TRM Blog: Challenging lessons for Iowa City, activists after rumor-post controversy

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An editorial we ran last week turned out to be a grand social experiment. The results, outlined below, aren’t a good look for progressives, liberals and the far left.

But before we get to that: for anyone who started, fanned, flamed, continued or belatedly joined the witch hunt against Kelly Stucker and The Konnexion, start planning your “I was wrong” party now.

Seriously, make it a party. A light-hearted affair. Enjoy the liberation of contrition. Let yourself laugh about it. Because after all, when you look back, it IS laughable that a small group of incredibly active online commenters convinced their friends and a LOT of other people to lump a Bernie Sanders-supporting head shop owner, a Cedar Rapids Black Lives Matter activist, and an LGBTQ-identified publication in with a white supremacist conspiracy.

2129912473 to admit that you were wrong is to declare that you are wiser now than you were before

If we weren’t just a week out from a deadly attempted insurrection and didn’t have some of its top participants within our midst, if this local witch hunt hadn’t already created threats and violence, this situation would be hilarious. But it’s not. It’s gravely serious.

Everyone who “doubled down” … who liked/loved/shared any one of those attack posts or any comments defending those posts ….. everyone whose anger at Stucker transformed into vitriol against this paper and writer and anyone who refused to join your witch hunt … who miscast and attacked a call to honor the most basic rule of communication (confirm something before you pass it on, especially on social media) …. And ESPECIALLY everyone who still has that original rumor post up on your timeline, without a note clarifying the broad liberties you took with the truth when you posted it unquestioningly and encouraged others to do the same ….. You’ve got some work to do.

What transpired before our editorial was bad enough: an inaccurate social media post linking Stucker to Trump supporters went so viral that, before I even saw it or commented personally (let alone wrote an editorial), it had been circulated by a state representative in Marion, the Des Moines Register (which posted a correction within a day), several Iowa City community leaders, at least one Black Lives Matter group, an official representative of the Democratic Party, and many of Iowa City’s biggest social media influencers. What happened after the editorial was even uglier, revealing the ethics of high school in activist form — and a whole lot of silent, enabling, standby accomplices.

Ironically, prior to this issue emerging, we were going to run an editorial about how seepages of Trumpism are evident among even his opponents and those who claim to be most opposed to him. Now here we are, with a real-life, real-time situation that helps illustrate this seepage and why we need to rid ourselves of it.

In “Konnexion Controversy: Just the Facts,” linked here, you can review the factual information that has emerged to further clarify this situation, and why The Real MainStream is standing stronger than ever on our original editorial point. Here, we focus more on the human, including the collateral damage:

