The internet troll, once an anonymous denizen of message boards and chat rooms who held little sway in the real world, has come into the light with the prevalence and power of social media.
We used to be able to dismiss his presence as the ugly fringe of cyberspace, a reaction-seeking miscreant spewing inciting, hateful speech from a basement somewhere far away. We used to be able to rationalize that his words represent no real human being, and certainly none we respect or admire or who have any actual power in our lives. And we could altogether ignore him quite easily, as our daily lives weren’t so intertwined with the internet.
But now that we’ve all (or nearly all) moved into his domain, the troll is everywhere we turn. And we’ve come to the chilling realization that he is among us in real life, too.
We saw it earlier this month as Echo city councilman Lou Nakapalau weaponized his Facebook account in a war of words with a documentary filmmaker. Nakapalau accosted director Joe Wilson, who is gay, on the page for his film “Kumu Hina,” using slurs and saying if Wilson died of AIDS he would spit on his grave. The men have never met in person. Nakapalau has since removed the comments from the page.
Nakapalau has not responded to several attempts to ask about the encounter, and as the city council met Thursday about how to address the remarks he sat silent and expressionless in the chambers. He didn’t say a word as the council voted to apologize for his offensive words, and none of his fellow council members addressed him.
That’s shameful, and a real shame.
The city issued a broad apology to any who were offended by the comments and noted that the personal accounts of individual councilors are not endorsed by the city. It also said the city does not and will not enact policies that are biased against classes or groups of people. And in the final line it says the council is made up of volunteers who have the right to free speech.
It’s the kind of statement that doesn’t make anything better, but is issued to make sure things don’t get worse. It’s a safe and generic stance that declines to mention the offending party — Nakapalau — by name, though it does take the time to mention the East Oregonian, who first reported the insults, and Facebook, the platform on which the comments were made. As if either are more responsible for the behavior than the man himself.
Nakapalau has the right to speak his mind. He’s a volunteer councilman solely on the merit of earning eight write-in votes last November. And because he was elected, his words — even the ones he fired off to antagonize and belittle a stranger from another state, but never meant to be seen by friends and neighbors — carry weight. The citizens of Echo deserve to hear what he has to say for himself. The people of Umatilla County and beyond deserve to know how the city responds to this kind of hate.
Echo is not the sleepy town it once was. New wineries, downtown dining and Main Street restoration have created a beautiful place for a visit, and events like last weekend’s Oktoberfest and the springtime Red 2 Red mountain bike race have brought in new life and the potential for even more tourism.
While some have demanded an apology from Nakapalau, we don’t believe forcing such a statement has value. If he regrets the statement and the effect it had on another person, we want to know that. If he just regrets the trouble it has caused himself, he should say it.
If he doesn’t have the decency or courage to even own his words, we’d suggest he step down.