[Nov. 2016 Features] Meme group exposes Westport’s cyber bigotry

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By Claire Dinshaw ’17 and Becky Hoving ’17

 

*names have been changed.

Dan* never expected a seemingly harmless secret Facebook group to be that big of a deal.

Soon enough, however, the once private Facebook “Staples Meme Group” became a vehicle for derogatory comments.

“What used to be a small fun group between friends kind of turned into a mob mentality,” Dan said.

The group, which was reported to the school administration on Nov. 7, horrified many in the Staples community due to the “offensive and mean-spirited” nature of much of its content, according to a letter written to Westport parents by Principal James D’Amico.

Many of the memes were anti-semitic, one picturing a visibly scared Spongebob and an angry Patrick with the caption “A hiding Jewish naked boy is spotted by an SS officer.” Others attacked the disabled, with one meme including the caption, “When you accidentally open the door to the special ed room and the retarded kid tries to escape,” over a picture of a distorted fish from Spongebob. One student replied to a comment on this post saying, “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” Another meme depicted a young Muslim girl wearing a Hijab with a caption that insinuated she was a terrorist.

While most of the memes were re-posted from the internet, others were created by students themselves.

“I am disturbed by most of the content,” Tim*, who was involved in the meme group, said, “and am embarrassed to know I was involved with it, no matter how much I was involved.”

Though several other students who engaged with the content of the group declined to comment on the subject, Dan, who was involved, also echoed feelings of remorse.

“I think people were just trying to be funny. There is a line between humor and offense, and I think that on some posts, it was crossed. But I also think that a lot of the memes were pretty funny.”

However, Dan’s response was not widely shared by all in the community. Kayla Bilotti ’18, who is on the executive board of TAG and was never in the group herself, felt differently.

“I believe it was a vehicle for hatred and racism,” Bilotti said. “The group being over [300]  members made the content seem as if it was okay. It makes people feel their racism and hatred is justified because others feel the same and open up about it, creating a sort of normality.”

Despite the fact that membership in this group numbered in the hundreds, only one student eventually came forward and reported the incident to administration, according to D’Amico’s letter.

“I’m sure others recognized the offensiveness, but felt it wasn’t their place to get involved because they personally weren’t attacked,” Theo Koskoff ’18 said. “Perhaps a little bit of empathy towards victims is what’s needed in those cases.”

Dr. Alycia Dadd, a psychologist at Staples, added to this idea.

“When you’re writing a post, you don’t realize there is actually someone on the other end of the computer,” Dadd said.“People are more okay with morality being disregarded online. It goes back to the idea that I would never say this in person, but I have the opportunity to say it online.”

Dadd also mentioned that some students do not realize the impact these posts may have on their future.

“What you put out there at a young age, you will be responsible for in the future,” Dadd said. “The hard thing is that developmentally as a young person, in the moment, you aren’t thinking about all of those long -term consequences, but they’re there.”

It has been alleged that each of the creators of the group was suspended for three days, but the school administration would neither confirm nor deny this claim.

However, according to Koskoff, this is far from a permanent solution.

“I’m sure many people didn’t fully comprehend why what was posted on those pages was so offensive,” Koskoff said, “and those people should not be punished; they should be educated.”

Koskoff   later  expanded  on  how  he  hopes the community will respond to the incident.

“If our school really wants to tackle this issue, there needs to be more teaching of not just tolerance but love,” he said. “Our school needs to have more emotionally-safe spaces, where people are able to let out their anxieties, discomforts, and differences without resorting to an offensive Facebook page with a bunch of dumb memes.”

In an announcement made to the student body on Nov. 9, D’Amico encouraged everyone to take a moment to reflect on what was posted in the meme group. Though the administration has reached out to the Anti-Defamation League, as of  Nov. 17, no specific plan was released by the administration to speak about this incident further.

However, according to D’Amico, the school has “reached out to the ADL [The Anti-Defamation League] and other organizations to help us put a plan together for moving forward.”

For the time being, Dadd warned of the importance of responsibility and action in these types of situations.

“Letting it go, that’s making it worse. If the first problem was [that] it started to grow and it became hateful, that’s an opportunity for students to change something, for students to shut it down,” Dadd said. “There are a lot of things that happen with different intentions, but once the mood changes, it has to stop. Even though you didn’t anticipate it, as an administrator of the group, it’s your responsibility to stop it.”

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