Rapid City Mayor Steve Allender knows what it’s like to be in the public arena.
You can’t be in police work for 31 years and a first-term mayor without becoming well aware of the sometimes painful price of public service.
He and other public officials are easy targets for all sorts of criticism — true or not.
That’s why he recoiled recently when he learned that he had raised $13 million for his re-election campaign.
Had he won the lottery without his knowledge? Had someone established a political action committee for his re-election but failed to tell him about it?
By now everyone knows the money story wasn’t true. Instead, it turned out to be a post on Facebook by his opponent, Natalie Stites Means, who initially wrote that she “heard” her opponent had $13 million in a PAC.
Allender was measured in his response, saying it was “super unprofessional” to post a rumor. And Means later said that she “heard (yes, on social media), that the incumbent doesn’t have nearly this amount and it’s just a rumor!”
Though it was a banner story in the Rapid City Journal, I doubt that it will have an impact on the outcome of the election. However, the ongoing questions raised by how social media is used and the effect it has on reputations, on its connection to teen suicides and a whole host of other issues, including highway safety, are almost too numerous and widespread to comprehend.
It has been widely reported that social media — internet sites such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter — may have played a role in the growing suicide rate among teenagers. The rate, which had abated, rose between 2010 and 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Daily Mail reported that an analysis by San Diego University suggested a correlation between suicide rates and the surge in social media use.
It’s a complex area and one of the best known problems is cyberbullying, which is bullying or harassment using the internet, often anonymously.
Now, I am not condemning social media or the Worldwide Web. I use it a lot. As a research tool, it’s the greatest thing since the World Book Encyclopedia.
But the internet has a downside, too.
Once upon a time, about a decade ago, I was silly enough to think that the internet should be held to the same standard as television, radio, newspapers and magazines as it pertains to airing or publishing information.
In the newspaper business, the rule was that a story never ran unless it was provably true. To print something defamatory about a person was libelous and your newspaper could be sued. Truth was a defense. And the corollary was that we didn’t use anonymous sources.
With that in mind, a Watertown lawmaker and attorney — Nancy Turbak Berry — and I introduced a bill in the Legislature that required those who allowed internet posts to keep a record of same so that if an anonymous person needed to be identified because of libelous comments, he could be held accountable.
The bill was a great conversation starter but somewhat unpopular and not just among bloggers, who accused me of trying to protect the newspaper industry. They apparently were unaware that the South Dakota Newspaper Association also opposed the bill on First Amendment grounds and testified against the bill in committee.
The bill failed, going down in lamentable defeat despite support from a couple of Black Hills lawmakers — Brian Gosch and Chuck Turbiville — but it didn’t change my mind about the need for fairness and accountability on the internet.