10 February, 2016

Calling out racism online – is it helping?

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It’s 2016 and racists, sexists and misogynists are getting schooled as soon as they expose themselves. As they should be. But is the social policing we’re witnessing spreading hate, or pushing people towards worthy dialogue? Crucially, what happens next? Aaisha Dadi Patel and Dana da Silva weigh it up.

Calling out “problematic” people on social media is now a normal thing. It’s done daily. From threads on Tumblr and Reddit to Facebook statuses and Twitter screenshots – as soon as bigotry is exposed, social media is ready to put a hashtag on it and let it go viral, so that both the world and the offender can learn their lesson. But is this always a good thing?

Twitter “witch hunts”, in which a kind of mob mentality takes over, have become part and parcel to the call-outs. And in so doing, they seem to have further fuelled hate. For example, while the exposure of Penny Sparrow’s horrid comments could be seen as necessary, publicising her home address, and issuing rape threats to her and her daughter, tilt the scales. And while there has been a lot of talk, the lack of legislation pertaining to hate speech, and the lack of clarity regarding what constitutes free speech means that condemnations of racism sometimes evolve into problems in themselves.

In moments like these, it’s important to go back to the basics.

The screen offers us a unique security, so there’s a special bravado that inspires critical comment online. The fact remains that the internet and social media allow anyone to say whatever they wish behind the comfort of their screen, while allowing one to perfectly curate an online personality with the bells and whistles of emojis and clever memes. The incongruence between real life and social media personas often lies at the root of the problem.

When you’re only showcasing one aspect of your life to be accessed by any stranger with an interest, you’re creating an idea of who you are for people to see. And what’s not appealing about only coming across as carefree, or feisty, or super-cultured and wise about a topic?

Of course, hate speech needs to be called out. But who decides on the call to action? And are Twitter mobs the answer? How do we ensure the internet just doesn’t become the new bully in the playground? Yes, social media has allowed those with little power in the real world to stand up (albeit behind a screen) and force the hand of those with authority.

Take #SomeoneTellCNN that trended worldwide after Kenyans raised hell over poor reporting by CNN. The media house was forced to apologise. Or the response to Standard Bank’s Chris Hart, [http://www.thedailyvox.co.za/its-2016-and-racists-must-be-schooled/] whose comments best illuminated white privilege.

Before Penny Sparrow there was one Jessica Leandra. In 2012, the 20-year-old former FHM model tweeted, “Just, well took on an arrogant and disrespectful k****r inside Spar. Should have punched him, should have [sic]”. She apologised, blaming it on an angry outburst, but her Twitter timeline later showed another racist slip-up. It read, “Highlight of my weekend? Almost punching an #Engen petrol assistant. No tolerance for rude African monkeys whatsoever.”

As a result of her tweets, she lost several modelling contracts and was dropped by her sponsors.

In this instance, what could be called “the social justice of calling out” had prevailed. It was through the consequences of her words that she learnt their impact, and the repercussions. And calling out, ultimately, is means of holding hate speech to account.

Activists on Union Square stand with a cut out photo of Trayvon Martin, Sunday, July 14, 2013, in New York, during a protest against the acquittal of volunteer neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman in the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Demonstrators upset with the verdict protested mostly peacefully in Florida, Milwaukee, Washington, Atlanta and other cities. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)
Activists on Union Square in New York stand with a cut-out photo of Trayvon Martin during a protest against the acquittal  George Zimmerman. Picture: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle

Simple hashtags can also be the inspiration for global conversations. The #BlackLivesMatter movement in the United States was born in 2012 after George Zimmerman was cleared of the murder of Trayvon Martin. The group started with a simple hashtag, amplified after the Ferguson protests, which went on to inspire conversations from across the world, bringing to the fore racial experiences of African Americans.

Yes, it was soon appropriated into #AllLivesMatter, when predominantly white people argued that the hashtag was exclusionary, thereby missing the point that its purpose was to provide a platform for marginalised black voices.

But, at its best, social media is able to provide access and inclusivity because it is in many ways the new public square of old. Anyone with an internet connection can get involved in the conversation.

However, one can’t help but feel that often, far more attention is paid to “delivery” than to the actual message. More attention is given to those with the loudest voice, or with the harshest words, and for the ones who can throw the most shade. Little attention is given to points of higher value, or learning and more to bearing witness to the spectacle of public disgrace.

So how exactly do we go about dealing with the fault in our perceptions? How do we accept that we are problematic, but use this knowledge positively?

To what extent could calling out people become a positive thing – and is it really possible to move beyond the knobkerries of the mob? Where does tolerance for diverse viewpoints come into play, and when do we allow them, or humbly agree to disagree? At some point it becomes a bit self-righteous to assume that you can incessantly call others out without admitting, “Hey, I’m kinda problematic too!”

So it has to be asked, are people being disgraced on social media for their weaknesses, because they show it?

If you’re sitting on a high horse, only calling people out and not acknowledging your own faults, there is an unmistakable arrogance attached to that. A millennial narcassism, if you like? #JustSaying

The Daily Vox

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