More Facebook Racism

I’ve written here before about Facebook Racism, the rise of various forms of racism at the incredibly popular social networking site (SNS).  According to a report from 2008, Facebook currently has something like 120 million active users and is an established feature of the youth culture.   While some have touted social media in hyperbolic terms like providing a “new path to world peace and end racism,” there are some stark realities about Facebook that run counter to that sort of exuberance.

In terms of demographics, people are just not “mixing” or intermingling across racial lines in significantly different ways than they do offline.  Recently, danah boyd gave a talk that highlighted the sociodemographic divisions between Facebook and rival SNS, MySpace, noting that those on Facebook are “part of what we’d call hegemonic society, [and] primarily white, but not exclusively” while those on MySpace are more often Latino/Hispanic.

Whites who are on Facebook — which was created at Harvard (and once, a Harvard-only space) — often have the illusion that they are talking in the “backstage” in a private, whites-only space.   Take for example, a woman named Lee Landor who, until very recently, worked as the deputy press (!!) aide to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer (kind of like a mini-mayor).  Landon resigned her job due to a series of Facebook posts and comments she made related to the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. (written about here elsewhere extensively).  Landor on Facebook said some things that are not that different from some of the comments we’ve seen here at this blog, for instance:

“You know what, I am really getting SICK of hearing about how white people are evil racists. Black people, Hispanic people, Indian people, Asian people, whoever, are being over-the-top racists in recent weeks, as highlighted in the media since the Sotomayor-New Haven issue.”(Screenshots of her comment available here.)

Landon also called President Obama “O-Dumb-a” while saying that Gates was the racist (h/t @Gothamist via Twitter).

And, of course, there are the racist and antisemitic groups that sponsor ‘group pages’ on Facebook, that the owner/administrators seem reluctant to address.

Perhaps more disturbing than all this (and, it’s plenty disturbing), is the way that racism is being built into the interface at Facebook with the help of Microsoft.  A few days ago, I received an email from a blog reader.  He said that while searching for a friend’s using a last-name-search (the last name was close to the word “RACE”), a racist ad showed up that is powered by the new Microsoft’s new search enging Bing. The reader sent a screen grab, and here it is:


Here, in case you can’t see the circled text, is an advertisement within the Facebook interface to a site that offers visitors “Ni**er” jokes.  Here’s the closeup of that ad:


Now, the way these ads on Facebook work is that Bing (product of Microsoft) pays Facebook for the space on the right there.  Then, Bing has a collection of advertisers that they will place on Facebook.  The software at Facebook runs an algorithm (computer program) to match the ads on the right with whatever terms you type into the little search window space.

The point is, the racist text there is not just something that Facebook and/or Bing accidently “turned up.” This ad was payed for (by the people that run the “Ni**er” jokes site), and the companies of Bing and Facebook profit from that. Bing actually gets money when someone clicks on that ad, and they have a clear responsibility there.   Someone at Bing (or Facebook) either approved or, at the very least, failed to block the ad (thanks to David Brake for this point).

The reader who sent this to me is diligently trying to track down someone at Bing and/or Facebook to take responsibility and take action, but that turns out to be a daunting task.  So, here’s my bit to help out – posting this here.  You can help by linking to this post, sharing it with friends, and spreading the word.


  1. Darin Johnson

    Any concern about the free speech implications of forcibly closing down or otherwise censoring these objectionable sites? For example, the Guardian link you provide talks about the fact that Holocaust denial is illegal in many countries. Are you advocating similar laws for racist or “hateful” speech?
    In fairness, I appreciate that you seem to be calling for market pressure rather than legal. Google, for example, has little trouble keeping, say, “adult” material out of its search results; presumably Bing and Facebook could offer similar filters for their users.

  2. Joe

    Great post, Jessie. Very clear evidence that racism is systemic in this society, part of the well-institutionalized processes and structures. The standard white framing has trouble, like some commenters here, in even seeing this as the extreme racial oppression it is. It is in the woodwork, nook and cranny racism as my friend Hernan likes to call it.

    Yet more data showing the internet is a very effective carrier of old white racism, and not the new utopian world of tolerance and progress many claim it to be.

