Rep. Anthony Brindisi pretty much summed it up.
“Social media has changed the way people communicate and has opened a Pandora’s box for abuse and harassment in ways we could not have anticipated. This case is an example of that and we must be better.”
The case the congressman referred to is that of Bianca Devins, a 17-year-old Utican who was killed last month. Graphic, violent photos of her body were posted online by the man charged in her death, and those photos accompanied messages sent to her family via social media.
Brindisi met Wednesday with Devins’ mother and grandfather, at which time he said, “The pain of losing a child is unimaginable, but to have that pain exploited, mocked and shared on social media is a trauma that no family ever should have to go through.”
Brindisi said Instagram and other social media sources must be more vigilant in policing their sites. And if they can’t stop such horrific things from being posted, he said the Federal Trade Commission needs to step in and find a way to prevent this kind of behavior in the future.
Brindisi, of course, is right. No family should ever have to endure such an awful thing. But stopping such heartless horror puts us on a slippery slope. Covered by an umbrella known as the First Amendment, it becomes a constitutional conundrum whenever we begin talking about censorship.
Who draws the line on what’s allowed or not?
Before social media, restrictions on what to print or what not to print were pretty much decided by publishers and editors. Responsibly. Reporters — trained journalists — were charged with digging out facts and writing stories, which were checked and doublechecked by various editors along the way before being delivered to the public. That’s still pretty much the way it works. Libel and slander aside, often the question isn’t CAN we print this, but SHOULD we print it.
One celebrated case back in 2005 involved a series of 12 Danish political cartoons mocking the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoons enraged the Muslim world, and also stirred fiery debate in this country over whether newspapers should be able to publish them. No debate. Of course, they should.
But the bigger question is: Should they?
Our answer then — and now — is no. We obviously have a great respect for the First Amendment, but it’s important for journalists — and everyone, really — to understand that just because free speech is protected, it still boils down to three things — decency, respect and responsibility. Without that, we’re no better than the heartless people who pass along graphic images, fake news or other such bluster that has become social media’s calling card.
Make no mistake, social media has its place and is here to stay, like it or not. But finding a way to weave responsibility into the context is a formidable challenge. Anyone with access to technology — that’s just about anyone — can send out whatever.
We wish Congressman Brindisi luck.
An editorial from the Utica (New York) Observer-Disptach.