It seems harmless enough. A reporter writes a story about a school program and a reader comments online that teachers do nothing all summer, and suddenly, the majority of comments revolve around that comment.
Or, a reader sends in a speakout submittal and moans about firefighters sitting around doing nothing.
Neither comment is remotely true, yet enough members of the public believe them, so the false statements spread and before you know it they have become reality for some.
To make matters worse, it’s budget time and many taxpayers now plan to vote no on the school budget, while the fire department suddenly looks like a good place for the city to cut.
Whether it’s misinformation or disinformation, these exaggerations and untruths often become the reality for a very large number of people.
Media organizations could institute stricter rules for reader submissions, but it is much more widespread than that.
Public meetings with public comment portions are notorious for inviting individuals who make exaggerated and false claims. Someone could come out and say that the union president is stealing taxpayers’ funds, the media could report the next day that the statement was false, and still, a large portion of the population, either because they were there or heard the comment through the rumor chain, believes the information to be true.
Again, that may not seem important, but it is, especially when budgets pass or fail by a couple hundred votes.
The municipality cannot suddenly become totalitarian and restrict free speech, but at the same time, it is pathetic when free speech used maliciously negatively impacts people, the budget process, an important decision, positions and more.
There are some steps that can be taken, though.
As Plattsburgh Mayor Donald Kasprzak suggested, public officials should maintain an open-door policy to ensure they are available to quell such rumors and provide constituents with the factual information.
Comments should be directed to email@example.com