What We Can Learn From Coverage of A Mother Thing's Walmart Post

4 years ago

There was a girl at camp who told us stories that didn't quite add up. They may have been true, or they may have been outright lies; as kids, we had no way to know. My friends and I sometimes privately joked about the stories, which always ended with someone pulling the girl back from the brink of death, but we never confronted the girl, or publicly humiliated her, or called her mother to corroborate the story. Mostly because ... what if?

What if she really had been in a car accident? What if she really did have hemophilia? As kids, we were fairly merciful, knowing that we wanted to be believed even when our stories couldn't be proven. We believed in the monsters under the bed, and we wanted our parents to believe they might be there too, so they'd check under the dust ruffle instead of rolling their eyes. We didn't confront, because all of us could imagine how we'd feel if we were confronted in a public way.

Early in August, Katie Carpenter of at A Mother Thing posted that her son had been harassed by a fellow shopper at a Florida Walmart for wearing a pink headband. (The post has since been removed, and the blog closed down into maintenance mode.) The Walmart post (which you can read on MSN) was passed from blogger to blogger, spreading across the Internet like wildfire. People were enraged; how dare a stranger touch her child?The judgement of the gender police! What messages are we giving our children?

Then last week, as often happens after the Internet is stirred, a second wave comprised of skeptics started calling bullshit on the story. Prove it, some people said. People started combing Katie's past posts, looking for anything that could be used to discount her veracity. She's a pathological liar, some people said. She was debated and discussed.

What happened to simply clicking away?

Image: ~AlexandraKayHarris via Flickr

According to the Orlando Sentinel in an August 6 story, Carpenter told police that she received 11,000 emails and harassing phone calls after the post went live. Invoking the Baker Act, Polk County officials placed her into protective custody when she voiced thoughts of suicide to police. From the Sentinel story:

Carpenter told deputies, according to the report, "that the attention obtained by her story and the negative comments and communications to her had become too much stress and she could not handle the situation...anymore," and was thinking of killing herself.

Somehow, in all the coverage online and in the media, people are overlooking that there is a very real person in pain. Or, at the very least, no one is behaving as we would if we were face-to-face with someone in emotional pain. While we know better than to jeer at someone having a breakdown in front of us, we tend to forget that when we can hide behind the screen.

We've played out this story before, memorably with Jason Russell. After his very public breakdown following the viral spread of his video Kony 2012, his wife Danica released a statement that read in part:

Even for us, it's hard to understand the sudden transition from relative anonymity to worldwide attention — both raves and ridicules, in a matter of days.

Russell became a joke on South Park, a blip on the Internet -- except, of course, to himself, and the people who love him. Between the speculation and gawking is a very real person who needs to continue to live his life even after all that has been said. And that is, once again, what is missing as people tear apart Katie Carpenter.

We don't know the truth, and yet a lot of posts are going up dissecting... nothing. That's what we have here so far: nothing; except a tendency for the Internet to rush in waves to defend or condemn, rather than move cautiously toward the truth. It's a horrible habit we've gotten into online that has spread to the mainstream media that misreport news in an effort to be first, bigger, and more knowledgeable than the competition.

In this case, none of the reporting comes from viewing Walmart store video (the Sentinel, in its story of last week, reported that police will review any "possible video" that they can obtain). Nobody has yet heard a confession by the alleged perpetrator or by the blogger herself. Nor has a witness stepped forward to confirm or deny the incident. Right now, we have the Sentinel's report and a lot of opinions. Just Google "Katie Vyktoriah," the name she wrote under, and see the many, many opinions for yourself.

Whether or not you believe the story, whether or not Katie Carpenter is telling the truth, is beside the point. Of course we want the truth. Of course the online world is only as strong as the trust we have in the words that appear on the screen.

It's not lying that is damaging the reputation of the Internet; it's the vitriol. It's forgetting that there are very real people reading our words. It's behaving online in ways that we'd never behave in the face-to-face world.

I think if we could get that under control, if we could act online as my campmates and I did with the girl with the stories -- ignoring when we personally stop believing, instead of publicly embarrassing or threatening -- we really can make the Internet a better place.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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