  3. Jessie Author

    Hey folks, thanks for your comments.
    About Landon’s comment’s on Facebook, it’s hard to know what to do about a person like this. I mean, I think it’s completely reasonable that she lost her job. But. I’m pretty sure that her getting fired is not doing anything to address her egregious views, and more likely, getting fired is only going to serve to make her more entrenched in her racist opinions rather than push her to re-think.
    TF – True, it’s a ‘web search result’ being offered up by Bing, but the fact is, Bing is MS’s attempt to take over the search engine market from Google. So, as I said in the original post, the Facebook user searched something that was close to the word “race” and Bing – the new player in the search engine business – offers up a site that has Ni**er jokes as one of the examples of what it can do as a search engine. And, for the record, at the moment Bing is winning in the advertising game as judged by the click-through rates compared to other browsers, see this for example.
    While it may be overreaching to say that someone approved the ad, a point I’ll concede, it doesn’t make Bing (or Facebook) any less culpable in my view. This is totally fixable from a software-engineering perspective, if someone simply has the will and desire to do the programming.
    All that to say this, Bing and Facebook should be held responsible for this sort of advertising if, in fact, we are a society that abhors that kind of language and those kinds of jokes. Still an open question in my book.

  4. Ryon

    I agree with Jesse…..facebook should do more to ensure that improper materials is removed from the site…especially material that harms members of its community. Has anyone sent an email to Facebook about this? Or thought of creating a group with signatures to get the information out?

  5. Dave Paul


    Thanks for the wonderful post. Your work confirms many of my own observations (re: the disparities between Facebook and MySpace, the racist groups and advertisements, etc). Regarding Facebook as a “backstage” arena, it is interesting to see how Web 2.0 is playing into the white racial frame in new and complex ways. The semi-public space that is social-networking-sites provides a new avenue through which whites can semi-anonymously voice racist frames.

  6. Jessie Author

    Ryon, the person who originally sent me the email about the encounter with the ad has been trying to get a response from Bing and/or Facebook without success. I’ve invited him to post a comment here. If he does, maybe the two of you could work together on setting up a Fb group to address the issue?
    Siss, there are multiple ways that Fb/Bing could address this issue – from establishing and sticking to a policy about not accepting advertising from sites that are dedicated to “Ni**er Jokes” and similar hate-filled content, to creating a back-end filter that doesn’t allow racist epithets to get through, to having an easy-to-find and easy-to-use way to report violations of these standards for end-users (people using Fb). The problem is not that it’s a difficult to fix technologically – the issue is summoning the political will among Fb users to get Bing/Fb to act in a way that’s socially responsible.
    Dave Paul, thanks for your kind words on the post. That’s nice to hear every once in awhile. 😉 You’re absolutely right when you say, “Web 2.0 is playing into the white racial frame in new and complex ways,” and it is, indeed, complex as I try to show in Cyber Racism. One of those complexities is about what you refer to as “semi-public space that is social-networking-sites” that offer “semi-anonymously voice racist frames.” Sociology – and other disciplines – have traditionally thought in terms of “public-private.” Web 2.0 is certainly making us re-think those kinds of divisions.
    {added:} About the ‘line-drawing-question’ (where do you draw the line about what is hate speech and what isn’t)? I increasingly see this as a red-herring about these kinds of issues. I mean, who really is defending “Ni**er Jokes” as speech that’s making a meaningful contribution to the public sphere? Avowed white supremacists and deeply committed cyberlibertarians, that’s who. Everyone else – and that’s people from across a wide spectrum of politically left and right – say that they object to this kind of speech. Even a deeply conservative Supreme Court of the United States has ruled in Virginia v. Black that “a burning cross is not protected speech.” So, the question then becomes – what constitutes a burning cross in the digital era? From my perspective, “Ni**er” – and similar sites – get my vote for a digital era burning cross.

  7. Dave Paul


    That is exactly the type of logic I have been applying when I think through issues like this. I always try to keep the “human element” as the center of my analysis. I try to ask, “Is this speech/joke/movie/text/action/etc making a valuable contribution to human experience?” Or is it simply, “milking someone else’s trauma”?

