In last week’s Local, we told the story of how one misinformed social media user caused a real stir in the community by jumping to a conclusion. That was the story of a Nextdoor poster who called for a boycott of the Night Kitchen Bakery when a Google search of “best carrot cake” returned to her a photo of a cookie bearing President Donald Trump’s name.

Fortunately, cooler and more informed heads prevailed. The poster who called for the boycott withdrew from the Nextdoor community and her post was later removed, likely for violating the social media site’s community standards.

As controversies go, the “Carrot Cake Boycott Incident” might not seem like much. Of course, if cooler heads hadn’t prevailed, the call might have had a very real impact on a local business. All it takes is a misinformed person with an Internet connection and keyboard.

Philadelphia experienced a much more significant crisis last month when its police department announced that it would fire 13 of 72 officers that had been suspended following a report of those officers’ racist and violent social media posts. The department announced last week that seven officers had resigned over the discovery of their posts and subsequent suspensions.

The officers were “outed” by the Plain View Project, which is headed by Philadelphia attorney Emily Baker. The purpose of the project, according to its website, is to shed light on the posts of public officials as a fair point of reference in determining the biases of those officials.

“In our view, people who are subject to decisions made by law enforcement may fairly question whether these online statements about race, religion, ethnicity and the acceptability of violent policing – among other topics – inform officers’ on-the-job behaviors and choices,” the site stated on its home page.

Mayor Jim Kenney and Police Commissioner Richard Ross agreed.

“I continue to be angered and disappointed by these posts, many of which, in my view, violate the basic tenets of human decency,” Ross told BuzzFeed News.

There’s something at work in social media that makes these incidents more and more common. This summer, social media posts exposed a group of extreme racist and sexist discussions among border agents. An exposed group chat filled with vile comments led to the forced resignation of Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosello.

It’s not simply that bad people are leaving big, digital clues behind. Studies show that online group chats can “radicalize” people in a number of ways. Writing in Psychology Today last year, Sophia Moskalenko, a research fellow at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism, noted that a significant aspect of online radicalization is purely social. People in groups will adopt the most extreme positions purely because they (and these are my words, not Moskalenko’s) want to be like the “cool kids.”

This is not an exoneration or even an excuse for the myriad of bad actors who post these things in social media. The standard should be higher for public officials. If they can’t control themselves, perhaps they should simply log off and stay off.

Pete Mazzaccaro

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