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«The Social Science Journal 41 (2004) 1–14 “Destroy the scum, and then neuter their families:” the web forum as a vehicle for community ...»

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The Social Science Journal 41 (2004) 1–14

“Destroy the scum, and then neuter their families:” the web

forum as a vehicle for community discourse?

Brian Coffey∗, Stephen Woolworth

University of Washington, Tacoma, Box 358437, 1900 Commerce St., Tacoma, WA 98402-3100, USA


On-line media forums have become common vehicles to promote discussion about particular issues

or events. This essay addresses the degree to which the anonymity of such computer-mediated communication affects the level and tone of discourse when sensitive or volatile local issues are the focus of discussion. Nearly 300 postings to a web forum that was established by a newspaper in response to a brutal murder that took place in the community are examined. Results show that the forum was dominated by individuals harshly critical of the assailants, their families, and various civic institutions.

Vitriol, racist denunciations, and calls for severe retribution took precedence over attempts to understand why the event took place or to express sympathy for the victim. Forums of this nature appear to do little to promote understanding or encourage positive dialogue. It is recommended that methods designed to elevate the level of discourse be considered when establishing forums related to local issues that elicit strong emotion.

© 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction The Internet has created countless opportunities for people to communicate, exchange ideas, voice opinions, and otherwise interact in a manner most would not have envisioned two or three decades ago. Email, chat rooms, bulletin boards, and virtual communities found in such outlets as Usenet have altered the manner in which people interact. These new methods of communication and discourse are often seen as creating a more egalitarian world, at least in the sense of having one’s voice heard (Walther, 1992). It has been argued, for instance, that computer-mediated communication offers “an inviting opportunity for democratic dialogue... [that can]... contribute to the formation of a spirit of community and civility” (Benson, ∗ Corresponding author. Tel.: +1-253-692-5882; fax: +1-253-692-5612.

E-mail address: bcoffey@u.washington.edu (B. Coffey).

0362-3319/$ – see front matter © 2003 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

doi:10.1016/j.soscij.2003.10.001 2 B. Coffey, S. Woolworth / The Social Science Journal 41 (2004) 1–14 1996, p. 361). It is evident that these increased information flows are viewed as being beneficial both from an economic and social perspective and that these new means of communication are often seen as having a positive impact on society.

Others, however, argue that use of cyberspace to communicate with groups of people is fraught with potential pitfalls, particularly when peopleespouse strongly held views or discuss controversial issues. Because electronic communication is remote and often anonymous, “one never needs to stand face to face with other virtual community members... [and] we see extremes of human behavior and discourse” (Nguyen & Alexander, 1996, p. 117). The result is that “participants... are less inhibited by social niceties and quicker to resort to extreme language and invective” (Putnam, 2000, p. 176).

That electronic discourse often takes place on a lower plane than face-to-face interaction is not only related to virtual distance and anonymity. Missing too are social cues that serve to inhibit people or prompt some change in the intensity or tone of the statements being made. There is no body language to register discomfort at what is being said, no immediate verbal response to challenge the viewpoint, and no voice intonation to express disapproval.

In short, many of the things that keep the social self in check are absent. This is a situation that Smith and Kollock (1999, p. 18) liken to “attending a cocktail party and being able to see only people who are actively speaking, while the room and all the listeners are invisible.” But the claim that anonymity may lead to invective is not new, nor is anonymity in computermediated communication always viewed negatively, since it offers individuals the opportunity to try new forms of expression or interaction without fear of embarrassment (see, for example, Myers, 1987). Moreover, in many instances rules of behavior and conduct do apply to electronic interaction. This is especially the case in group contexts where people are engaged in ongoing or long-term communication (Baym, 1998). What is jeopardized in many forums of computer-mediated communication, though, is civic membership—what Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler, and Tipton (1996, p. xi) describe as “that critical intersection of personal identity with social identity.” In electronic sites where participants have the choice to remain anonymous, the temptation to disengage from genuine and authentic interactions with others is always present and this has profound implications for both the form and function of social interaction in cyberspace.

Despite these potential shortcomings of Internet discussion, opportunities for interaction show no signs of abatement. Included among these many outlets for expression are on-line forums sponsored by various media outlets. These forums are typically found on the web sites of many newspapers, television stations, and news magazines and invite readers or viewers to express opinions about current events or issues facing local communities. These sites sometimes face the same civility issues as other electronic discussion groups. For example, Schultz (2000, p. 215), in examining the on-line forums of the New York Times notes, “... the forum debates are usually highly political and energetic. While this is desirable in order to revitalize public discussion, it surely involves the danger of attracting dogmatists and extremists.” Such forums typically take one of two forms. In some instances they are on-going and provide for discussion of various topics in the news. Other news forums are more focused in that they are established only occasionally and are intended to deal with a specific event or issue that is of particular interest to the community. For example, focused forums may be set up B. Coffey, S. Woolworth / The Social Science Journal 41 (2004) 1–14 3 to provide a setting for debate on a particular policy issue. Or, such forums may be established to deal with a particularly dramatic (or traumatic) event that has affected a community. In such instances the forums are often intended to help people come to terms with what took place, share ideas about preventing future occurrences, or to voice concerns about the circumstances that led to the event. In short, forums of this nature are intended to serve the community by providing an outlet for constructive discourse.

How such forums are used, whether or not they serve their stated purpose, and the extent to which they benefit the community and/or improve community relations are issues which merit attention. This essay addresses the matter of focused on-line news forums as potential sites of productive and beneficial discussion through the examination of one such forum established by The News Tribune (TNT) of Tacoma, Washington in August 2000. The forum was established to allow community members to “share” their thoughts about a senseless killing that had recently occurred in the city.

