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Social Media

A reader recently called the office and asked a member of the editorial staff why social media companies like Facebook and Twitter have been shielded from lawsuits over the content users post on their platforms, while newspaper editors usually take extra precautions when publishing letters to the editor.

Social media platforms have been covered by Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, as they are not considered moderators of content provided by their users, but distributors. The same act protects distributors of books, magazines and newspapers.

It is a law that has become controversial, as The New York Times has pointed out, since it also covers websites that propagate hate speech. Websites can effectively set their own rules for what is and what is not allowed.

However, regarding newspapers, readers will often find that letters to the editor pages in many publications such as ours stress that the opinions of columnists and letter writers are their own. They do not speak for the newspaper. We also edit letters for length, libel, style and good taste,  and the editorial department vets them to ensure factual accuracy. While social media companies and internet service providers are protected under Section 230, newspapers, radio and television stations are held to a higher standard, allegedly due to their ability to moderate content and maintain editorial control.

At the same time, more social media sites are expressly moderating people’s posts. Facebook recently cited that it’s detecting and removing most hate speech before anyone sees it. If the argument was these sites didn’t have the capacity to moderate all its content, it is in the strange spot of arguing at the same time that it effectively can.

While outside content across the worldwide web is innumerable and almost impossible to keep track of, with a newspaper the content can be reviewed by an editor. Although most newspapers, including ours, are open to printing readers’ opinions no matter what side of the political aisle a person may take, as a privately owned business we have the option to decline to publish anything that comes across our desks. Based on our standard of ethics, letters can be declined if they include racist comments or defamatory statements — such as accusing a person of a crime, a breach of ethics or professional dishonesty. Newspapers can potentially bear the responsibility of being held accountable under libel laws if a letter claims something about a person that is known to be false or should have been known by the editorial staff. Of course, it’s hard to litigate libel in New York state, as one has to prove the defamation was made with actual malice.

Local newspapers like ours don’t always have the luxury of having numerous letters to choose from and, being familiar with the different viewpoints of community members, we have the right to decide not to publish letters that express extreme views. Still, we do our best to provide an outlet where everyone feels they can express their opinions and exercise their freedom of speech. However, unlike most posts on social media, we also understand the importance of protecting our community members as best as we can from hearsay.

Regarding Section 230, it may be time to hold social media accountable for the content that pops up in a person’s newsfeed. Let’s not forget which accounts have been suspended by Twitter or those who have been thrown in “Facebook jail.” It seems as if the technology is out there to decipher false claims and what is otherwise hate speech. The fact that these corporations seem to want autonomy while displaying they have the capacity to monitor their users’ messaging is untenable — the general political divisiveness and the proliferation of so much mistruth are reasons enough that laws need to change.

Considering how many rely on social media for information, it may be time for these platforms to step up to the plate and verify what their consumers read or risk government reform.

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File Photo

A video of two Shoreham-Wading River students using racial slurs and making racially derogatory comments on social media has led to significant backlash online and from district leaders.

A post Jovan Bradley put on Twitter about his interaction with two SWR students. Both student’s faces were intentionally blurred. Image taken from Twitter post

The video in question was on a platform called Omegle, which pairs random people for video chat. That interaction was then published to other social media apps TikTok and Twitter Nov. 10.

The video shows two unidentified young men, who have been named students in the Shoreham-Wading River school district, paired on the social media platform with a man named Jovan Bradley, who according to his Twitter profile lives in Poughkeepsie. Bradley started off the conversation with a greeting, then the young men started with “My N*****” and “What’s up, N****.” The video continues with one of the two young men calling Bradley “slave” and saying, “I’m going to whip you” and mimicking cracking a whip.

Bradley, who is mixed race, later posted a video of the interaction to Twitter and TikTok. In it, he repeatedly asked the young men, “Why?” The Twitter video has been viewed over 38,000 times. The TikTok video has been seen over 417,000 times as of Nov.16.

The names of the two young men have not been released or could not be independently confirmed by press time. People on social media went on trying to find the names of the two students, but some supposed names of the two young men involved have been mistaken for other social media profiles.

Superintendent of Schools Gerard Poole released a statement Nov. 12 saying the video was “reprehensible” and that it was “in clear violation of the core values of our school district.” Poole said the matter will be addressed with both students for further disciplinary action.

The superintendent added that the district is rooted in teachings of “tolerance, acceptance and the importance of embracing diversity,” and they have tried to “cultivate a sense of unity and inclusion in our school community.”