COLLATERAL DAMAGE

  • Stucker’s attackers have been launching pretty strongly into a woman named Sophia Joseph. They think they’ve been debating with “just a friend” and have repeatedly questioned her credibility. They don’t realize they’re undermining someone from the front lines of the local fight for racial justice: Joseph is a co-founder of the Marion Alliance for Racial Equity, a board member for Cedar Rapids’ Advocates for Social Justice, and her fiance is founder of WeAreCR. Joseph is also a former Bernie Sanders delegate and the parent of three bi-racial children. What a credit to Joseph that over two days of laborious responses to Stucker’s attackers, often having to go over the same factual corrections of those grilling her repeatedly, acquiescing to demands that she produce private communications with Stucker, Joseph never once revealed her broader community roles. She chose not to bring those groups she represents into the line of fire she was taking. But those “in the know” are aware; they’ve just seen one of their leaders besmirched for days by, yes, a bunch of protest-hungry, liberal/far left armchair activists, and their social media friends. An apology is in order for the abuse Joseph has endured. 
  • Family members are affected. Scores of them — like, 100 Stucker relatives, most of which live in Iowa, of all ages.
  • Safety has been threatened. At least three live threatening calls a day have placed to Stucker’s shop for the past five days.
  • Community. The high-profile social media personalities who drove this witch hunt don’t realize it, but a lot of people are talking off-line, too. The overwhelming report I’ve received behind the scenes is people are feeling aggravated by this extreme form of activism, feeling torn from their friends and family over this, forced to be suspicious of their friends, questioning their friends, debating their friends, ever since they discovered that this swirling rumor they heard from their trusted sources may not be true. The publication and people asking you to stop didn’t create that damage, although we chose to defy you publicly; the people who started, circulated, fanned and continue to fan the rumors did that damage, and continue to inflict it.
  • The actual, REAL battle against white supremacy and actual enemies of the progressive movement: Actual alt-right instigators are planning future insurrectionist attacks RIGHT NOW. Law enforcement is now rushing to explore thousands of leads. Word is, armed attacks are planned in every single state capital. At least one of the most visible players in the first insurrection is home-grown Doug Jensen from Des Moines. How did we let that happen? What effort are activists making to find out how this Iowan, who chased a Black police officer up the stairs of the Capitol, learned to be that way right here in Iowa?? Who else has he influenced? What can we do to counter that influence? The damage of this witch hunt to the real movement, to the real work, is immeasurable. Talk about wasted time and effort. The real alt-right insurrectionists among us are probably laughing at us beating up on Stucker, like Vladimir Putin scoffs at our country tearing itself apart.
  • And then there’s this publication: Nationwide, people are decrying the loss of local media as publications go down left and right. Thankfully,  we’ve received great support inside and outside of Iowa City since we started this publication. Yet now, we too are facing a distortion and cancel campaign based on a rumor mill. Newcomers who have only read one editorial they didn’t like are spreading untruths about the paper; we’ve actually been labeled a white supremacist-sympathizing publication by the loudest of the ringleaders. We’ve been labeled as a publication that only stands up for our advertisers –though our coverage over two years illustrates that is not true. One single-article reader called us “an alternative to Little Village that is farther right,” an odd label for a publication that for two years has newly normalized discussion of cannabis legalization, standing up against racial injustice, cruelty-free eating, alternative relationship choices, gender-nonconformity, pagan spirituality and LGBTQ community. This attack episode shows why local journalism is so hard, why indie local journalism is even harder, and why many niche publications devolve into nightlife rags, biased publications that don’t do journalism, pet projects of someone in the community, or the mouthpiece for a business.
Ture and Sonia
Sophia Joseph (right), who attempted to share information clearing Stucker’s name but was mocked for it, is a leader in two local Black Lives Matter groups, Marion Alliance for Racial Equity and Advocates for Social Justice. Her fiance Ture founded WeAreCR.

