#ENDITMOVEMENT: Social Media Activism, without Action

My current sociological research looks at the way millennials and digital natives (the subsequent generational cohort) use social media to construct identity in their everyday lives. One of the questions that I asked over the course of my ethnography was “Have you ever participated in a social issue campaign beyond reposting or retweeting about it on social media? If so, in what ways?” Overwhelmingly, the response was “No, I usually just retweet or repost it.”

I believe whole-heartedly in the power of awareness but as Mark Warren, the author of Fire in the Heart How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice puts it, “If we stop at moral impulse, we are left with altruism.”

The leaders of the End It movement seem to understand this on a rudimentary level but the same cannot be said about all of their followers and supporters. When I saw the red x’s on several of my students’ hands, I asked them about it. I said, “What type of slavery?” “Where is this slavery taking place?” “What can I do personally?” No one could reasonably answer any of those questions. When I asked, “Did you, or are you going to, donate money?” one person responded, “The hope is that people will eventually donate money.” “Where will the money go? What will they do with it?” My questions remained unanswered. They could only tell me that the red x’s were supposed to cause people to ask questions so that they could spread the word about world-wide slavery. When I asked questions, the message of freedom was not explained very thoroughly at all. Uninformed awareness is just as bad as unawareness itself.

This is a trend that I see in many social issue campaigns that take place on and through the aid of social media. While the so-called freedom fighters are undoubtedly well-intentioned, I see several issues with the way the message is constructed as well as with the proposed solutions. Beyond the social construction of the movement being somewhat lofty and ungrounded, I fear that the initiators of these types movements are merely banking on the other-directed vulnerability of millennials and digital natives. Social psychologists Wang, Tchernev, and Solloway cite users’ need to mitigate their self- image and the need to be affirmed by their peers, amongst two of the four main reasons why users engage with social media. Social media allows users to fulfill these needs as often as they want. Additionally, Quinn and Oldmeadow found that social media use by younger users helps ease the tensions that can be present during major transitional periods in life. Anyone with the right formula could amass a large following not because the people truly believed in the cause, but due to the nature of social media.

Beyond the primary issue with social media movements, I was underwhelmed with the lack of information I was presented with on the home page. The white savior narrative is prevalent and problematic and is reified throughout the page. Let me be clear, there is significant value in people of every race and nationality participating in a cause that is valid however there is a problem with the way the people are depicted on the site and on the Twitter feed. In the promotional video, the camera quickly pans over the people who are portrayed as either currently trapped in some sort of slavery or are survivors of it. The message is unclear. Again it is not the whiteness that I see as problematic, it is the underrepresentation of the people that the movement is trying to help. Where are these people? Why aren’t their voices heard most loudly and clearly? Visitors must go to the very last tab in the list – the “learn” tab, to watch the longer video which allows the audience to hear from persons who were formerly enslaved.

Enditmovement.com presents a dominant narrative instead of taking on a supporting role in the goal of liberation. Further, it does not do an adequate job of informing visitors about the roots of slavery and perhaps unintentionally hides the real issues at hand. The United States is one of the greatest catalysts of sex-slavery. The United States accounts for a large portion of the 32 billion dollars generated by sex slavery. The United Nations states that the U.S. is amongst the most common destinations for sex trafficking. We are producers of the enslavement that this movement is trying to fight. Though users can find this information on the site if they search for it, this information is vital to our understanding of this type of slavery and it is completely missing from the home page.

What is not missing, however, is the blatant consumerism. The tabs that allow you to learn more about the organizations who are being supported are neatly nested at the bottom of the page. Instead, upon a first encounter with the page, visitors are encouraged to visit the store to buy the gear and “be the billboard”. A lot of digging must be done to find the “slavery facts”. The average user is not very likely to go to the “learn” tab. Once found, the research is valid and points to a substantial problem in our global society. It also includes a list of sources and suggested readings however my students seemed to have missed the mark and settled for being aware but uneducated. I fear that this is the case for a majority of the red x bearers.

