Beall: Putting a face on Internet racism

BY MIKE BEALL | JULY 18, 2013 5:00 AM

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Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the Internet is that it affords such anonymity to allow comment sections nearly everywhere to devolve into racist or misogynistic rants. But we have a false sense of security about Internet racism. It is assumed that Internet racism is confined to these anonymous comment chains, that people hide behind faceless online avatars because they are either so ashamed of their racism or sexism, afraid of societal repercussions, or just seeking attention.

But, as the Internet’s reaction to the trial and acquittal of George Zimmerman illustrate, the story of Internet bigotry is not that simple. Particularly on Twitter, where most people have their real name and photo attached to their account, the line between what’s OK to tweet and what is tremendously racist or sexist is being blurred. That night, the Twittersphere’s already flimsy filter was more or less discarded.

We are, of course, nowhere near getting past racism or sexism as a society, even after allegedly ringing in a post-racial era by electing a black president (twice). It may well be the case that the Internet has even made worse the problems of racism by allowing racist individuals to validate and share their beliefs more easily online.

If anything, it’s made racism considerably more visible.

An independent study of Twitter activity during the night of President Obama’s re-election, for example, showed a tremendous spike in hate speech and racial epithets aimed at the president. States such as Mississippi and Alabama had almost eight times the national average of racist tweets. Iowa was below the national average toward the bottom of states that night.

In many instances, this type of online racism has spilled over into the real world.

After the election in November, several high-schoolers from across the country were reprimanded for using racist language on Twitter. These students, upon being caught by school administration, typically deleted their accounts or insisted that they were hacked. But the damage is already done. Their message was already sent to the masses and their reputations had already been marked for all time.

A community of online users has taken up the task of fighting back against overt online racism through public shaming.

There are several blogs that take screen caps of racist and sexist tweets to shame the offenders. I routinely follow a few Tumblr blogs devoted to this cause. One such blog uses Twitter and other social-media responses to big news stories to out individuals as racists and sexists. Another takes Twitter users that demand women make them a sandwich and sets it up nicely with a screen cap of the same individual complaining about their lack of friends and/or romantic partners, as if they are unaware that being deeply misogynistic is a turnoff for most women.

It may be too much to ask to shame these apparently shameless people online, unfortunately. On numerous occasions individuals have actually shown pride in being caught on public shaming blogs. No publicity is bad publicity, I suppose. But someday, they will tire of showing off their fame and come to the frightening realization that what they typed online in high school is permanent.

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