OTHER SAD REVELATIONS ABOUT OUR PROGRESSIVE COMMUNITY

  • Everyone’s an expert. On everything. For starters, almost every attacker assumed they had THE condemning screenshot of Stucker’s previous conversations. It simply did not occur to them that we would do our research before publishing such a strong editorial. So much time “lib-splaining” …. so little time answering the root question:  are you circulating known fact, or are you circulating rumor, conjecture or speculation? Because they are not interchangeable. “Check yourself” seemed alien and downright offensive to so many. The pop-up internet expertise was expansive: memes on all kinds of topics sprung forth faster than anti-mask videos in May. I have news for those armchair experts on everything: those complex analyses on levels of white supremacy, and psychology: Those are largely meant for YOUR education. For your EDUCATION. (note both emphases). They were never meant to be used as weapon-memes in a social media battle against your fellow progressives.
  • Gender dynamics. Guys — straight white guys, to be more specific — handled most of the insults, easily filling most of the pop-up expert roles on everything. Not just politics, journalism, deep academic theory and internet manners, but also how to identify TERFs (transphobic radical feminists, the latest greatest label spewed recklessly and with impunity by far-left progressives, along with “Karen.”). This new generation of so-called progressive men refuse to allow their penises or lifetimes of gender privilege stop them from taking lead roles in attack arguments against women. They help us better understand the new ways of misogyny, which are wrapped up in a snarky package of feigned progressiveness, often conducted online where one doesn’t have to face their words and actions frontally. Like Trump and KellyAnne and Kayleigh and Sarah and Betsy, they are enabled by women. 
  • Equating libertarian views with alt-right involvement: The worst screenshot presented about Stucker — before, after and during this current situation — is of a sentence plucked mid-debate, where she states, “at least the alt right is looking out for small business right now.” Overlooking the OBVIOUS clue that a member of the alt-right or far right does not use the term alt-right or far right to describe themselves ….. Stucker’s screenshot is not evidence of far-right views. You can only insist that it is, if you choose to enact the next giant ethical mis-step.
  • Selective recollection: that “gotcha” screen-shot was plucked from a debate I witnessed the day it occurred. It was in the midst of heated online exchange where Stucker was being pressured to join the BLM protests that left graffiti and broken concrete throughout downtown Iowa city, and her shop’s broken windows, in their wake. If the full conversation were presented, Stucker’s words would still be “cringe-worthy” (her best friend’s words) — but they would not be proof of sympathizing with the alt right. They are of a business owner whose shop is in the midst of the violent protests, has already been attacked, and does not feel safe hitting the streets. Stucker was being asked to defend that view while, real-time, receiving threats; she was also being asked to defend herself against rumors spread by a disgruntled ex-employee’s friend who overheard a conversation (yes, this all started over the summer with information THAT third-hand).  Imagine if, in the heat of race riots, a Black shop owner texts to a friend, “Well, at least the gang members are looking out for my shop.” Should that Black shop owner then be dredged up before the public for the next year, a screenshot of that phrase in isolation circulated community-wide, along with an accusation that he is anti-police, supports gang violence, and should be boycotted? I don’t even need to answer that question for you.
  • Ethics be damned: Our ethical point is clear: spreading explosive rumors and unconfirmed gossip is wrong. I ask Stucker’s attackers to share with us THEIR ethical mountain you’re standing on, because I can no longer see it. I know what you are against, but I have no idea what you are for. Based on your comments and this situation, I can only guess: that online discourse alone is justification to attack? Broad brushes are appropriate if we think it helps our side? A person we may not agree with has no input into our interpretation of their own words? Rely on local social media influencers, many of whom are deeply vested in their online image, for your social justice decision-making? To make a bold modern-day, real-life analogy: If a BLM protester is accused of flashing lasers into the eyes of police officers and causing retinal damage for several, shortly after being caught on film vandalizing public property, should we just assume that BLM protester committed Violation #2, since we actually know they committed Violation #1?  Enough said.
  • Taking liberties with the narrative: I was shocked to discover a posting thread that had respun this entire narrative. According to this re-telling, which a lot of reasonable people fell for based on their likes/loves/shares, “the community” had risen up to demand the editorial be removed! “The community” had presented evidence to prove it wrong! The self-interested editor refused to hear “the community,” interested only in her pocketbook! Never mind the social media-driven narcissism of interchanging “me and my social media friends” with “the community.” Or that for every attack on social media, there’s been at least one call, email, text or other support behind the scenes from people who quite honestly are afraid of this witch hunt mob mentality.
  • Recycling accusations already disproven: Even the original rumor poster clarified days ago that his post inaccurately connected Stucker with a known Trump supporter and inaccurately portrayed her as participating in the Jan. 6 insurrection. But so many others haven’t followed suit; they STILL, at this moment, have a post on their timeline that even the original poster has corrected. Some of the ongoing liars have reposted the initial error repeatedly, having positioned themselves in front of innocent social media browsers as an authority. Some hold actual positions of authority off-line! They started the lie, they defended the lie, and they’re still repeating the lie to people new to threads. That’s simply unethical.
  • Labels, labels, labels, labels, labels: this is the endless indulgence of progressives, especially those who live inside a bubble like Iowa City. We chop ourselves up beneath the progressive bubble, creating an environment of continuous “one-upsmanship,” where standing up for unity is condemned on its face while an unconfirmed attack rumor takes off like a spark in a dry forest. We are simply reinventing the Trump playbook beneath our little bubble: creating “others,” glorifying division, and glossing over details and fine distinctions in pursuit of our ideological goals. The collateral damage continues.

The other lessons to learn are almost too numerous to name, but all fall under a big heading of “damaging shortcuts and cheats in dialogue and debate.” Shaming as a debate tool. False indignation. Fake posturing. Skipping in voice back and forth between “innocent social media friend sharing about my cats, snacks and personal life” to “cancel campaign ringleader and self-appointed ‘community leader’ handing out the pitchforks.” These are familiar tools in our last four years; they are seepages of Trumpism into the progressive movement.