Like many North Shore school districts, Shoreham-Wading River is predominantly white. The district is 87% white, 1% Black, 8% Hispanic or Latino and 2% Asian, according to New York State Education Department data. Long Island has a long history of de facto segregation, and advocates most commonly express this discrepancy by comparing districts like those on the North Shore with places like Brentwood, which is predominately Black and Latino.

Bradley posted to Twitter that at least one parent had contacted him with an apology by one of the students. The other student has yet to send an apology, according to the Poughkeepsie man’s latest TikTok post. Bradley has posted that he has gone on Omegle to debate people and also publicly shared his response to the apology Nov. 13, saying he hopes the young man takes “positive things from this experience” and that he hopes the young man sees fault with his actions “at a human level.”

“Take this experience to continue to educate yourself on what has and is happening in our country,” Bradley said in his post. “I do wish you a bright future if you can make those changes. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

The Pew Research Center released a report last year saying more than half of U.S. adults, 55 percent, at least some of the time get their news through social media. Photo art

While there were times when people would meet at the post office or corner store to discuss local happenings or gossip, much of that has been transferred online, specifically, for many communities, onto Facebook.

Facebook, which was originally designed for college students to judge the attractiveness of coeds, has since morphed into a social media giant. Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, is worth over $54 billion. In that time the site has gained that popularity; the population of the over 2.3 million Facebook users has also skewed older as now the average user is between the age of 25 and 34.

In a 2017 report by Pew Research Center and Elon University, experts in the technology world generally said they believe online discourse will be shaped even more by trolls and other bad actors. Anonymity, experts said, is a leading cause of the general negativity seen with online communication.

“The most you can do with a forum is provide guidelines of what’s appropriate and what’s not and try and induce some level of civility.”

— Rob DeStefano

But what should happen if that negative communication is with the person living down the street, or with a mother or father in the same grade as your own child?

It’s hard to estimate just how much work goes into maintaining these community pages, and even more so, keeping individuals’ posts from spilling over into name calling, anger or worse. Community group admins, some of whom asked not to be named in this article due to the sensitivity of their jobs or their work with the community, spoke with TBR News Media about the difficulty of keeping topics online from spiraling out of control, especially those that deal with politics. It is something many admins of pages who wish to keep talk civil deal with on a daily basis.

Karen Sobel Lojeski, a professor in the College of Engineering at Stony Brook University, has talked about the impact social media has made on the professional world, but she also coined the name, The Threshold Generation, or effectively the last generation of people, aged in their 20s and upward, who knew what it was like to live both with and without these connective technologies.

Many of those who run these community groups are a part of that so-called threshold generation, and have noticed what has happened to the general discourse over time. Rob DeStefano, a member of the Comsewogue school board and lifetime member of the Port Jefferson Station/Terryville community, created and has run the Comsewogue Community Facebook page since 2010. What started as a group of just a few hundred members looking to talk about what was working or not working in the school district and local community has become 5,400 members posting about everything from local happenings to medical advice to politics, though one’s mileage may vary on the last one. 

“It’s certainly gotten harder because of the different ways social media is used compared to how it was then, but you just try and hold true to what the intent of the page is,” DeStefano said. “The goal is to make sure everyone in the community knows of things that are happening locally or beyond.”

The “beyond” is where things get complicated. Every year the community is notified of the Terryville Fire Department’s carnival or route for Santa during Christmastime, but when neighbors start discussions on topics, for example, about recent police protests and rallies, the dialogue becomes rough, to say the least.

“Your heart hurts hearing the way some people talk to each other on social media because you know it’s very different than how they behave in person,” he said. “The most you can do with a forum is provide guidelines of what’s appropriate and what’s not and try and induce some level of civility.”

Worse, is when these groups where admins try to stay nonpartisan deal with rumors, or worse, conspiracy theories. In early May, a video called “Plandemic” made its rounds on social media. In a video that called itself a trailer for a larger documentary, former chronic disease syndrome researcher Judy Mikovits talked about a large organized effort of global elites to profit off infectious diseases, despite there being no tangible evidence of this widespread conspiracy.  

“Then, even walking down the street or watching my kids games with other parents you could feel the hatred and tension.”

— Brenda Eimers Batter

The Pew Research Center released a report June 29 with a survey of 9,654 U.S. adults about how many people see conspiracy theories in COVID-19 news. The report said one in five of those who often rely on social media for coronavirus news say they watched at least part of the “Plandemic” video, while a comparative 10 percent of respondents who said they don’t get COVID news through social media saw it. Among those who have heard of this conspiracy, a reported 36 percent said they think it is either definitely or probably true.

