Oct 17, 2011
The factual bits:
A charity announces its forthcoming annual balloon release.
A campaigner highlights the environmental consequences of balloon releases, and posts his objections–backed up with references–on the Facebook page of the charity.
The references look to have a sound scientific foundation.
The campaigner uses a civil and unemotive tone.
The charity supports those bereaved through the loss of a child.
The supporters of the charity express outrage and condemnation towards the campaigner, and some quickly adopt an abusive stance.
Accusations are flung around on Twitter, Facebook, publicly and privately. It all gets rather nasty.
And what to make of these facts?
Should the campaigner have done it?
This is a pretty good case of “someone is wrong on the Internet” (and indeed, in the environment). But is it all one-sided?
Clearly both sides in the dispute see the other as having crossed over important boundaries.
The charity (and its supporters) are guilty of environmental vandalism, according to the scientific evidence. But they are not interested in scientific evidence. This is their tribute ritual, and the emotions surrounding it are so high as to seemingly overshadow any attempt at rational engagement. That’s “wrong”. [Clarification: the environmental damage is "wrong". Emotions are emotions. Can't really call them right or wrong. Sentence structure could have been better there.]
The campaigner believes that his cause–the potential damage to wildlife and the ecosystem in general–justifies raising awareness in the way he has. But does that make his actions entirely “right”?
I found this case particularly interesting for two reasons: the suspension of rationality, self-justified by those doing it because of the very real grief and suffering they are experiencing, but also by what it tells us about the nature of online engagement spaces.
And ultimately, was the intervention effective? Did it “raise awareness”?
Might it stop this charity doing the same thing next year?
Might it have an impact on those involved in less sensitive matters who might have thought about releasing balloons at some point?
And does that positive effect in other places justify what was undoubtedly a painful experience in this forum?
I suspect that the campaigner, who I know personally to be highly altruistic in general, acted with a wish to help, not harm. But I wonder if he misjudged to some extent the nature of the space in which he engaged?
That Facebook page might have been billed as the discussion forum for the charity–a place in which, for any generic organisation, one might reasonably expect to conduct debate about the organisation’s aims and objectives.
But in this case, the space clearly has a different purpose. A place of mourning, of solidarity, of remembrance.
The campaigner caused distress in there. It has to be a matter of judgement as to whether the wider awareness of this environmental hazard justifies that. On balance, I think it might have been possible to raise the issue, and create a dialogue with the organisers, in a space other than the “holy ground” of this particular community–perhaps on an environmental blog, or the campaigner’s own online estate. It might not have been as effective in spreading the message, of course.
But it’s very difficult to know. Judging the mood and purpose of an online space, separating its form from its function, is hard indeed. Just because something looks like a discussion forum doesn’t always mean that it actually has that characteristic.
What do you think?