Online rhetoric against criminals disturbing


After graduating from SLU in December, I was hired as a social media and evening online editor at a mid-sized newspaper in the Greater St. Louis area. I was excited to find employment so soon after graduation, and I have loved working in my current position for nearly two and a half months now.

Our newspaper works on a lot of crime in an area with many smaller cities and towns. Nearly every day involves at least one story about murder, robbery, sexual assault…you name it. Part of my job is to post these stories on our website, push them out to social media and monitor comments on Facebook for any racist or foul language that gets past the auto-filter.

Before I started this job, I stayed far away from internet comment sections. I was aware of the kind of filth that often lurked within them, and I had no desire to spend any time reading the garbage that internet trolls were spewing. While it used to be easy to completely ignore comment sections, be they on Facebook or other sites, that has become impossible now.

One particularly disturbing trend I have noticed in these Facebook comments is the quickness for people to jump to the extreme on punishment for the crimes on which we report. If some internet commenters got their way, we would be sentencing unarmed robbers to death, and castrating and then killing everyone who commits sexual assault. It is also incredibly common to see comments celebrating the potential for criminals to be sexually assaulted in prison. These views are even more extreme than the biblical an “eye for an eye,” and that is unnerving.

Many of these harsh comments come on posts announcing the arrest of a suspect in a crime. People are not even waiting for a conviction to sentence people in their minds. What has happened to innocent until proven guilty, or no cruel and unusual punishment?

I just do not understand how people can be so quick to judge—and so harshly—a situation about which they know next to nothing. It makes me thankful that we have a criminal justice system that allows everyone a chance to defend him or herself, but it also makes me worry about the trial-of-our-peers aspect, which leaves the fates of the accused up to people who may share similar views to the people who post on our Facebook page.

I would expect to see these comments on anonymous forums, where no one knows who you are – but on Facebook, where your full name and personal information are available to anyone and everyone? It is surprising to see people so willing to express such extreme views with their identities so on display.

In some ways, when I reflect on these aggressive, thoughtless comments, it feels fitting that the Republican frontrunner for president is Donald J. Trump, the brashest, angriest, most bigoted politician this country has seen in a long time—if ever. Trump is taking advantage of this open hostility, this rejection of peace, in order to advance his political aspirations and increase his power, and millions of people are supporting his campaign. It is hard to imagine that such a campaign would be successful in a world where people were not so quick to judge each other or wish violence upon each other.

My hope is that America is going through a passing angsty, rebellious phase, rather than beginning a permanent shift. I believe there is a lot of good that we can come together to accomplish, but we cannot do it if we spend our time jumping to conclusions, punishing others prematurely and showing a complete disregard for human life other than our own.

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