“Plandemic” spread to multiple Facebook groups in the local area, and though many admins delete posts sharing the video, it wasn’t before likely hundreds of members saw it. 

Usually, the most volatile discussions revolve around politics, but sometimes, even cases of a local school district issue can devolve into vitriol. What’s worse is when that animosity leaps the screen and starts impacting normal life. Brenda Eimers Batter, who admins the nearly 2,500-member Facebook group UNOFFICIAL INFORMATIONAL Port Jeff Villagers, said she has seen how online dialogue can have a real impact on normal life. In 2017, with the Port Jefferson School District asking residents to vote on a $30 million bond, Eimers Batter said things got “really ugly.” 

“Then, even walking down the street or watching my kids games with other parents you could feel the hatred and tension,” she said. “That’s when I stepped in and tried to clean it up.”

That specific Facebook group, the most popular of a village with a real-world population of just over 8,100 residents, has seen changes over time, including a recent name change to add the word “Informational.” Smaller splinter groups in the village have broken off from the most popular page specifically for politics or for more hot button issues. It still does not stop some from regularly posting about such issues anyway.

For DeStefano, the objective is never to silence community residents, though he has felt he has had to delete posts when they seem incendiary. He says he tries to remind people that despite the digital divide, they remain neighbors.

“You wouldn’t talk to each other like this if you were standing on line next to a person in your local supermarket — so why do it here?” the Comsewogue school board trustee said. “People tend to isolate their behavior on social media as being separate from their identity, but it’s not.”

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#ResilientInSmithtown

November is Mental Health Awareness Month and the Town of Smithtown is seizing it as an opportunity to implement a social media campaign that highlights simple activities that help boost personal resilience. From Nov. 18 to 22, the Town’s Horizons Counseling & Education Center, the Youth Bureau and the Response Crisis Center will share advice, tips and resources to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram using the hashtag #ResilientInSmithtown. 

 This campaign is designed to educate residents about four kinds of personal attributes that boost mental well-being: physical, mental, emotional and social.  Strengthening these attributes contributes to living longer, happier lives, with a heightened ability to cope with life’s stressors. 

“This is a wonderful opportunity for residents to learn how they can have more control over their own personal resiliencies and be able to guide and support family members and friends,” said Stacey Standers, Town of Smithtown Youth Bureau executive director.

Residents of all ages are encouraged to participate in the educational campaign, which relies upon easy and fun exercises that will help Smithtown residents build upon their own personal strengths. 

Approximately one out of every five children in America has a diagnosable mental health disorder. Anxiety, depression and substance abuse are major issues impacting young people and their families, as well as schools and communities. Community education about the importance of bolstering one’s own personal resilience is beneficial at any age, town officials explain, and can be a vital component in maintaining mental health.

“There is a very clear and distinct correlation between childhood trauma and mental health issues and substance addiction,” said Matthew Neebe, director of Horizons Counseling & Education Center. “Problematic mental health issues experienced in childhood can very easily and often do follow individuals into maturity, creating a variety of long-term mental health issues that may cause self-medication through excessive drinking or substance abuse.” 

The campaign promotes scientifically validated activities that contribute to personal well-being. 

Physical resilience means the body can withstand more physical stress and heal itself faster. Mental resilience includes strengthening mental focus, discipline and will power, which is like a muscle that gets stronger the more it is exercised. Emotional resilience provokes powerful, positive emotions like curiosity or love, precisely when it’s needed the most. Social resilience strengthens from bonds with friends, family, neighbors and community.

Some of the recent posts include the following advice:

  • If you cannot change the situation, change your mind.
  • Once a situation is accepted for what it is, begin working on uncommon or creative solutions.
  • Humor can boost one’s mood, alleviate emotional distress and even buffer against depression.  Laughter and humor improve immune response, enhance perceptual flexibility and offset the effects of stress.
  • Positive reframing allows you to take control of your response to a situation by reframing it into a potential growth experience.
  • The first step of a good plan is to define what success looks like.

The postings are part of an ongoing campaign and represent one part of this initiative.

Look for Smithtown Youth Bureau on Facebook to find the different exercises and more information about #ResilientInSmithtown.

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A man at a March 14 PTA meeting in a high school in Rocky Point, New York, confronts a student in the aisle and holds a knife over his head. The pocket knife is closed and the man is trying to make a point about the need for security on behalf of the students in the school, including his two daughters. It is a heart-stopping moment, and the video was provided to TBR News Media by a senior student named Jo Herman.

