Guest Column: Why Accountability for False Accusations on Social Media Is Important

(File photograph.)

John M. McIlveen is an author, editor-in-chief of Haverhill House Publishing, and facility manager at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory. A father to five daughters, he lives in Haverhill, with his wife, Roberta Colasanti.

On Tuesday, Feb. 5, a manager from a Haverhill business posted a picture online of five young ladies that had entered her shop (below), one of whom was my daughter. It contained clips from her surveillance system, one in which she circled some implied evidence of shoplifting. Along with the post she accused one of the young ladies of stealing a shirt (supposedly circled in the photo) and ambiguously alluded to “anything else you took.”

When the accused young lady was informed by her friends of the post, which had been circulated extensively within a couple hours of the girls leaving the shop, she was devastated and in tears.

Original social media post. Click on image to enlarge.

Later that same day the accused young lady (wearing the shoulder bag in the photo) and her mother approached the business asking for evidence of the transgression. The manager was not in, but told them over the phone to come in the next day to speak to her in person. Also, while on the phone, the store manager switched gears and asked for the names of the other young ladies, which was odd since she was convinced this one girl had taken the shirt. The names were not given to her.

On Wednesday, Feb. 6, seven parents went to the business requesting evidence. The shop showed the video, which displays the five young women browsing the shop and chatting, but provided no more proof of misconduct than the posted photo, which when enlarged clearly shows only the young lady’s four fingers and thumb grasping the string of her bag—no shirt as implied. The manager further stated they had an inventory of six shirts on their books and pointed out five on the rack. When the father of another of the accused girls pointed to a sixth shirt hanging on the wall, they replied, “Oh that one does not count.” I will note that I am a publisher; any books I display are part of my inventory, and I’m quite sure this is standard practice for most retailers.

The manager insisted on blaming the five young ladies for a stolen shirt, and voiced a number of times “We wanted to teach the girls a lesson.”

One of the parents suggested if there had been a theft, why don’t they call the police. The store refused, so the parent called the police herself. The police looked at the video surveillance and also concluded there was no evidence to any wrongdoing.

There are such things as false accusation and defamation of character, both of which I believe this shop is guilty. As the saying goes, “A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on.” And that was written before there was Facebook! Thanks to social media, the speed at which false accusations get around is a much faster phenomenon now than when this was first uttered. Before the business tried to whip up a social media furor against these young people, they should have thought about what they know, what they can prove, and what the potential fallout of being wrong is for everyone—personally, professionally, and legally.

I, as a parent, am livid at the way this was handled, as are the parents of all the young ladies involved.

Repeatedly posting the picture of five girls on the internet and accusing them of something you cannot provide evidence to is wrong in so many ways and could be very damaging. These young women are all minors, but they are all honor roll students in advanced classes at Haverhill High School (Classical Academy and STEM), and many excel in sports. They are scouting colleges and will soon be applying. I am at MIT, and I know, be it for college or employment, an applicant’s social media is combed.  This could impact their lives.

After the parents departed, the business posted the obscure apology above.

This post and comments on their page beneath this post did not truthfully address the incident or indemnify those who were wrongly accused. The business also cherry-picked responses to their post, keeping those that wrongly admonished the young ladies, and deleting any that were in defense of those they wrongfully accused. The post was finally removed after they were called on it.

There is a common and valid belief that If it’s on the internet, it can never truly be removed.

One of the major reasons for writing this article is that with the rise of social media, I fear America risks turning into a country where we are no longer acknowledge due process and the constitutional right that we are believed innocent until proven guilty. This is also overly apparent by the knee-jerk responses of those too quick to believe and even quicker to judge.

The business’s actions were irresponsible and potentially damaging to the character of several young people at the beginning of their lives, and they personally owe these girls a sincere public apology, not some vague half-handed attempt at sidestepping the situation.

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