The man suspected of opening fire at a GOP congressional baseball practice June 14, 2017, is James T. Hodgkinson of Belleville, Ill.
A Facebook page that appears to belong to Belleville, Ill. ,resident Sue Hodgkinson shows a post from last November at the top — an innocuous message about the Toy Blast online game.
But since Hodgkinson’s husband, James, shot a congressman and injured four others Wednesday, people have added to that Facebook post with a torrent of about 1,200 comments and replies, ranging from personal attacks against her family to messages of sympathy.
The Facebook page — still online Thursday more than 30 hours after the shooting — shows how quickly social media commenters can turn a personal page into a heated public battleground.
Comments ranged from suggesting she shared some blame by association to profanity-laced tirades against the shooter. Posters traded barbs back and forth, with some pleading for the wife to be left alone.
"Guys, seriously? Don’t attack this woman. When you act like that you make me ashamed to be conservative. We are supposed to be better than this," a woman posted.
Some social media experts cautioned, however, that the rage commenters express on someone’s Facebook page isn’t necessarily intended against that person but an outgrowth of heated debate.
"I don’t think these comments are for her," said Susannah Stern, a professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego. "I think people at a time like this feel powerless, and this is a space to have a conversation that is uncomfortable to have in public in a face-to-face conversation."
The commenters may instead be speaking to others who are viewing the Facebook page, she said. Typically, people are friends with those who think alike, but this venue presented an opportunity to engage the other side with differing opinions, she said.
"It definitely seems like people are trying to express something, whether that’s provocation or just getting it off their chest. This is a very safe and easy way to do it, very few ramifications for demonstrating this kind of anger and quite a few (people) are sympathetic," Stern said.
Such comments can be viewed as an expression of emotions some people felt about what happened, said social media expert Dave Kerpen, author of "Likeable Social Media: How to Delight Your Customers, Create an Irresistible Brand, and Be Generally Amazing on Facebook (& Other Social Networks)."
"Dramatic emotions can, at times like this — fear and anger — can inspire behavior like trolling that normally wouldn’t be considered acceptable," Kerpen said.
One of the benefits — and drawbacks — of social media is how quickly things spread, he said.
"One troll is unfortunately able to generate a lot more trolls," Kerpen said, drawing on his own experience last year during the election. He tweeted to notify a user he reported to Twitter for hateful speech. In return, that user retweeted him and he received 120 mean tweets from other users.
In times like these, people also demonstrate humanity on social media, Kerpen noted, as some people made pleas to leave Hodgkinson’s wife alone.
Still, many people consider pages like Hodgkinson’s wife’s personal, distinguished from other public forums like political sites, Stern said.
"I think a lot of people see it as intrusion," Stern said.