EDITORIAL: Town retreats from Facebook

IS THERE LIFE AFTER FACEBOOK? The Chatham Town Board recently decided there might be and voted to un-Facebook itself. Or is it dis-Facebook. Whatever you call it, the Town Board doesn’t want to be liked anymore. No, wait, that’s not it, either.

The problem was that a few people posted unpleasant comments on the town’s Facebook page. Imagine that. Worse, at least one of the allegedly offending comments was removed by a person who is not a town official. This is not the same thing as helping yourself to a truckload of town gravel. The person who removed the comments created the page. So who’s in charge here?

(If you are reading this in the print edition of The Columbia Paper and have no idea what I’m talking about, consider yourself lucky and enjoy the rest of this week’s issue. A fact I found on the internet says that some people live happy, fulfilling, productive lives without Facebook.)

The Chatham Town Board only recently entered the world of social media via the board’s Communications Committee, which includes two board members and some private citizens. Linda Ziskind was one of the citizens and last spring she launched the official Town of Chatham Facebook page. It had a map, an update on a community event and links to related Facebook pages, including the town Highway Department and Chatham Cares 4 U, the innovative program of the Chatham Police Department that finds treatment services for people addicted to drugs.

The page also hosts photos of Chatham. Among them was a snowy scene on Main Street, a charming view of the Village of Chatham, not the town. The error was subsequently corrected. But the person who wrote the correction decided to add a sentence thanking the town highway crew for doing a good job plowing the street. Such a nice gesture that was, too, except that it’s the state that plows the street. Ugh.

These small screw-ups might easily have been avoided by asking somebody with local knowledge to glance at whatever was being posted. But underlying them is the question: How did Ms. Ziskind or anybody else associated the town determine that a statement made by a citizen on a public forum is not appropriate for the public to see.

When the government deletes or hides information that should be public, that’s called censorship. Sometimes the law protects personal privacy or restricts access to information for public safety. But that’s not the case for most Facebook posts or tweets or any other statements on social media platforms. That’s part of the attraction. People can and do say pretty much anything they feel like on social media. Ask the tweeter-in-chief.

In the news business we make these decisions about what’s appropriate all the time. It’s part of the product we sell. We select and report information we think you’ll want to know, leaving out lots of stuff that doesn’t fit or isn’t relevant. That works because the press has no power to tax and no police force or courts. We have only the power to persuade.

Government can’t arbitrarily restrict Facebook posts, granting some people the right of free speech while denying it to others. The Constitution forbids that.

Chatham could have adopted a stack of rules to define its limits on Facebook posts. But then it would have to pay somebody to monitor the page and enforce the rules. That could prove expensive and it’s guaranteed to make some people angry. So the town opted to shut down the page.

Facebook, not mainstream media, has been a prime source of fake news. It’s also creepy because the public knows so little about what it does with all the information it collects on us users who eagerly surrender our personal data to the company. But though it’s hard to admit, Facebook can also be a useful tool for a town that wants to communicate with the public. Surely the town Communications Committee could have researched how other municipalities have learned to coexist with Facebook.

As of the middle of this week, the Town of Chatham Facebook page had not yet disappeared into internet heaven. Perhaps the site and its mis-captioned photo of Main Street will endure for eons.

Town Board member Henry Swartz suggested that if residents of the town had something to say, they should attend board meetings. Yeah, that’s good. They could read the newspaper, too. But both attending or reading about a meeting would mean giving up time on Facebook, and that’s asking a lot.

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