Perhaps the End It movement could be as powerful as it aims to be if it were to take on Gideon Sjoberg’s countersystem approach. “A countersystem analyst consciously tries to step outside of her or his own society in order to better view and critically asses it. … These critical social thinkers support the action of human beings in their own liberation” (Quoted in Feagin and Vera 2008:2).

As a Christian sociologist, I often find myself at an impasse. I strive to love people in my daily life and I recognize the desire to be a part of something that is bigger than one’s self. I do see validity in the core purpose of the #enditmovement. However my grounding in sociology makes it easy for me to see through the inauthenticity that can exist in “viral” movements on social media. I want to call everyone who believes themselves to be passionate about the liberation of all enslaved or marginalized peoples – religious or not – to inform yourself and others about the facts. Then use your knowledge to act beyond the confines of the screen.

Guest blogger Apryl Williams is a sociology graduate student at Texas A&M University.

Race, Racism & Social Networking Sites: What the Research Tells Us

I’ve been doing a series about what academic research on race and racism on the Internet.    The series continues today with a look at what researchers are finding about one the most talked about aspects of the popular Internet: Social Networking Sites.

(Creative Commons License Image source)

Social networking sites (SNS), such as Facebook and MySpace, are phenomenally popular and important to the field of Internet studies, (Boyd and Ellison, “Social Network Sites: Definition, History, and Scholarship,” JCMC, 2007, Vol.13(1):210-230).    According to a recent report, the top SNS is currently Facebook, with over 65 million unique visitors per month.  Facebook has displaced the former leader in the field, MySpace, which still currently gets about 58 million unique visitors per month.  These are staggeringly high numbers of people participating in these sites.    But what does this phenomenon have to do with race and racism?

(Source: Complete Pulse, 02/09/09)

White Flight? Perhaps the most talked about finding about race and SNS has to do with the move of whites from MySpace to Facebook.  Researcher danah boyd’s  ethnographic research indicates that it may be “white flight” that led to Facebook’s success over MySpace.  There are also class politics at play here, which boyd has also noted in her research.    This complex interplay of race and class surrounding Facebook and MySpace is also something that Craig Watkins examines in his book, The Young and the Digital (Beacon Press, 2010).   From 2005 to 2009, Watkins explored the movement of young people, aged 15 to 24 from MySpace to Facebook (97).  Watkins found that the same racialized language used to differentiate between safe and unsafe people and communities was used to describe Facebook and MySpace. The participants in his study described MySpace as “uneducated, trashy, ghetto, crowded, and [filled with] predators,” while they described Facebook as “selective, clean, educated, and trustworthy” (80, 83).  Watkins (2010) suggests that the young people in his study associate MySpace with the uneducated and unemployed while Facebook’s uniformity conveys upward mobility and professionalism. Watkins observes that “the young people surveyed and spoke with are attracted to online communities that connect them to people who are like them in some notable way,” most notably race (97).

There’s been some additional research recently which suggests that “friend” selection on Facebook is not solely attributable to race, but that selection is complicated by other variables such as ethnicity, region, and membership in elite institutions (Wimmer and Lewis, 2010).

Race, Identity & Community.  The fact is that people go online to affirm their identity and to find community, often along racial lines.  In the chart of popular sites above, note #13 is BlackPlanet.com.   Scholar Dara Byrne notes that offline social networking traditions among young black professionals, such as First Fridays events, have in many ways shifted to include online engagement at Blackplanet.com (Bryne, (2007). “Public discourse, community concerns, and civic engagement: Exploring black social networking traditions on BlackPlanet.com.” JCMC, 13(1), article 16).

African Americans who are searching for genealogical roots, also use social networking sites to affirm identity and find community.  For example, research by Alondra Nelson and Jeong Won Hwang’s research explores the proliferation of YouTube videos by genetic genealogists (in Nakamura and Chow’s, Race After the Internet, forthcoming from Routledge) . African American genealogists in the Internet era are enabled by developments such as Google’s personal genomics company 23andMe, which sells consumers genetic inferences about their “health, disease and ancestry,” with a social networking component.  In the videos people make of themselves, they reveal and react to the results of their DNA testing in “roots revelations” and viewers respond to the videos.   Nelson and Hwang theorize that these roots revelations, and the call-and-response that follows in the YouTube comments, are premised on a type of racial sincerity in which identities are drawn not only from genetic ancestry results, but also from the networked interaction between broadcasters and their audiences.