    As someone who was brought up firmly within the white racial frame and all the privileges of white, heterosexual, male society, I have had to strongly rethink my ways of processing information. Perhaps we need to let go of this antiquated notion of “free speech” when it deals with people of historically oppressed social groups? I mean, if we really want to live in a “post-racial” society, we would benefit from incorporating our racial (and racist) history into account. The whole libertarian defense of such privileges seems juvenile at best…

    Any thoughts?

  8. Great eye-opener, as always, Jessie. The folks operating the various SNS and search sites clearly have a moral obligation to block certain things, like the ad for “N**ger Jokes.” That one is a no-brainer.

  9. Erika

    Thank you for this. I had read Danah Boyd’s talk and this piece is a great follow up. Out of curiosity and outrage, I visited the site that bing was operating. I am appalled by the images as well as by my lack of surprise.
    @ Jessie- your responses to others’ questions have been incredibly useful, thank you.

  10. Vonda Shrader

    I think it is sad that so many people are still ignorant enough to be be raciest in this day & age.
    I feel the fact that we have a black president is a good sign. It proves that the majority of Americans are not prejudice or raciest. We have come a long way considering 50 years ago blacks were not even allowed to drink from the same fountains, use the same toilets or wash they’re clothes in the same washing machines. Now we have a black man running our country! I think that says a lot about what we can expect in the future generations. I doubt we will ever see a world free of racism, but if we teach our children good morals, we can at least make a difference in the world around us. Vonda Shrader

  11. Jessie Author

    Thanks @jwbe – I talk about the work of INACH in Cyber Racism (chapter 9) and attended their conference when it was here in NYC. I haven’t seen them being very active recently (not sure why, lack of funding is my guess) and hope they become revitalized soon.
    Dave Paul, yes agree mostly with your comment. I do think that placing peoples’ lived experience at the center of analysis (rather than abstract principles) is key to an ethical epistemology (as PHCollins points out). I also think that we all have a lot of ‘unlearning’ to do of the white racial frame, it is deeply ingrained (as JFeagin points out). The cyberlibertarian defense of free speech is in desperate need of a thorough-going critique and my take on it in Cyber Racism is just a beginning. Someone really should do a whole book on the racial implications of libertarianism. Maybe you will? 🙂
    Crusader, Erika, glad the post was useful and thanks for dropping by!
    Vonda, yes I do agree that there has been much progress since the days of separate water fountains and that having a black president is progress for the U.S. and I don’t want to diminish the significance of that progress. However, I think that it’s important to keep in mind that all those gains happened because people struggled to win them – by forcing (white) people to acknowledge racism & segregation and forcing them to change. I actually don’t think it’s goes far enough to teach our children good morals. That’s what I might call a ‘necessary but not sufficient’ requirement for change. What we need to do is get engaged politically, whether that is in the streets, online, or running for political office to change systems of inequality – whether that’s lobbying Fb to working to end racial disparities in health.

  12. Dave

    I work on Bing and ran across this blog post. I’ll be contacting the appropriate people responsible for ads to see that this ad is removed (if it hasn’t been already) and that appropriate blocks are added going forward. Be assured that this is not the kind of ad that we want to profit from. The ad marketplace is huge and it is not possible to manually approve every ad that is posted, but there are systems in place to block ads with restricted content and the block list is constantly being updated.

  13. mh

    “Who really is defending “Ni**er Jokes” as speech that’s making a meaningful contribution to the public sphere”

    That is not the standard for free speech, it must be noted. Once has the right to say all kinds of things that are not meaningful contributions to the public sphere.

    I agree with you that bing and facebook have good reasons to prevent this site from being served up to their customers. And preventing it from appearing thusly is well within their rights. Those who run the joke site have a right to free speech (meaningful or otherwise)–but the services have a right to refuse the ads.

    The right to free speech is one of our most important ones–please be respectful and accurate when discussing it.

  14. Regarding Landon/Landor, the thing that stands out when I read what she posted is that it matches the verbiage of a cross section of conservative media pundits. The choice of words, the pacing of the prose.

    Scary, because it doesn’t always contain overt racism. Scary because the goal of such speech is persuasion.

  15. Well, at least there are no examples of this found on Google! This is why Microsoft have and always lag behind Google. They may have the money, but they don’t have the intelligence. Maybe their merger with Yahoo! will help. Only time will tell


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