HANCOCK COUNTY — Nearly everyone does it: Post comments and opinions on social media sites.

While these forums are an excellent way to communicate with family and friends and share information, the sites often are breeding grounds for misinformation and unsubstantiated rumors. In some cases, the inaccuracies can be relatively harmless. In others, they can compromise public safety and have other unintended consequences.

Two recent situations involving the police illustrate how quickly false information shared on social media can spread and cause alarm.

–A post last week on Original Greenfield Gabber, a private-group page on Facebook, shared wildly speculative — and inaccurate — information about a death investigation at a home on North Harrison Street in Greenfield.

–On Jan. 25, Greenfield Police Department posted to its own Facebook page an alert about a “suspicious vehicle” at Dellen Automotive on West Main Street. Rumors quickly became rampant, eventually leading GPD to post an extraordinary rebuke.

Facebook alone has upwards of 2.8 billion users. It and other social media sites such as Twitter and Instagram have changed the way people get information, including news. It’s easier than ever to conflate rumor and deliberate falsehoods with well-sourced information, which is a big challenge.

“The role of media is to seek and report the truth, and we live in a time where media literacy has never been more important and yet more lacking,” said Juli Metzger, an associate lecturer in the Department of Journalism at Ball State University and a longtime journalist in Indiana. “Social media is unreliable content, yet so many turn to it as their single greatest source of information.”

Hancock County community pages on Facebook alone have thousands of followers. Administrators of two of the most popular ones rightly say they are helpful resources for the communities they serve. They also say they work to police the posts, removing those that promote unsubstantiated rumors or that attack other people. But with “keyboard warriors” posting all the time, it’s hard to be an attentive moderator 24 hours a day, they say.

Original Greenfield Gabber posts about the death investigation on North Harrison Street, for example, were taken down, but not before at least one person concluded a triple homicide had occurred there. Rumors were fueled by the length of time investigators were at the scene, leading some online to infer that must have meant a crime had occurred.

It turns out a 65-year-old woman had died alone inside her home, police said.

Capt. Chuck McMichael, public information officer for the Greenfield police, was frustrated by the online response to the two incidents. People are naturally curious about incidents that involve police and other first-responders, but when curiosity boils over into excited, if inaccurate, speculation, no public interest is served, he said.

“Some of these posts get to the point of potentially putting lives at danger by the comments and speculations,” McMichael said. “It’s terrible to see some of the things, but there is no way to stop it.”

In the aftermath of the Dellen Automotive incident — which led some people to inaccurately conclude involved a bomb — GPD and McMichael posted to GPD’s Facebook page:

“Please do your best to not speculate on the information we are putting out and draw any conclusion as to what is/could be happening,” the post said. “There are a lot incorrect comments by people on our post this morning from the suspicious vehicle at Dellen Chevrolet. These comments (not specifically on that post) can lead to confusion and fear, potentially putting more people at risk. They can also damage reputations of people/businesses that have nothing to do with the activity occurring.”

It continued:

“Social media is our friend if used correctly. If 2020 has taught us anything, it would be to be cautious of what you see on social media. Not all posts are accurate or reliable. Please rely only on trusted sources of information.”

McMichael noted GPD can respond fairly quickly to comments on the department’s own page, but they don’t have that luxury on community pages, which are private and open by invitation only. They can’t do anything about what people post.

“It’s a challenge for sure,” McMichael said.

That’s where the moderators come in.

Janet Williams, Greenfield, administers Original Greenfield Gabber, which has nearly 7,000 followers. She does not like seeing inflammatory or inaccurate posts and only wants people to post the truth.

“We encourage people to not post information on their own, but if they get something from the police, then that’s OK,” Williams said. “I go in, and when I see posts that may be wrong, I’ll take those down.”

Williams noted the page was started as a place to bring the community together by helping others in need. The page, for example, is a great resource for sharing information about local businesses and community activities. Williams has a moderator who helps her keep an eye on the page, but she said sometimes things do get posted that shouldn’t.

“It’s important to me what we post is true and not false,” Williams said. “We don’t like any kind of public shaming or anything like that.”

She, too, was frustrated with the false information surrounding the Harrison Street victim last week, knowing family members or friends might have seen the posts before being officially notified.

“People need to not speculate on things,” Williams said.

Police matters, of course, are not the only situations subject to misinformation.

For example, many school corporations, due to the nature of being decision-makers who influence many lives, are often the subject of posts that can be filled with inaccurate information.

Wes Anderson, community relations director for Southern Hancock schools, spends much of his time monitoring social media pages such as New Pal Parents and New Pal Community. Sometimes, he responds to posts to dispel rumors associated with false information.

“I try to give people an outlet to go and get the right information,” Anderson said. “I think being available and transparent is really important.”

Still, Anderson noted social media posts can be problematic, even toxic, and can have a negative impact on people and their mental health.

“Social media affects how we get our news and interact with the world,” Anderson said.

Anderson describes social media community posts as a “necessary evil” because it’s how people connect nowdays. District officials have to go to where people go to get their information.

Getting ahead of information and addressing rumors is a significant part of Anderson’s job.

“Some of the situations where things really get rolling is very challenging,” he said. “My main concern is always with student and staff privacy.”

Anderson tries to work with the administrators of private group pages to make sure they set guidelines and push back or take down inappropriate and inaccurate information.

“My biggest concern with inaccurate information is once the snowball gets rolling, it’s tough to stop,” Anderson said.

Karri Harbert, New Palestine, is a former administrator for the New Pal Parents Facebook page and current administrator for the New Pal Community page, both private groups with over 5,000 patrons. While the sites have rules, Harbert admits sometimes posts go too far, spreading false or private information.

“Some people are keyboard warriors,” Harbert said. “But we don’t want anyone calling anyone out by name or showing anything identifying about anyone.”

The site does not allow photos of vehicle accidents and will share potentially controversial information only from established media outlets or law enforcement.

Harbert gets a notification on every post, which she and other administrators keep an eye on. But she noted that administrators all have full-time jobs and families, and sometimes things will get posted that they’ll have to take down once they see them.

The pages are supposed to bring the community together, allowing members to help each other; share acts of kindness; and get accurate information. When people follow those guidelines, they’re useful and don’t cause harm, she said.

“There is so much more good than there is bad with these groups,” Harbert said. “If people go too far, we delete or just block them.”
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