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.

Not So Post-Racial After All

So, while white liberals like Chris Matthews blather on about how post-racial we all are now with a black president, other folks are not so post-racial after all.  Allen McDuffee sent me this disturbing image circulating via a Facebook group dedicated to denigrating Haitians and the earthquake relief effort.  While it appears that Facebook has pulled the group once already for violating the Terms of Service (TOS), the group is back and loudly proclaiming its alleged protection under the First Amendment and threatening to contact the ACLU to defend it.

There is no constitutionally protecting right to have a racist group on Facebook.   And, given the threat to the president implied by the image linked above, I’m surprised that those who are generating such an image are not under investigation by the Secret Service.

As I’ve said here before, it’s certainly possible to disagree with the policies of President Obama and not be a racist, there is something about linking the threat to Obama with the vitriolic hatred of Haitian people which suggests not only a criticism of Obama’s presidency, or lack of empathy for earthquake victims but a deep well of racist antipathy as well.  I guess we’re not so post-racial after all.

Racism Flourshing Online

The Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) has released its annual report on “digital1936541974_e6e7ba6c9f terrorism and hate” which finds that racism and antisemitism are flourishing online.  Their report asserts that there has been a 25 percent rise in the past year in the number of “problematic” social networking groups on the Internet (Creative Commons License photo credit: rosefirerising).

In assessing the extent of hate online, the SWC casts a wider net than other monitoring organization (such as the Southern Poverty Law Center or the Anti-Defamation League) to include sites that promote “racial violence, anti-semitism, homophobia, hate music and terrorism.”  And, the report encompasses a variety of forms of online communicatio such as  Web sites, social networking groups, portals, blogs, chat rooms, videos and games that promote hate.

While it’s hard to measure such phenomena with any precision, there are other indications that racism, and other forms of hatred, are flouring online.   For example, there’s been growing attention on the rise of racist groups on social networking sites such as Facebook, where roups with names such as ‘get all the Paki’s out of England’ with hundreds of members, are common.   People in the U.S. take racism online (and off) much less seriously than people in Europe and other industrialized Western nations for a variety of reasons that I discuss at length in Cyber Racism.  Typical of the European attitudes is indicated by a British MP (Labour) Denis MacShane, who told The Daily Telegraph recently:

“The way you defeat extremism, intolerance, prejudice and racism is to atomise it and make people feel that even if they think racist thoughts they can’t say it openly. But websites like Facebook have unfortunately allowed people to come together in one space and say, ‘there are people out there like me’. That is something that worries me greatly. For all the good social networking sites do, they also allow people to express prejudice that in a civilised society should be kept under lock and key.”

Although I certainly agree that racism online is flourishing, I take issue with the way that this typically gets reported.   For instance, this Reuters story about the SWC report that’s being widely quoted in a variety of other news sources, starts this way:

“Militants and hate groups increasingly use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube as propaganda tools to recruit new members….” [emphasis added]

Calling what happens with the growth of hate online “recruiting” is to misunderstand the way the Internet works.   People are not recruited into hate groups online any more than paying customers are recruited by sex workers (aka, prostitutes) on Craigslist.    This sort of discourse (“recruit”) is often used alongside words like “lure,” and this is often used when describing the oddly coupled threat of white supremacists and child pornography online.    When reporters and others talk about using the Internet to “recruit” or “lure” unsuspecting innocents online, they misperceive a fundamental feature of the Internet: the search engine.   People go online and search for information.  The reason online racism (and other forms of hate) are flourishing is because lots of people are searching for that sort of content, and a smaller group of people is creating racist content.

If we really want to do something collectively to address the growth of racism online, then we need to address the underlying appeal of racist content by those who create it and those who seek it out.

Facebook Racism

Young people’s use of social networking sites, like Facebook, have quickly become an established feature of youth culture, according to a new report.  Facebook in particular, is proving incredibly popular; and, current estimates are that there are 120 million active users of the social networking site, as this bar graph illustrates (as of 2007, image from here). Yet there’s scant little attention paid to the emergence of new forms of racism that accompany these new forms of media.  Recently, there have been some notable examples of Facebook racism that I want to explore  (H/T Mordy for sending this my way).   As Joe’s been writing here, there’s been a real surge in overt racist actions in the wake of the election, and this incident, as reported by the Houston Chronicle, illustrates how the white racial frame can be used to completely distract from racism (from the top):

A template on facebook.com asks, “What are you doing right now?” An ill-advised response led to Buck Burnette’s expulsion from the University of Texas football team.

What began as a private text-message exchange on Election Night between Burnette and a friend soon became available for anybody with a computer to see.

Burnette, a sophomore offensive lineman from Wimberley, was dismissed from the team Nov. 5 for posting a racially insensitive remark about President-elect Barack Obama on his Facebook page.

“I told (our players) to be careful with Facebook and MySpace,” Texas coach Mack Brown said. “Those things are really dangerous.”

