Guest Column: The age of the trolls

By Tim Rollins
Rockford Board of Education member, Subdistrict B

Ms. Jane Hayes and I finally found something on which we agree. In her guest column last week (“Free speech empowered,” Jan. 28-Feb. 3 issue), she decried the decline of investigative journalism. I agree that the nationwide (and global) decline in journalism is a mounting problem in our society, because, as the saying goes, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” In this case, the vacuum is being filled with people who are not journalists and do not understand and subscribe to journalistic standards.

Two years ago, Smithsonian ran an article (written by a real journalist) about Jaron Lanier. Mr. Lanier is one of the people whose work led to the development of the World Wide Web as we know it today. He now lectures about the evils of the “hive mind” that he helped create. (R. Rosenbaum, “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold 2.0,” Smithsonian, January 2013, at 24).

The following passage from the article stuck with me when I first read it: “As far back as the turn of the century, he singled out one standout aspect of the new web culture — the acceptance, the welcoming of anonymous commenters on websites — as a danger to political discourse and the polity itself. At the time, this objection seemed a bit extreme. But he saw anonymity as a poison seed. The way it didn’t hide, but, in fact, brandished the ugliness of human nature beneath the anonymous screen-name masks. An enabling and foreshadowing of mob rule, not a growth of democracy, but an accretion of tribalism. It’s taken a while for this prophecy to come true, a while for this mode of communication to replace and degrade political conversation, to drive out any ambiguity. Or departure from the binary. But it slowly is turning us into a nation of hate-filled trolls.” (R. Rosenbaum, “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold 2.0,” Smithsonian, January 2013, at 28).

Ms. Hayes apparently now fancies herself a journalist. Innuendo is not journalism. If the Rockford School District requires students to sit in their classrooms with “no heat,” when did that occur, for how long, what were the circumstances, and how many students were affected? If the administration is “two or three times as large as it was under the former superintendent,” how many administrators were there under the former superintendent, and how many are there now? In what way is the Auburn Field House (which was built in compliance with all applicable accessibility requirements) “difficult to access for the physically challenged”? If we denied a student who was eligible for free lunch a free lunch (which would violate federal law), who was it and when did it occur? If we “place unqualified teachers in positions as favors,” who did we place, what were the qualifications of the position, what were the qualifications of the person who received the job, and what were the qualifications of the other people who applied who were not placed in the position? These are the sorts of questions real journalists ask, and these are the sorts of facts real journalists include in their articles. They are notably absent from Ms. Hayes’ columns. No, she is not a journalist, and I think Mr. Rosenbaum probably found a better phrase to describe her than I ever could.

What is particularly ironic about Ms. Hayes’ behavior is that she also fancies herself to be a supporter of public education. If we want our children to be successful, we need to instill in them critical thinking skills — the ability to ask good questions, gather facts, look at multiple points of view, and find good answers based on the best available information. Every day across the district, our teachers work to develop these skills in our students. Innuendo and rumor-mongering by someone who supposedly supports them does not do justice to their efforts, and does not in any way support public education.

Finally, if we want, as a community and a society, to solve the many problems we face, we need to do that through civil discourse that includes discussion of actual facts while we search for solutions. Otherwise, I fear we really will cede our society to the hate-filled trolls.

Tim Rollins is a member of the Rockford Board of Education, representing Subdistrict B. The views he expresses here are his own.

From the Feb. 4-10, 2015, issue

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