The scene was shocking.
Four current city councilmembers — Lorena Gonzalez, Lisa Herbold, Teresa Mosqueda and Mike O’Brien — sat at a folding table at the altar of Trinity United Methodist Church in Ballard alongside Lisa Daugaard of the Public Defenders Association and Katie Wilson, the general secretary of the Transit Riders Union. Kirsten Harris Talley, microphone in hand, was tasked with moderating.
What had been a panel discussion about the proposed employee hours tax, a measure to tax large businesses to pay for affordable housing and homelessness services, was now a vituperative verbal free-for-all. Members of groups such as Speak Out Seattle and Safe Seattle came with signs signaling their dislike of a tax they would not directly pay. People against the measure jeered and threw epithets, challenging people on positions that they didn’t like. The feeling was ominous, scary.
The sentiment echoed things previously seen on the internet, but this time in reality, said Erica Barnett, a local journalist and founder of of The C Is For Crank website.
“The moment I realized that something had changed for me as a reporter was that recent meeting in Ballard when it went from online to in-person in a way that I hadn’t seen before,” Barnett said.
If the intrawebs are an ocean, the dark side of social media websites holds the Great Garbage Patch. They are dirty, they cause harm and they are the product of our excesses. Just as we toss a plastic bag into the trash, we can throw out an ill-intentioned tweet or a sadistic Facebook post calling for, say, the execution of a local city councilmember.
The depository of the world’s knowledge is also the place where White supremacists plot their deadly rallies, where future casualties of #MeToo send their dick pics and, oppositely, where we enjoy Pancho, the Spanish CPR-trained dog.
When such things are kept to online realms, they are icky but not always influential. In Seattle, however, speech against homeless people and those who seek to help them has jumped the online boundary into the political atmosphere in new and challenging ways.
Crisis? What crisis?
A fake but useful Chinese curse dooms people to “live in interesting times.”
Seattle is in that moment.
The city is facing a crisis of homelessness; despite increasing system efficiency, more people are becoming homeless than the city or region can put into housing. The high cost of housing doesn’t help, and the lack of available shelter beds and proliferation of unsanctioned encampments in public places has pushed the issue to the forefront.
At the same time, residents appear to be less tolerant of homelessness in their midst, and also unwilling to accept revenue-raising schemes to help alleviate the problem, even when they themselves do not have to pay directly.
The visibility of homeless people comes with challenges such as the perception that the homelessness crisis is leading to property crime, drug use and the attendant evils that come with them such as used needles in parks or near schools, or tents bunched up on what would otherwise be a walkway.
Seattle residents angry about visible poverty and its remnants have been attending public meetings en masse in recent months, speaking against measures that would fund homeless services and affordable housing.
Groups such as Safe Seattle, a Facebook page, post stories about crimes committed by purportedly homeless people — rarely, if ever, by the housed — and photos of needles on the ground and other detritus.
Such photos and accompanying stories attract keyboard warriors.
“Things left unattended?” one said in a screenshot captured before the comment was taken down. “Report it as a terrorist threat (and start doing it on forward).”
“For god sakes tell them they are armed that will get a response,” said another. “Besides cops shot people thinking they have a weapon when it’s a cell phone they cannot decipher what is or isn’t so can the public.”
Other comments left up decry the state of the city and call for the removal of city councilmembers deemed destructive to the city’s continued health. Those tend to be liberal members, particularly Councilmember Kshama Sawant, the only socialist on the council.
The defense is that the page is popular and cannot be continuously policed. Safe Seattle allows people to express themselves, but it’s run by a team of volunteers, said David Preston, one of the page administrators.
Although many comments are removed, some aren’t down fast enough to avoid a screenshot by interested parties, Preston said.
“That’s a problem,” Preston said. “But it’s important to differentiate between comments and stories. You’re more likely to get that hostility in comments than you are with a story.”
Posts on the site include “Needle Diaries,” photos documenting needles found in the city, news about city leadership and a video of a person talking to a reporter outside of a public meeting.
“When the reporter said, ‘Do you think you’ll change his mind today?’ he was talking about Councilmember Mike O’Brien. O’Brien’s just an ordinary person, too. Doing extraordinarily bad things. In other words, a ___________–David,” the post reads.
Speak Out Seattle and Safe Seattle are part of Unified Seattle, a relatively new group that came onto the scene in late June.
The use of dehumanizing language, particularly when it comes to poor people, is a tale as old as time.
Studies show that people experiencing homelessness elicit negative reactions from study subjects, including one that found that people view those experiencing homelessness as less than human.
The internet has not just brought people together to express those emotions — it’s also allowed them to organize and bring such hostility into the light.
Joe Hoover is a Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California researching how people speak online, with an eye toward how that manifests in real life.
“I use statistical and machine-learning techniques to learn about the relationships between people’s language, most often online language, and psychological constructs,” Hoover said. “I’m interested if we can measure things like beliefs or more traditional psychological constructs in language people use online.”
Turns out, you can. At least to some extent.
Hoover and colleagues were able to look at social media surrounding the protests after the killing of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, a Black man, by police in Baltimore, Maryland. They examined 18 million tweets for language and were able to identify when protests turned violent.
Hourly arrest rates were associated with the number of “moralized” tweets in preceding hours.
“What was important was that other people held their moral beliefs,” Hoover said.
That doesn’t always mean that the majority holds the same beliefs, Hoover said.
“Some people like to be the underdog,” he said.
Still, it’s a stretch to say that social media is the only factor bringing out the intense reactions that are seen in Hoover’s research and other offline settings.
“I think it’s easy to overemphasize the negative effects social media or online discourse communities have on all sorts of things such as offline behavior and polarization,” Hoover said.
People do fear that the kind of language used on sites like Safe Seattle and now Unified Seattle, including terms like “homeless shack village” rather than “tiny house village,” will result in continued resistance not only to homeless people but to measures that could help alleviate the state of homelessness.
Not all sites go this route.
Monica Guzmán, co-founder of The Evergrey, a website and newsletter featuring local content that doesn’t shy away from difficult issues, says that the tack that they’ve taken involves empathy.
“If you sit in those people’s shoes, everything is more complicated than it is on the outside,” Guzmán said.
That empathy means that The Evergrey doesn’t allow the same level of unfettered commentary that Safe Seattle does. Comment sections are carefully monitored and values of inclusivity reign.
“Who are the people most excited to speak? Often the angriest people,” Guzmán said. “If you allow nature to take its course and have no parameters, then you end up like the rest of the angry internet.”
Seattle is going through a difficult time. National politics are distracting, federal support seems less likely and Mike Godwin has suspended his own law because neo-Nazis have officially come out of the woodwork, largely in online spaces and a few in high-ranking positions in the government.
But words matter. They have impact. And unless something changes, it’s hard to see the situation improving.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
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