his department for the comment.

But here’s the thing: Out of all the people who were outraged by the supposed threat to public safety represented by Ludwig, not one of them called the police.

Felix confronted Ludwig about 1 p.m. The timestamp on Felix’s Facebook post was 1:13 p.m. The police weren’t alerted to the situation until around 4 p.m. according to Fargo Deputy Chief Joe Anderson.

The person who finally contacted law enforcement? Kirk Ludwig, who, as you can probably imagine, was absolutely terrified that he had become the target of a digital lynch mob.

Think about that for a moment. Out of all the people on social media who thought Ludwig was enough of a public threat to be arrested, or maybe even beaten on the spot, not one person thought to actually, you know, call the police.

Except for Ludwig himself, who didn’t break any laws in that park, though that didn’t stop Fargo Police, perhaps swayed by the heavy social media reaction, from banning him from park property anyway on legally dubious grounds.

This sort of thing has become all too common in our society.

We have democratized communication, which means that one needn’t be a television reporter or a newspaper editor to share news and opinions with a mass audience. That’s a good thing in many ways. This humble observer makes a very good living writing for an online audience.

Yet there is a dark side as well.

Social media has become something of an outrage machine, a place we go to satisfy a morbid and perverse desire to be made angry about things so that we may exercise indignant and self-righteous attitudes. We forget that we often aren’t getting the full story, or even an accurate story, and that the people or groups we are inveighing against are human beings with lives and families and a right to be treated justly.

By the time I spoke to Ludwig, two days after his run-in with Felix, he told me that he had been suspended from his day job and that the controversy was putting a strain on his marriage.

That’s a travesty, and there’s a lesson in it for all of us.

Think before you share. Try to understand before you judge.

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