Last week, Ohio experienced a local version of the misinformed nonsense that is poisoning so much of the civic conversation in America these days when the internet lit up with the "news" that a student had been suspended for not joining in an anti-gun walkout protest — another case of liberal public schools indoctrinating their students and punishing conservative dissenters, the instant storyline went.
It wasn't true, but that didn't keep the boy's father from getting death threats from one side and attaboys and offers of attorney help from the other. And, while the school district and the boy's family have debunked the rumor, the misplaced outrage about it no doubt still is circulating online and will do so indefinitely.
The irony is that, as the family tells it, Jacob Shoemaker didn't want any part in the raging controversy over gun control, which is white-hot in many high schools following the Feb. 14 killings of 14 students and three coaches at a high school in Parkland. When he heard about plans for the walkout, he didn't want to join, nor did he want to go to a study hall where school officials wanted all nonprotesters to go. Either choice, he felt, would be making a political statement he didn't want to make.
He wanted to stay in his classroom, which is what he did, and he was suspended for not following administrators' instructions, which were to either join the protest or go to a study hall.
Jacob's punishment became public after he shared a photo of his suspension notice with a friend, who did the 21st-century-teen thing to do and shared it online, heedless of the fact that it showed Jacob's dad's name and phone number. The texts and calls to Scott Shoemaker's phone began early, along with angry messages to the Ohio school district.
There are a number of lessons to be learned here. One is the district's response to the protest — upending classes and insisting that nonprotesting students gather in study halls — was a bit heavy-handed. Administrators not otherwise occupied could have watched over the walkouts while teachers remained with any kids who stayed in the classrooms.
Another is one that every social-media user should know, but so many don't: Carelessly exposing anyone's contact information to the cyberverse can have very serious consequences. Scott Shoemaker said he may have to change his phone number if the calls and texts don't stop.
The most important lessons — the ones offered day after day in the ugliness of today's politics and public discourse — are that outrageous things read on social media have to be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism, and sharing things you don't know to be true could very well be fueling the rancor that seems to be such a permanent part of public life these days.
We hope this instance of the "fake news" phenomenon will serve as a cautionary tale to anyone who reads something seemingly outrageous online and is tempted to instantly share that outrage with thousands of friends and strangers.
REPRINTED FROM THE PANAMA CITY NEWS HERALD