Here again, like with BlackPlanet.com, people are going online specifically to affirm racial identity and to seek community around that identity.   In many ways, SNS function in ways that newspapers used to function, creating “imagined communities” among those who engage with them (Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, 1991).   Following on Anderson’s concept of imagined communities, André Brock looks at online news sites as an important venue for creating racial meanings through a discussion of the series “The Wire” staged by a sociologist and blogger at the New York Times (Brock, “Life on the Wire: Deconstructing Race on the Internet,” Information, Communication and Society, 12 (3):344-363).

Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao (2009) take a different approach to race and SNS and explore the racial themes associated with injustice frequently included by the African American, Latino, and Indian students on their Facebook wall.  They theorize that these wall postings convey a sense of group belonging, color consciousness, and identification with groups historically stigmatized by dominant society. In contrast, the profiles of white students and Vietnamese students rarely signaled group identification or racial themes, reflecting ‘‘strategies of racelessness.’’

Racism & Social Networking Sites. Social networking sites are not only a place where people affirm identity and seek community.  These sites are also a venue where racism regularly appears.   Research by Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Suzanne L. Markoe of the University of California, Los Angeles, is published in the March issue of Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, explores how young people negotiate racism in SNS.

The study, which examined the relationship between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology,  found that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties.  In other words, the more “color-blind” someone was, the less likely they would be to find parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes (e.g., photos of students dressed in blackface make-up attending a “gangsta party” to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day) offensive.

They look at associations between responses to online expressions of racism and color blind racial attitudes.  Tynes and Markoe operationalize racism by using photos of racially themed parties (e.g., blackface or “ghetto” themes) and asking study participants to respond.  They showed 217 African American and white college students images and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s “wall” on Facebook or MySpace. The researchers also measured self-reported racial color blindness.  Their findings indicate that those who scored lower in color blindness were more vocal in their opposition to the images and were more likely to say that they would “defriend” someone who engaged in the practice.   White participants and those who scored high in racial color blindness were more likely to be in the not bothered reaction group. Further, these students were more likely to condone and even encourage the racial theme party practice by laughing at the photos and affirming the party goers.  Although both studies use small samples, Grasmuck, Martin and Zhao’s work along with Tynes and Markoe’s research moves the field of race and Internet studies a step beyond which social networks people join and why to how race (and racism) shapes what they do once in those networks. (I wrote more about this important research back in April, 2010).

Future Research. There’s still a lot missing from our understanding of race, racism and SNS.   One area that I expect will yield a lot of interesting research has to do with race, racism and Twitter.  Current estimates that approximately 8% of all people in the U.S. are using Twitter, a combination microblogging and social networking site where users post 140-character updates.   Twitter also appears to be more popular with blacks than with whites, There are interesting racial ‘eruptions’ here, such as the #browntwitterbird hashtag and with user handles like @whitegirlproblems.   To date, there is nothing in the peer-reviewed literature about race, racism and Twitter and this will no doubt change soon.

For the next installment of this series, I’ll be back with a discussion about race and online dating.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised: Absence of Revolution in 21st-Century USA?



Where is my revolution? Where is our lucid, incensed, uncompromising voice of change? Why are the streets absent of straight-faced people marching with signs bearing rhymes of discontent for injustice, inequality, and oppression? Around the globe, people see Egypt stands in the midst of revolt. Egypt was inspired by the Tunisian Revolution in December 2010, where demonstrators allied together to protest their government’s level of corruption, the present stranglehold on freedom of speech, state of unemployment, food inflation, and disastrous living conditions. Egypt citizens then committed themselves to at times peaceful rallies, marches, and civil disobedience. Revolution is alive in the streets of Cairo, Suez, and northern Sinai area of Sheik Zuweid.