TIME TO TAKE ACTIVISM UP A NOTCH

In closing, what happened these past few days is the epitome of an indulgent, privileged progressive community that has lost sight of the world outside of its own bubble. We just ran a story about an ongoing campaign to stand up against racism in small Iowa towns. This past week’s style of knee-jerk “anti-” activism won’t work in those small towns. You can’t go storming into a community as small as Iowa City, let alone Marengo or Belle Plaine or Orange City or Minden, and accuse a 16-year business pioneer of a white supremacist conspiracy based on rumors eventually proven untrue, then just walk away from that mess you made, and expect any meaningful progress.

You’ll get a short-term activist fix — and a year from now, five years from, still be asking yourself along with the rest of us, “Why is Iowa so red? Why did we re-elect a guy like Steve King for decades? Why are we still a mostly conservative state?” Here’s why: Because we keep giving the real opponents excuses to re-elect red and far right, by the lack of principles in our own progressive, liberal, socialist, far-left and leftist strategies.

However you feel about any point ever made in this debate, we can all agree on one thing: rumor played the starting role. Attacks were lobbed by many based on something they read online but didn’t know much about first-hand. Truth — not the same as conjecture, assumption, interpretation — got lost along the way. That should have been enough to stop it. It wasn’t.

kelly stucker
Kelly Stucker owns The Konnexion in Iowa City and Dubuque.

Yeah, a lot of us indulged in rumor-ridden squabbles and skipped over due diligence, and still feel entitled to do so. A lot of us peed and pooed in the community discourse. It’s not too late to clean it up. Now, we focus on recovering from the collateral damage.

Do the work. The real work. Whether it’s from your armchair (where I do most of MY work, attackers), or on the streets, or on the phone. Communicate. Self-examine. Communicate again. Self-examine again. Take a stand. Self-examine again. Self-examine again. Take a stand. Self-examine again. And so on …..

Find a pleasant, self-loving way to do what you’ve got to do, whether publicly or privately. Join your fellow “I was wrong”-ers for a virtual drink. Light one up! Bake some brownies. Hold a Zoom meeting to talk about how you got so off track and how you can prevent yourself from doing it again. Read up on social media ethics, what actually happened in the witch hunts (including the leading role of men claiming to be looking out for women, constant re-questioning of the same allegations, and ignoring when the answers demanded the questions stop), community organizing ethics, and journalism ethics — especially that meddlesome one about the difference between fact and rumor and why it’s so important to recognize that, especially online. I’m not being a know-it-all; I’m asking you to stop being one.

Meditate. Pray. Do yoga. Cry. Hold an “I am sorry” postcard party. Treat yourself to an “I forgive myself” celebratory meal. Whatever it takes for you to approach the task of admitting you were wrong and making amends (at least with yourself, if not Stucker and your community), find it and follow through. Stop belittling this community discussion you inspired, and the attempt to have it with depth, detail and thought. This isn’t about defending Stucker and The Konnexion; it’s about a basic ethical principle that is equally good for everyone, including you. Use that prolific social media power you wielded on Jan. 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11 to attack on so many threads, and take 10 seconds to type “I’m sorry. I was wrong” on your timeline. Then, start thinking about the tactics that will REALLY work to reach the sea of red surrounding our islands of progressive thought bubbles.

At the very, VERY minimum, put down that pitchfork. Read the facts, accept the facts, and let’s move on. Because we have real community problems, real Iowa problems, real-world problems, that need you.

Click here to read the accompanying “Just the Facts” sidebar.

(Editors’ Note: A good number of attackers accused this publication of protecting a revenue source. It is essential for readers and followers of this saga to understand that we are different than many publications. The Real MainStream openly conducts advocacy journalism, which means we openly stand for and advocate in support of some basic principles about which we are beyond transparent. Not a soul advertises in this publication, writes for this publication, or contributes to it in any way, without knowing what those are. If one of our advertisers is functioning in violation of those principles, we WILL call them out regardless. If an advertiser is unfairly accused of violating our Mission Statement, we WILL defend them vigorously. That is not bias; that is building community.)

christine hawes
Author Christine Hawes is managing/executive editor of The Real MainStream.

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