Fanning the Flames

plague of negative web comments can squash good ideas

Tom Giffey, photos by Josh Smeltzer

I made the mistake recently of delving into a dark, unseemly world. A world that inverts any rays of sunshine into shadows. A world where no good deed goes unpunished, where any whiff of fresh air is met by a puff of brimstone.

I speak about the world of Internet comment threads – specifically, the comment threads that fester like a plague of blisters on articles on local media websites. I realize that trolling, flame wars, and other forms of anonymous nastiness are endemic on the Internet. And I suppose the people who spew virtual venom in the Chippewa Valley are probably no worse than those who do so elsewhere. But, being a longtime producer and consumer of local media, I can’t help but notice that sharpened tongues seem especially prevalent around here, particularly when someone does something as daring as come up with a New Idea.

The ill-informed backlash seemed to be a riff on Charlton Heston’s famous pledge about guns: You’ll have my plastic shopping bag when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

The New Idea, in this case, was the rather modest proposal that the city of Eau Claire look at ways to shrink the vast number (21 million, by one estimate) of plastic bags given out to local shoppers. Doing so could reduce waste, save money, and once and for all solve the problem of what do to with the 3,000 Target bags you have stashed in your pantry (besides cleaning up after Fido).

On March 12, the City Council voted unanimously to create a 14-member Sustainable Bag Committee, which will be composed of city residents, businesspeople, environmentalists, an educator, a waste management expert, and representatives of the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce. According to the resolution creating the committee, it has “the task of exploring the various possibilities to reduce, reuse or recycle plastic and paper bags and examine what others have done.” The committee is scheduled to give recommendations to the council by October. It’s important to note that nothing in the committee’s mandate involves banning plastic bags or, at this point, costs anyone any money.

So what’s not to like? Everything, at least to judge by many of the inflammatory comments that news of the proposal attracted. To the social media peanut gallery, this was a dangerous New Idea that easily fit into a stereotype about big bad government interfering with our lives. The ill-informed backlash seemed to be a riff on Charlton Heston’s famous pledge about guns: You’ll have my plastic shopping bag when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.

A story posted March 10 on the Leader-Telegram website drew 20 comments, many of them ad hominem attacks on council members Andrew Werthmann and Jackie Pavelski who were labeled “busybodies” who “have nothing better to do than think up ways to either spend our money, or direct our lives.”

“A good time to start shopping in other cities,” read one comment.
“Time to vote in some new council members I think. This is hogwash!” said another.

Among the 87 comments on WEAU.com, meanwhile, the word “idiot” (or its plural) was used no less than five times and at least one contributor was threatened with a punch in the nose.

“Whats (sic) next?? The council should work on bigger problems. They will want to control you in every way. Soon you’ll have to have council approval for all your bodily functions,” ranted one commenter.

 “This kind of stuff from our government is nonsense,” raved another. “We the voters have the power to stop this waste.” Sadly, the waste this person was complaining about wasn’t the tons of plastic needlessly produced, shipped, and stuffed into finite landfills; instead, it was the “waste” of elected officials creatively responding to constituents’ ecological concerns. The “waste” caused by forming the committee? Exactly zero.

Much of the criticism was framed this way: Why doesn’t the City Council tackle “real” issues such as plowing streets or filling potholes? Never mind that protecting the environment is a “real” issue. It also came from those who complained about the state of the local economy, as if forming this voluntary committee was somehow sapping the city’s efforts to attract or retain jobs.

There’s nothing unique about this scenario. Any media comment thread can be – and often is – hijacked by the loudest, angriest, and least-informed commenters. Overheated rhetoric squeezes out reasoned commentary. The majority of news consumers are given the impression – mistaken or not – that our community’s attitude is overwhelmingly negative. Reasonable new ideas are smothered. I worry that this not only inhibits public officials and citizens from voicing such ideas but also gives outsiders (at least those who surf over to our media) the impression that the Chippewa Valley is populated by angry, ill-informed jerks. Imagine being an entrepreneur considering relocating to Eau Claire and reading the bile spilled beneath those two stories. Would you want those people as your employees, customers, or neighbors? If you’re trying to make your hometown a better place, think about that before you click on “send.”

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