Social networking sites such as Facebook have helped to organize thousands as they protect against a ruling government viewed as corrupt and ignoring the plights of the poor. Like dominos, other countries in the Middle East have risen up to demand change. The U.S. allied autocratic President Hosni Mubarak is currently feeling the pressure of demonstrators who are demanding that he step down from the presidency. In the reported repressive country of Sudan, requests over Facebook, by a group called Youth for Change, in the past two weeks have asked thousands of young Sudanese to come together in order to peacefully protest against the overall “political repression” and rising prices of sugar and fuel.

This increasing demand for governmental upheaval is nothing new to the world. For God’s sake, this country’s budge to become free of the British Empire during the American Revolution sparked the French Revolution of 1848. Within the U.S., history has witnessed numerous accounts of revolt. Social and economic based battles over the directions of government, their rules of law, and treatment toward their citizens have been fought in 1775 in Lexington and Concord, 1831 with Nat Turner, 1863 in Gettysburg, 1965 in Selma, 1970 at Kent State, in 1967 within the streets of Detroit, and on the democratic battlefields of Chicago in 1968.

That was then, what about now? Is everything so good in this country? Has Sir Thomas More’s fictional land Utopia become a reality? If I did not know any better, and under the influence of heavy narcotics, I would assume that 36.5% of children are not living below the poverty line. Maybe racism does not exist within the ever-increasing prison industrial complex that exercises modern day slavery for companies like Nordstrom, IBM, Texas Instruments, Honeywell, Boeing, and Revlon in order to turn a profit. Maybe nothing is wrong with the increasing profit international gas companies are taking from people like you, your friends, and loved ones who losing jobs.

I must be wrong to think that something is amiss when it is cheaper to eat food that kills you than natural food free of toxins, hormones, and preservatives. I shutter to even broach the topic of increased state taxes from corrupt state governments (thank you Illinois) who are not even able to pay teachers, universities, and hospitals. But on the other dirty hand, they are able to look out for the business interests of the rich. Am I wrong to see these and other issues of concern that pull at my heart as worthy of discontent? Are they worthy of your anger? Are they enough for you to get out there and demonstrate for days at a time that require you to miss a few hours from texting? Please do not take my call to arms as a call to violence, looting, destruction of property, or beating up poor Anderson Cooper in the streets as done in Egypt.

I am calling for “Us” to step away from the new episodes of American Idol and the latest booty-shaking videos to tune in. I am calling for the so-called highbrow academics to not only write about injustice, but to organize. Volunteer with a group attempting to make a blow for social justice. Tune into the issues that plague our society and take a stance for I feel cheated. My parents had the 60s and 70s. What do I have? The Jersey Shores?

Assuming Whiteness in Social Media

It seems like we share more and more of our personal information online. Advertisers want access to this information so that they can target their marketing to particular groups, or “market segments.”   Should social media sites collect racial or ethnic data on subscribers?  This was the topic of an interesting discussion curated by Jessica Faye Carter (video) at her blog Technicultr recently.

Facebook Wants a New Face

(Creative Commons License photo credit: smlions12 )

GIven that social media companies, like Facebook, are collecting all kinds of other data on us, it doesn’t seem all that surprising that social networks are now interested in either explicitly asking for racial/ethnic identification or figuring it out through data mining.    Is racial or ethnic identity “private” information that we should be concerned about sharing? In my view, racial and ethnic identity in social networks is less an issue of privacy and more about the assumptions in place that make that kind of identification necessary.

The fact is that social networks, like the culture more broadly, discourage racial or ethnic identification. Instead, in the current era of “color blindness” people are told that it’s “not polite” to mention race.

What polite colorblindness covers up, though, is the assumption that everyone’s white until they say otherwise. At a recent blogging conference I attended, an African American woman told the story of being online for years before anyone knew she was black. Why? Because her name is “Heather” and people just assumed she was white.

Does this assumption of whiteness matter? It does if your experience puts you outside white identity and you’re looking for your own likeness in popular culture.

