, Newburyport, MA

February 10, 2014

Taming social media's nastier side

Newburyport Daily News

---- — The world is a better place with “Mama Bears” like Sue Mitchell and school cultures like Triton Regional School District. They are standing tall for a young local man who deserves to be respected, on an issue that deserves attention.

“Mama Bear” is the nickname for Sue Mitchell, a Salisbury resident and the mother of Sean Mitchell. Her crusade on behalf of her son Sean, 20, has galvanized a legion of supporters and raised some valuable questions about how people conduct themselves on the bareknuckled fringes of “social media.”

Sean has cerebral palsy. He’s well known at Triton, where his positive outlook and doggedness on the athletic field is an inspiration to many.

Through no fault of his own, Sean was thrust into a negative spotlight two weeks ago when a TV camera panning the Boston Bruins bench during a game caught an image of him in the background, eating a hot dog without a bun. He’s not physically able to eat a hot dog with a bun, a fairly common issue for people with cerebral palsy.

The awkward image was picked up and posted on a website called Boston Barstool Sports, a “sports/smut” site that is wildly popular primarily along college age men. The photo was posted with a smart aleck comment, which spurred and fed a host of lewd comments from website readers. The image was taken down after the website’s owner, David Portnoy, was informed that Sean has cerebral palsy.

Sue Mitchell was outraged by what had happened, and certainly no one could blame her — it’s hard to imagine that a young man’s privacy could be trodden on so thoroughly and meanly. She reached out to The Daily News, asking that the paper write a story that explained what had happened and her feelings on the matter. She also sought an apology from Portnoy, which at that point had not yet been extended.

When the Daily News story was published the following day, it immediately drew reaction. Portnoy lashed out, personally attacking the reporter, defending his website and stating that he had apologized to the Mitchells. He also reposted the photo. Many of his supporters ran to his defense.

But many more understood what was really going on. Portnoy was roundly criticized for allowing the attack on Sean to occur in the first place. Sue Mitchell rallied supporters to her side and got people talking about the issue of social media’s penchant for callousness. And at Triton, Sean drew heartfelt support from faculty and students who gathered around him.

The show of support led Sean’s father to comment, “Sean is connected, protected and respected.”

In the end, the Mitchells felt that Portnoy’s apology was sincere. They were more disturbed by the mean comments, and now they are hoping to turn the focus on social media.

For the most part these days, we seem to be satisfied when people apologize for their mistakes. But the real test of character is what is learned, and steps taken to prevent it from happening again. Portnoy utterly fails that test.

Comments are something that Portnoy has the purview to control, but he doesn’t.

Portnoy told The Daily News, “I hate our comment section ... They are the lowest of the low. But that’s an Internet thing. Go look on YouTube, go look on, go look on ESPN. Look anywhere, they are out of control. It’s like fighting the tides coming in.”

That’s bunk. The tide can be fought.

We get it. There’s big money to be made in producing online content that caters to a sophomoric kind of humor; indeed, Portnoy is reported to be a multimillionaire. Allowing sophomoric comments to be posted goes hand-in-hand with the whole schtick.

Policing comments is a lot of work. But it’s not impossible. More and more media across the nation, this newspaper included, have put significant restrictions on who can post and what they can say. It’s an effort to allow people to speak their mind, but absent the mean-spiritedness, slander and recklessness of anonymous comments.

We hope Portnoy takes another look at this issue and recognizes he can make a change for the positive, perhaps even be a role model. If he does that, it is the best heartfelt apology he could offer to the Mitchells.