A survey taken during Monday’s Big 12 coaches conference call found most of the league’s coaches are concerned about how much information is available on popular social-networking Web sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

The major concern: Users can voluntarily provide personal information, and the more popular the athletes, the more contact “with hundreds of people they don’t know,” Iowa State coach Gene Chizik.

“It’s a challenge for coaches, because ultimately we’re responsible,” Chizik said.

In the status update section of his Facebook page, Burnette posted, “All the hunters gather up, we have a (slur) in the White House,” in reference to Obama’s becoming the first African-American elected to the presidency. Burnette said the comment was a text message he received from a friend and that he exercised bad judgment posting it on his page. He later apologized in a written note that was read by Brown during a team meeting.

Apologies for the long quote, but it’s relevant to my point.  The article begins with a discussion about how “dangerous” social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are, but let’s be clear – the danger here as it is being described by this football couch, and reported on without comment by the Chronicle, is to the football player.   The “danger” is that he will post something on his page that’s “Ill-advised” and he will be expelled from the team, which is what happened to Burnette.   This is a rather profound shift away from what’s actually going on here.    What has happened here is that a young, white college student at a top school has threatened the president-elect and referred to him by using a racist slur.   And yet the newspaper article is framed as though there is an inherent “danger” in Facebook.   It seems to me that the danger is in the way that Facebook (and other forms of new media) give rise to heretofore unseen versions of racism that combine new technology with old hatred.  This combination of old and new forms of racism expressed through Internet technology is what I refer to as “cyber racism” (I explore it more depth in my forthcoming book of the same name).

Interestingly, this is not the first time college football players in the U.S. have gotten in trouble for Facebook racism. In 2007, members of the USC football team created a Facebook group called “White Nation,” which featured a graphic with the caption, “arrest black babies before they become criminals.”  The description of the group reads like this:

“This group is not for the faint of heart,” read the group’s description. “All members are athletes of Caucasion (sic) descent. DISCLAIMER: In no way are the following memebers (sic) intolerant of others, we are just doing our duty of protecting the Arian (sic) brotherhood.”

According to the USC college paper, an unnamed source from the athletic department said that the group was “a joke and had no serious purpose.”   While the athletic department may find humor in such antics, the joke is lost on the rest of us.    This sort of Facebook racism is not the sole purview of college athletes.

In 2005, University of Virginia first year student Maryann Li was horrified when she stumbled across a Facebook group that some of her college classmates had created.  The group, called “Asian Fetish,” for those who think “Asian women are truly the most scrumptrillescent delicacy abroad,” and the description of the group’s purpose:  “to bang out Asians. Bang hard or go home. Yes, even the ugly bitches.” The racist and deeply misogynistic group description goes on: “I can’t help it if my dick likes the taste of Teriyaki sauce. Or soy. Or duck for that matter. And when I’m feeling a little risky, wasabi…” it proclaimed. The creator of the Facebook group, white U.Va. sophomore Patrick Gieseke defended his creation of the group, saying that he intended it as satire.   This article quotes Gieseke saying,

“I couldn’t see anyone reading that and being like, ‘Wow, someone really wants to do this to Asian girls.’ I thought it was pretty blatant that it was just a joke,” he said.

So once again, Facebook racism gets dismissed by whites as “just joking” and therefore not something harmful or worth addressing.  Not surprisingly, Asian American students at U.Va. were not amused by Gieseke’s “joke.”   Two students, Elizabeth Chen and Julie Chu, attempted to organize a “Speak Out” to invite students who have faced discrimination to share their stories with the community at U.Va’.s amphitheater but found little interest.   When it comes to race, Chu said, “the majority of white people at U.Va. don’t care.” The emergence of this sort of gendered racism on Facebook is characteristic of the racialized pornography in print-media that Pat Collins talks about in Black Feminist Thought.   The fact that this has now moved to the new media environment of Facebook means that these old versions of racism are being translated into the digital era and some of the centuries old racism remains as it is mashed-up against new forms of social interaction.     

For its part, Facebook has removed the most extreme and offensive racist groups for violation of their terms-of-service (TOS) agreement. This is the right stand for Facebook to take in my view, and it’s one that other sites should follow through on.  But, Facebook did not take this without significant pressure.

The European Parliament lodged the most significant complaint with the California-based Facebook. Martin Schulz, Socialist leader within the EP, said, “The existence of these groups is repulsive.” And, indeed it is. According to this report, the pressure on Facebook came mainly from European sources about Italian neo-Nazi groups.   Still, the “White Nation” group in the USC controversy is still hosted on Facebook (or, it’s a group by the same name with an identical description), and there are over 60 groups that come up if you search using the terms “Asian Fetish.”    So, while Facebook may be responding to pressure from Europeans to remove the most repulsive and extreme groups from the site, apparently there is little or no pressure from people in the U.S.   In my view, it’s time for some of those 120 million active users to step up and put some pressure on Facebook to enforce its terms-of-service agreement by not allowing such groups on the site.

Meanwhile, extremist white supremacist websites have proven so popular in the days since the election that the flood of traffic by white people has crashed the servers at one site.   More about that form of cyber racism in a subsequent post.