Op-Ed: When a Local “News” Source Becomes the Town Bully; What Can You Do?

Updated: Jan 30, 2020

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Kayla McDonald

There’s a rising concern in Muskoka, as many residents have noticed a trend with one of our local news outlets. What was once a go-to source for local news, events, traffic updates and weather reports has increasingly become a platform for the author’s personal bias, agenda and community shaming. Boosting their own clout is often prioritized over ethics, accuracy and the well-being of community members. As residents and visitors to Muskoka, we need to be concerned with a peer-based surveillance and evaluation platform actively operating in our community. 

This activity has the potential to cause harm to individuals and businesses which operate in this community. The act of public shaming (i.e. posting photos of unknowing tourists, residents, vehicles, etc.) is commonly practiced and often without regard for the individuals in the photos. It is not uncommon for the perceived “wrongdoing” to be based on the author’s personal opinion and at times, lacks any merit. There have been posts of personal vehicles, with visible identifying features such as a license plate, accompanied by a caption that offers a slanted representation of the true situation. The onus then falls on the individual to hopefully see the post and defend themselves amongst the negative comments that often result. 

This type of behaviour normalizes community bullying. It also influences members of the public to seek out opportunities to take pictures of behaviour they deem unacceptable as well. Although, accredited media outlets often rely on the public for tips, their journalists practice proper judgement, based on their code of ethics, before they post. The author of this particular outlet does not appear to practice this. Instead, prioritizes what will generate the most social media engagement with no regard for those affected by the story. It only takes one inflammatory post for a local business or individual to have their integrity brought into question and suffer personal and/or professional consequences. Muskoka is a wonderful community, and the citizens and visitors do not deserve to feel unsafe, shamed or exploited at any time. 

What is truly troubling about the operation of this platform is that many people feel as though they cannot speak up for fear of retribution, public humiliation or without harm to their personal or professional interests. Those who have expressed an opinion that differs from the author have been threatened. In one instance in which a local business owner agreed with an alternative viewpoint, she was explicitly told by the author that “as a business owner”, she should not poke the bear while taunting her to “bring it.” Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Under the condition of anonymity for fear of further repercussions, other community members have shared experiences of defamatory posts made about them and threats to undermine their business. As a leader in the community with a large media based platform to speak from, this is a gross abuse of power. We would never teach our children that bullying or threatening others is acceptable, and it absolutely should not be tolerated by anyone in our community.

For those who are brave enough to speak out, it has become common practice for the author to delete comments or ban users entirely. This sends the message that unless we agree with the author’s narrative, we are not allowed to be heard. This behaviour completely devalues and undermines our right to free speech. It also perpetuates the author’s word as being more important and factual than that of the community, regardless of accuracy. This is especially troubling when we consider posts surrounding the topic of public safety. For example, the author made a post advising drivers to not use their hazard lights during poor road conditions. Then proceeded to delete comments that pointed out Ontario does not have specific restrictions on the use of hazard lights. An accredited media outlet would be liable to fact-check this type of information, and at the very least, post a public retraction if proven wrong. The author of this outlet chooses to present personal opinions as facts, and then silences those that may prove otherwise. 

With the rise of social media, it’s become increasingly easier to position yourself as an authority.   Unfortunately, there are no regulations that stop someone from claiming to be a journalist or positioning their platform as a credible news source. It puts the onus on us as readers to constantly judge the validity of an outlet, which can be difficult. This is why it’s important that we start raising awareness about the issues surrounding toxic news outlets. It’s scary to live in a community where you or someone you love is only one photo away from having their reputation called into question. For local business owners who rely on word-of-mouth advertising, the results of a public shaming campaign can be devastating. Frankly, no one who lives or visits this community should live in fear that they may fall victim. They most certainly shouldn’t be subject to bullying or threats if they do not fall in line with a person in a position of influence. 

As readers, we do have the power to make a difference. We do not have to accept anyone, news outlet or otherwise, acting as the town bully. Media outlets rely on advertising revenue to operate successfully. In order to appeal to advertisers, these media outlets require a large and engaged following. By carefully choosing which platforms we engage with and support, members of our community can have a significant impact on which outlets have the ability to operate. By choosing not to support toxic content, we can make a difference.

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