We ran the video, along with the story of the meeting, on our website, Facebook page and YouTube. Such is the world we live in and the concern of parents around the nation that, to date, the Facebook video post has been seen by more than 11.3 million viewers. The total reach for all our Facebook posts last week was in excess of 17 million. That’s 17 MILLION plus, about the same as the entire population of the Netherlands. In addition, there have been many thousands of shares and comments on our Facebook page and our website. These numbers were supplied to us by Facebook Insights, the dashboard of Facebook and the most authentic source.

If ever we needed evidence of this world we are living in today, and the heartfelt concern of parents
throughout the United States, here it is. Could there be any parents who feel untouched by the concern for the safety of their children in the schools? Children have become the latest targets of an assassin’s gun.

These are not jihadists doing the killing. These are not ideologues carrying out the murders. These are our own citizens, in many cases children themselves, who are able to procure weapons and turn them on their teachers and classmates. Those 11 million viewers and all the rest of the parents, grandparents, siblings, relatives and friends of children who haven’t seen this video are no less terrified at the tragedies that have already been perpetrated and the violence that may yet come.

What is to be done? There are many reactions. Our children have realized their political clout and called for action with their walkouts and 17 moments of silence. Politicians in various states have proposed legislation, even passed legislation in one state, Florida, to try to gain control of this madness. The state is being sued for doing so, and the president offers words.

Consider this. A puppy dies on an airplane and within 48 hours, there is legislation passed to attempt to prevent such an unhappy event from happening again. How many more youngsters and adults must die before we can get our arms around this horror?

Social media can be great. It can be a miracle thread that connects us, informs us, unites us. It can also be a misery, as governments around the world are realizing. Facebook has been corrupted by its inability to prevent personal information from being stolen by nefarious thieves. But it has delivered a loud and clear message with the frenzy of response to a single incident in a small town on Long Island: The population is frightened, more frightened than by any attacks made against us by foreign nations or religious fanatics in the past. This threat is inside our defenses and until now seemingly unstoppable.

Yes, we need gun control. Yes, we need mental health services. Yes, we need greater vigilance. Yes, we need protection. We need all of that and more. Most of all, we need leadership, not contention, because this is a
moment that is shaking our republic in its heart.

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Ward Melville High School. File photo by Greg Catalano

Two students in Three Village Central School District were schooled on what not to post online.

On the morning of March 14, before high school students staged a walkout joining teens across the nation to demand stricter gun legislation, the administrative staff at Ward Melville High School was notified of a social media posting allegedly made by a student. The posting was a cause for concern, according to an email to parents from Superintendent Cheryl Pedisich. The student was removed from school and the Suffolk County Police Department was notified.

Later that afternoon, parents received another email from Pedisich. The superintendent said in the message the SCPD closed the investigation after concluding “the posting was a foolish decision and a lack of proper judgment by the individual.”

The school district sent a message once again the morning of March 15. The administrative staff was notified of another concerning post allegedly made by a student. Later in the day, Pedisich notified parents that the SCPD determined there was no credible threat to the safety or security of students and staff.

“As part of their investigation, the police were informed that the photo in question had originally been shared privately with another individual and subsequently posted publicly online by an additional third party,” Pedisich wrote in the email.

In the notification, the superintendent shared advice when it comes to posting on social media, asking parents to remind students to think twice when it comes to what they share digitally.

“In light of today’s and yesterday’s incidents, I cannot stress enough the importance of creating a heightened sense of awareness for the appropriate and proper use of social media and other communication devices,” Pedisich wrote. “Students need to understand that what is shared digitally — whether it be via text, Facebook, Instagram or any other medium — is not private. Those thoughts, photos and comments that are shared can be and are often seen, shared and interpreted by anyone, anywhere and at any time.”

The superintendent wrote that while it was disheartening to have to issue two concurrent messages about students’ inappropriate postings, she was grateful for those who brought the matters to the district’s attention.

“Our parents and all residents are an integral part in helping to ensure that our safety and security is not compromised,” she wrote, “I continue to encourage anyone who sees, hears or notices something suspicious to inform the district immediately.”

The William Miller House is located at 75 North Country Road in Miller Place. File photo

A Gardiner grant is growing one local historical society’s reach.

The Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society announced the approval of a $4,750 grant from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation, which will be used to upgrade and enhance the format and capabilities of its website and social media platforms.

