Mixed feelings on the social media shaming of #parkvandals


The Washington Post recently picked up a story about a dad and his two kids who were allegedly caught vandalizing a railing at Tumalo Falls in Oregon’s Deschutes National Forest. The story broke in early May after Oregon resident Brett Nelson snapped a photo of the family and posted it to Facebook, where he called them out for unabashedly damaging NF property. According to Nelson’s account of the scenario in The Oregonian:

Nelson said both the man and the kids challenged him when he objected to their carving on the railing. Nelson asked the man for his license plate number, “so I can carve my name in the hood of your car.” He said the man responded “go for it, it’s a rental car.”

When he asked where they were from, the man responded “California.”

“I was like, ‘Go back,’” Nelson said. “Go carve your name in your own picnic table. Nobody wants you here.”

Here’s a link to the Facebook photo Nelson posted. It’s received an unbelievable amount of shares (more than 65,000) in a short time and the many comments show some varied opinions.

The photo has produced two primary responses besides all the commentary over the family and Nelson’s decision to post about them. One, it seems to have sparked a “manhunt” by National forest rangers and/or law enforcement to find the father in the photo, supposedly to pursue criminal charges against him (not the kids though according to this video news segment). Second, the coverage of this incident has brought a ton of attention to acts of vandalism in our national parks and forests: way more than Woodsy Owl could accomplish single wingedly.

While I support all this – bringing more attention to the issue and charging the father for negligence or whatever – my mixed feelings stem from the potential effect of all this negative PR and attention on the family. Sure, the dad failed to encourage his kids to do the right thing and he and the kids were certainly in the wrong. Yes, he should come forward and publicly apologize, ask forgiveness, and perhaps even work with the forest service to make up for his mistake. But what if you loses (or already lost) his job over this? What if his family is threatened or injured by some fanatic because of this? Certainly he and his kids don’t deserve either of those unintended consequences. Yet these and other consequences do result (sometimes unjustly) when people are shamed virally on social media. People should consider these issues when they take the actions that Nelson did.

To be clear: I don’t blame Nelson for snapping a photo of the alleged vandals. Our camera phones should, and often are, used to reveal societal injustices. However, I do think Nelson should have pursued other, less-drastic paths before sharing the photo, and shaming the family, on social media. For example, he could have shown the photo and shared what happened with a forest ranger on his way out of Deschutes. If he didn’t come across any rangers then, he could have e-mailed the photo and his account to the district forest ranger’s office. If he didn’t hear back, then sure, post the image to Facebook. Social media is a powerful tool that must be respected. What we share across it often only presents one side of the story or issue. Furthermore, our use of social media can very frequently lead to unintended consequences.

I’d love to hear your own thoughts and opinions about this scenario. Feel free to post your comments below.

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