Mark LaFlamme: Online ugliness is the rule, not the exception

May 10—For 21 hours last week, Auburn police grinded it during a tense standoff with an armed man inside a small house on Gillander Avenue.

Rifle-toting cops were everywhere, dressed head to toe in armored gear. There were armored vehicles and police dogs. There were tactical specialists with the latest in police technology rushing in from other states.

While the volatile standoff ground on, displaced families waited nervously in hotel rooms desperate for news that they could go home. Others in the area spent a nerve-wracking night in their own beds, ready to leap into their bathtubs at the first thunder of gunfire.

During those long 21 hours, there was always the potential for an exchange of gunfire between police and the 47-year-old holed up in his mother's house with plenty of artillery of his own.

In the end, the home was ripped apart, the basement flooded with water to urge the culprit out of his hidey hole. Now the fellow faces perhaps more than a decade in prison and the house will require extensive repairs if it is not torn down altogether.

All of the drama — and for what? Was this a case of a desperate interstate fugitive clinging to his final minutes of freedom? Was he the head of a powerful drug cartel cornered by armies who had been pursuing him for decades?

Was he a political whistleblower terrified of getting disappeared by his own government? A wanted assassin or international terrorist?

Nope, none of that. This was just an ordinary Joe who, if what prosecutors say is true, caused all of this chaos and disruption because he had gotten into an online argument with another man, and boy was he mad.

"Overnight standoff sparked by online feud," goes the headline for this one.

It would be kind of funny if it weren't so predictable. I mean, have you been in any online discussions lately? Been in a heated Facebook thread, newspaper chat board or YouTube comment section?

It's a stupid question. There's no avoiding these kinds of forums if you wanted to. If you need to use Twitter for even the most innocuous purpose, you'd better prepare for linguistic warfare, brother, because the position of rage has become the default in any online discussion.

The Sun Journal, like pretty much all news organizations, has its own Twitter and Facebook accounts used to reach larger audiences than its website alone can reach. There's useful information to be found on these platforms, true, but personally, I don't venture into any of those threads unless I absolutely, positively have to do so for professional reasons, and I do so in a cringing fashion, prepared for ugliness.

Visiting any online forum where a collection of strangers gathers to share their thoughts is almost always a dismal and depressing affair. It doesn't matter a smidgen what the topic at hand happens to be, either. I've seen comments on cute pet features descend from, "how sweet!" to, "I will kill you in your sleep!" in an eye-blink.

You are almost as apt to witness next-level rage in a gardening forum as you are on a political discussion board.

It's worse, of course, when people are allowed to post behind pseudonyms. Comfortable in their relative anonymity, they will say the most vile things their intellect can summon to express their petty ire to an online stranger.

"You are a trash human who should die in a fire," is one remark I saw in a comment section recently.

"Do us all a favor and die of cancer," is another.

But there are plenty of people who don't give a whit about anonymity. They will unleash comment hellfire behind their own names as long as they can do it from the relative safety of their homes, and what does it say about us as people? What does it say about us when as soon as the necessity for face-to-face exchanges are dispensed with, we become vicious, gutter-talking lunatics who won't hesitate to threaten and demean anyone with whom we even mildly disagree? Is this true human nature unmasked at last by the conveniences of internet technology?

In an age when public discourse was conducted in a real-world environment, one could expect a punch in the nose if he or she resorted to the kind of trash talk we see as a matter of course online.

The internet has removed most of the really heavy consequences of unruly behavior. One might be banned from a chat board, sure. Facebook will suspend your account if you break its dubious and erratic rules, but by and large you're not going to get slapped across the face or grabbed by the lapels and tossed onto the street because there's no one in your proximity to do it.

On Monday, I wrote a news story about a homeless woman who was badly burned after falling into a campfire. If a group of us were in a public setting discussing this sad affair, we'd all say pretty much the same thing.

"How sad," one might remark. "Hope she makes it."

"A pity," another would say. "Something's got to be done."

But later, at home where the rules of decorum are thrown out the window, it's a different matter.

Reluctantly, already cringing in preparation for what I would find, I went onto Facebook where the story about the burned woman had been posted. I ventured in only because I was eager to find someone who knew the unfortunate lady or who had witnessed the unhappy accident at Moulton Field.

Realistically, though, I knew what I would find in that thread. And the thread didn't prove me wrong.

One of the first to weigh in on the story did so by posting the laughing emoji, because apparently life-threatening burns are hilaaaarious. A few people called that person out, which is completely appropriate, but then it quickly devolved into the usual nastiness, with ad hominem attacks all over the place and utterances of the usual terms from the internet's lexicon of human wrath.

Those who complain are "snowflakes" who are "triggered" by anyone with an opposing view. A Facebook user quickly shoots back that the original poster is "garbage" and invokes a more politically heated national story about the death of a homeless man to further fan the flames of rage.

From there, the comments devolve further into a heated exchange based around — what else? — political ideologies. And all of this took place before there were even 20 comments on the matter of the burned woman — remember her?

The sad fact is that these kinds of grotesque exchanges in online comment areas have become the rule rather than the exception. And another sad fact is that we're surrounded by people who seem to absolutely thrive on these kinds of bitter exchanges. Getting into the internet version of a knife fight in the mud seems to satisfy some demented need they have to fling their darkest thoughts out into the world — as long as they can do it from the safety of their living rooms.

Still others seem so desperate to prove their virtue to the world that they will spend entire afternoons screaming vulgarities at strangers on the internet, going after what they consider wrong opinions the way piranhas go after slow-moving prey. When all is said and done, I think the piranha have more virtue, and they for sure have more grace.

I always wonder what these people would do if somebody scooped them from their homes mid-screech and forced them to sit in a room with the online strangers they were battling in such savage fashion just moments before. Would the combatants sit there flinging sewage and rotted garbage — which is the best real-world analogy I can come up with at the moment — at one another? Or would they suddenly find themselves with more reasoned arguments to make now that the rules of face-to-face debate had come into play?

It's ugly out there. Dogfight ugly. I suppose the argument could be made that as long as people are spewing this kind of feculence on the internet and not in the real world, maybe it serves as a kind of bloodless outlet for man's combative impulses. But alas, along comes a person like Daryan Ryan Saunders, who wasn't content to argue online, he had to coax it into the real world so the rest of the blameless community would suffer from his rage, as well.

I said it just a few paragraphs above, but I'll say it again. The way we interact with one another online says nothing good at all about our true nature. We like to think we're a civilized and compassionate people, but as soon as the internet arrived, we used it to become a society so filled with hate and vitriol, it would make the recently departed Jerry Springer blush with embarrassment.

Some say the advent of the internet was the greatest technological advance of the 20th century.

Me, I have my doubts.