The anti-cycling Facebook post that ended up as evidence in court

"Get f---ed c---. Start paying for using the roads or keep coping [sic] abuse and 2inch flybys."

That was a post on Facebook in 2012, referring to a bumper sticker advising motorists to leave 1.5 metres when overtaking cyclists.

Last month, the man who wrote that comment, 27-year-old Ben Smith, was jailed for the manslaughter of Steven Jarvie, who fell from his bike as Smith sped past him on a motorcycle north of Sydney in 2013.

Smith didn't stop to help Jarvie, 62, and was later heard saying he "deserved it". The court also heard that Smith had yelled abuse about "f---ing idiot" cyclists before he came across Jarvie.

The prosecution tendered as evidence the comment on Facebook, made some three months before the fatal incident, saying it showed Smith's hostility towards cyclists.

In sentencing, the judge found the offender "had a strong dislike verging on hatred for cyclists" and had been riding "in a manner that was grossly negligent" but he was not satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that Smith deliberately went too close to Jarvie.

"I am not satisfied that his hatred motivated him to hit the cyclist but I believe it motivated his lack of care towards cyclists," he told the court.

Smith was jailed for eight years, with a non-parole period of 5½ years.

Disturbing reading

The case made for disturbing reading, especially for anyone who rides a bike on public roads.

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But one thing that caught my attention was that Smith's post was similar to so many other comments I've seen on social media.

Facebook, especially, can quickly turn nasty whenever cycling is the topic.

People will blithely write messages such as "I'll keep scaring cyclists until they pay registration" and "run them over".

And those comments are often made from an identifying profile that includes information such as friends, family and place of work.

The worry is that such commentary might serve to normalise and even increase antipathy towards cyclists, who are vulnerable road users.

Especially the malevolent, angry bile that exists on the anti-cycling pages that are dotted around Facebook.

One recurring item is a confronting photo of a car that collided with a group of riders taking part in an organised event. A number of the riders were injured, and one was killed. And yet this image is posted in a celebratory fashion.

I've also seen posts by drivers who have taken videos of themselves shouting abuse or hooting at cyclists.

'Just avoid it'

Facebook has a reporting process where you can register a protest against any material posted – but you might be disappointed to learn that something you object to "doesn't violate our Community Standards".

You can also consciously seek to sidestep or block such material – although, of course, that doesn't make it go away. You might not be reading it, but many others are.

And even Facebook pages run by mainstream news sites can be hit by hateful comments, which may take a while to be deleted by site administrators – if the responses are moderated at all.

It's easy to say "well, it's social media, just avoid it" – but even if you do, the fact is that sites like Facebook are becoming the prime source of information for an increasing number of people.

Opportunity to educate

Besides, social media can also be used as a way to spread positive messages about bike riding. Cycling organisations from long-established advocacy groups such as Bicycle Network and Bicycle NSW to newer ventures such as the Australian Cycle Alliance are able to reach far beyond their membership base via social media.

Of course, such groups are mostly reaching the converted, or at least the sympathetic.

But government departments such as VicRoads and NSW Road Safety are also able to reach a wider audience through social media posts and online education campaigns.

Queensland's Transport and Main Roads tends to post information about road rules in the form of a question, while giving feedback to comments posted.

"Cycling and motorcycling are definitely two of the more contentious issues we deal with," a spokesperson for TMR's social media team said.

"There's a bit of misunderstanding in the community, and Facebook has not only articulated that for us, but it also gives us an opportunity to address it.

The team tries to respond individually "whenever possible" when erroneous views are expressed on the page, and "gently let them know when they're incorrect".

"We do see our share of hostility on Facebook and it's important that we don't look ineffective in the face of that, so we state the facts," the spokesperson said. 

So, how much of the aggressive anti-cycling sentiment expressed on social media is "dark humour" or unthinking overstatement, how much is intended as provocation - and how much is genuine anger that might influence people's behaviour on the roads? It's hard to guess what the percentages are.

It can be disturbing to see the opinions expressed sometimes. But mostly I comfort myself with the knowledge that the vast majority of road users do the right thing, or try to.

And hopefully, anti-cyclist sentiment will, in time, dwindle and fade. 

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

Follow Michael on Twitter or Facebook, email him or read more of his blogs.

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