The forum came about after the death of an individual named Eric Toews, a 30-year-old resident of Tacoma. On the night of Saturday, August 19th, 2000 Mr. Toews was walking near the city center when he was approached by a group of youths, one of whom asked for a cigarette. As Toews paused to grant his request, the group physically assaulted him. Three days later a brief description of the attack appeared in the crime section of The News Tribune listing Toews in critical condition. The following Friday, after 6 days in a coma, Eric Toews

died. The announcement of his death was the lead headline in The News Tribune the next day:

“Man dies from beating injuries” (Burns, 2000b, p. A1).

The news story revealed that Toews was the ninth white male who had been robbed and/or assaulted while walking alone at night in the previous month by individuals described in The Tribune as a group of “black or Hispanic boys” between the ages of 12 and 15. Tacoma detectives stated they believed the youths were targeting men walking alone and that they were using a variety of tactics to approach their victims. The string of offenses was listed in chronological order on the paper’s front page next to a location map marked by numbered dots indicating where each crime had taken place. For the first time, Tacoma residents were alerted to a pattern of escalating street crimes that occurred at night in the same area of the city.

Aside from the brutal nature of the crimes, the information reported in the paper carried racial and class meanings for city residents, symbolized most notably by who the victims were, who the suspects were thought to be, and where in the city the crimes were committed. The majority of the incidents occurred on or near “Division Avenue,” a street aptly named since it marks the border or “convergence zone” between a low-income, racially-mixed neighborhood and a predominantly middle to upper-middle class white neighborhood. The string of attacks was reminiscent of the gang and drug-related violence that had plagued Tacoma for some time, giving the city a sharply negative public image in the greater Northwest region. However, Tacoma’s reputation as a crime-ridden metropolis had begun to change in recent years. For example, in 1993 Tacoma had 35 homicides and 238 reported drive-by shootings. In 2000 the city had 14 homicides and seven reported drive-by shootings. Thus, this series of attacks had raised concerns about a resurging wave of violence in the city (Burns, 2001, p. A1).

In the days after Toews’ death, print and electronic media coverage intensified and fliers bearing Toews’ picture began to appear on store windows, bulletin boards, and telephone poles throughout the city. Area residents were encouraged to take extra precautions and were warned 4 B. Coffey, S. Woolworth / The Social Science Journal 41 (2004) 1–14 not to walk alone at night. Many expressed anger at the police for not alerting them earlier, while others questioned whether the crimes might be “racially motivated” and should be considered “hate crimes.” The police defended their actions by responding that they had not linked the different cases together until after Toews was attacked, and they assured residents they were now giving the case their full attention. The crimes, the police maintained, were “crimes of opportunity,” not racist attacks.

By the night of Monday August 28th, 9 days after the assault on Toews, several suspects were arrested. Television news reported the arrests on Tuesday, and on Wednesday city residents awoke to The News Tribune’s headline: “8 arrested in thrill beatings.” The case received national attention with a news report by at least one of the major television networks. With the news of the arrests came facts about the suspects. The oldest, a 19-year-old African-American male, and a 16-year-old Hispanic male were held in the county jail to be charged as adults.

The other suspects included three African Americans (ages 15, 14, and 12), two Caucasians (ages 15 and 11) and a 12-year-old Hispanic youth. City residents learned that the suspects had been harassing others in their neighborhood for some time, and, in fact, were stopped and questioned about the assaults by the police the previous week. Patrol officers even drove some of the youths home after questioning them so that they would not be in violation of the city curfew. After the arrests, the statements from the police in both the print and television media reiterated earlier assertions that these were, indeed, opportunity crimes. As the lead homicide detective bluntly concluded, these “kids would just get together and decide to go beat someone up” (Burns, 2000a, pp. A1, A16).

In the court papers released later that day, prosecutors described the attack. When the group saw Toews walking across the street, the 19-year-old asked the group if they “wanted to get him.” The 12-year-old approached Toews and asked for a cigarette. When Toews reached into his pocket, the 19-year-old assaulted him. Toews was then knocked to the ground where the other youths moved in kicking, hitting, and stomping him. The 11-year-old boy reportedly beat Toews with a stick. At one point during the assault, Toews was able to get away only to be knocked down again by the 19-year-old who then proceeded to knee-drop Toews 28 times in the face, counting each knee drop aloud. The group of young attackers then fled the scene when they saw a person nearby placing a telephone call.

As the arrests and the details of the case became public on the afternoon of Tuesday, August 29th, The News Tribune announced it was starting an “open forum” on its web site inviting community members to “share your thoughts” (Reid & Gillie, 2000, p. A1). For the next 3 days, hundreds of people logged on to the site and posted their thoughts, opinions, and feelings about what had happened. This paper provides an analysis of the forum’s content in order to obtain some insight into the value of this medium as a means of promoting positive community discourse and understanding, especially in cases where the topic is one that has considerable potential to provoke anger, ill-feelings, and social division.

2. Methodology The News Tribune’s forum site was started late in the day on Tuesday, August 29th and ended at approximately midnight on Friday, September 1st. Because we were unable to recover what B. Coffey, S. Woolworth / The Social Science Journal 41 (2004) 1–14 5 we estimate to be the first 30 to 50 messages posted on Tuesday, our data are comprised of all forum posts from early Wednesday morning through Friday night.

We began our content analysis of the cyber forum by grouping the responses or “posts” by day—Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, respectively. Each post was reviewed to determine its primary theme or point of view.

Posts were sorted into six categories as follows.

1. Those that tended to blame or criticize society in general for the crime.

2. Those that criticized or expressed hostility toward the youths and/or called for retributive justice.

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