As just one, small example, I’m a big women’s basketball fan of both the college and professional teams. And, I especially love watching a sport where black women excel. But, when it’s “March Madness” (college ball) or the summer during the WNBA season, it’s almost impossible to find mainstream news coverage of my favorite teams because ESPN and my local news outlets are filled with wall-to-wall coverage of the mens’ teams. When I do manage to find a WNBA game on television, it’s always a little startling to see the ads because they’re geared toward a black female audience. When I see those ads, I’m reminded once more how white and male-centric the rest of the culture is.

One of the great things about social networks is that people create their own images and can adjust that skewed, mainstream lens. It’s part of what I enjoy about social networks like Twitter. In these spaces, I can connect with people from racial and ethnic backgrounds that are different than my own who have a different take on the dominant culture. But what I’ve learned online is a lesson that many of us learned offline, too – that racial identity doesn’t necessarily map onto political views or marketing preferences.

Colorblindness Linked to Racism Online and Off

An important and path breaking new study links colorblind racial ideology to racism online and off.  The study, by Brendesha Tynes, a professor of educational psychology and of African American studies at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Suzanne L. Markoe of the University of California, Los Angeles, is published in the March issue of Journal of Diversity in Higher Education.

The study, which examined the relationship between responses to racial theme party images on social networking sites and a color-blind racial ideology,  found that white students and those who rated highly in color-blind racial attitudes were more likely not to be offended by images from racially themed parties.  In other words, the more “color-blind” someone was, the less likely they would be to find parties at which attendees dressed and acted as caricatures of racial stereotypes (e.g., photos of students dressed in blackface make-up attending a “gangsta party” to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day) offensive.

To conduct the study, Tynes and Markoe showed 217 ethnically diverse college students images from racially themed parties and prompted them to respond as if they were writing on a friend’s Facebook or MySpace page.   Fifty-eight percent of African-Americans were unequivocally bothered by the images, compared with only 21 percent of whites. The majority of white respondents (41 percent) were in the bothered-ambivalent group, and 24 percent were in the not bothered-ambivalent group. n the written response portion of the study, the responses ranged from approval and nonchalance (“OMG!! I can’t believe you guys would think of that!!! Horrible … but kinda funny not gonna lie”) to mild outrage (“This is obscenely offensive”).

The students also were asked questions about their attitudes toward racial privilege, institutional discrimination and racial issues. Those who scored higher on the measure were more likely to hold color-blind racial attitudes, and were more likely to be ambivalent or not bothered by the race party photos.  Respondents low in racial color-blindness were much more vocal in expressing their displeasure and opposition to these images, and would even go so far as to “de-friend” someone over posting those images.

Tynes’ research also revealed an incongruence of reactions among white students that she’s dubbed “Facebook face,” which she explains in an interview:

“To their friends, they would express mild approval of the party photos or just not discuss race,” Tynes said. “But in private, in a reaction that they thought their friends wouldn’t see, some students would let us know that they thought the image was racist or that it angered them. We think that it’s because whites have been socialized not to talk about race.”

According to Tynes, a color-blind racial attitude is the prevailing racial ideology of the post-Civil Rights era, and is the view that seeing race is inherently wrong:

“If you subscribe to a color-blind racial ideology, you don’t think that race or racism exists, or that it should exist. You are more likely to think that people who talk about race and racism are the ones who perpetuate it. You think that racial problems are just isolated incidents and that people need to get over it and move on. You’re also not very likely to support affirmative action, and probably have a lower multi-cultural competence.”

Since a color-blind racial ideology is associated with endorsement of the racial theme party photos, Tynes says that mandatory courses on issues of racism and multicultural competence are necessary for students from elementary school through college.

Tynes, who recently was awarded a $1.4 million grant to study the effects of online racial discrimination by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, said that along with the role children and adolescents play in producing online hate, her inspiration for the study was the numerous racially themed parties that occurred on college campuses across the country in 2007 and the resultant blowback when images from the parties were posted on Facebook and MySpace.