The Daniel Hawkins House was donated to the Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society. Photo from Edna Giffen

“The website itself will allow us to better communicate with our members and the general public, and to build awareness about our society and the local history that we are stewards for,” historical society trustee Matthew Burke said. “Once the upgraded website is unveiled, we anticipate launching multiple social media outlets that will seamlessly connect with and populate our website to further enhance our outreach efforts.”

The Miller Place Historical Society was founded in 1979. In 1982, the name was changed to Miller Place-Mount Sinai Historical Society to reflect the membership and the close ties that the two communities have had since the 1600s. Burke filled out the application, emphasizing how upgrading can continue to raise awareness of the historical significance of the hamlets and the buildings the society owns.

The main property is the 1720 William Miller House — the namesake of the town and the oldest house in Miller Place. Its listing on the National Register of Historic Places enabled the eventual preservation and restoration of the structure beginning in the early 1980s. In 1998, the Daniel Hawkins House, located just east of the William Miller House, both on on North Country Road, was donated to the society. It has undertaken a major fund drive to finance the restoration of the historic gem, with the hopes of using it an archival library and exhibition space. Doing this, will also allow for the William Miller House to become a living museum.

Becoming connected with the Gardiner foundation, according to Burke, could help the society in this process.

“We like to see organizations try to become more sustainable by broadening their outreach and embracing technology to make regional history more accessible.”

—Kathryn Curran

“We’re thrilled not only to have received the financial assistance, but to start developing a relationship with the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation,” he said. “Executive Director Kathryn Curran has already introduced us to other members of the Long Island preservation and history communities who may help us.”

Besides handing out the capacity-building grant, networking, according to Curran, is part of what the foundation is all about.

“We want historical societies to link to each other, so if somebody likes going to a Revolutionary War house or Civil War site, they would want to go to another — their success would be built on each other to create tourism,” she said. “We also want them to come to us in the future for funding for different kinds of projects to build their base, their audience and their supporters.”

She said history is hot — noting a rise in genealogy searching and finding different connections to their communities — so she said this is a good time for historical societies to be growing.

“We like to see organizations try to become more sustainable by broadening their outreach and embracing technology to make regional history more accessible to a new audience,” Curran said. “Historical societies don’t like change, and they really need to grow. These investments by the foundation are there specifically to help them become more self-sufficient and have a broader outreach. It’s all about making history an important part of the community.”

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Senator Chuck Schumer is taking wireless network companies to task for poor service in areas of Long Island. File photo by Elana Glowatz

The dangers of social media and overall Internet use for children will be the topic of conversation at a parent workshop at Miller Place High School on Tuesday night.

Thomas Grimes of NY Finest Speakers gives a speech. Photo from Grimes
Thomas Grimes of NY Finest Speakers gives a speech. Photo from Grimes

Retired NYPD detective Thomas Grimes will be the speaker at the event, which is open to all parents in the district, from elementary through high school.

“The goal of the parent Internet safety workshop is to understand potential life-threatening scenarios, social networking and how to protect your child from innocent behaviors that predators utilize to plan the perfect ambush,” a press release from the district about the event said.

Grimes was a 20-year veteran of the NYPD and now owns “NY Finest Speakers,” a company which was formed in 2007 and is made up of former detectives and a former secret service agent, according to their website. Those officials are “dedicated to educating and protecting today’s young people and their parents from threats posed by Internet usage and drug involvement,” the release said.

During his 20 years in the NYPD, Grimes spent time in various task forces focused on organized crime and drug trafficking.

A screenshot of the town’s app, Huntington @ Your Service. Photo by Rohma Abbas
A screenshot of the town’s app, Huntington @ Your Service. Photo by Rohma Abbas

Huntington Town Supervisor Frank Petrone (D) and Councilman Mark Cuthbertson (D) have announced that the town has upgraded its mobile phone app and has installed Wi-Fi in the Huntington Town Board room, Town Hall lobby and the Dix Hills Ice Rink.

The town recently completed a major revision of its mobile phone app that makes it easier for residents to enter service requests. It also adds a variety of functions that link more seamlessly to the town’s website and to social media. Users of the app will be able to take and upload images; integrate with their Facebook and Twitter accounts; read the town’s news feed; access the town’s mobile website; learn the refuse pickup day for a particular location; and view and find recreation facilities, nearby restaurants, businesses and libraries based on location services. The phone app works on both iPhone and Android devices and can be downloaded at both the Apple App store and Google Play. On both sites, search for Huntington @ Your Service.

Plans are in place to expand Wi-Fi service over the next six months to additional areas and town facilities, including the Village Green Senior Center.