In the heat of President Obama’s reelection, a few corners of the Internet exploded with racist rhetoric—much of it from teenagers. But some websites are publicly outing these young people— Jezebel even called their school administrators— which raises ethical and social dilemmas.
Internet users hiding behind anonymity to post inappropriate or offensive content, otherwise known as “trolling,” isn’t new. But recently, public shaming and “doxxing” have become the retaliation of choice, with sites like Predditors and Hello There, Racists. When Reddit’s infamous troll Violentacrez was unmasked, free speech became a hot topic. But instead of advocating that free speech should be protected at all costs, digital journalists and bloggers have seemingly shed convention.
Zeynep Tufekci argues that using free speech as a shield for protecting offensive content on public internet forums is “at best an abdication of responsibility, and at worst an attempt to exercise power over vulnerable populations.”
And according to Matt Buchanan at Buzzfeed, social media shaming is the appropriate way to react to “racist online speech.” In response to Jezebel’s exposé of teenage users posting racist content about the president, Buchanan writes:
This is the kind of thing that Gawker Media excels at – taking something that’s only recently acceptable and torquing it just enough to push boundaries of taste, precisely to expose how fragile those boundaries are. In this case, by focusing exclusively on minors and by exacting consequences in the real world for racist online speech. It reeks of stunt vigilantism – largely because it is – but the fact remains that these students, using their real names and real faces, intentionally said deeply offensive things in public. It’s no different than if they had stood in a public park holding up a sign as TV cameras rolled by – that’s essentially what Twitter is, as a written record.
Jezebel actively creates real-world consequences for these young users. However, as blogger Modern Primate points out in a video posted on Postbourgie, one of the “outed teens” was impersonating someone else – a common practice among trolls. It’s ironic that Gawker Media, of all outlets, would display such a limited understanding of trolling culture.
The Internet is a self-regulating and self-moderated environment, and although the racist comments made about President Obama were highly offensive, and prove that racist sentiments still permeate modern society, it’s best to heed the advice of seasoned online community veterans: “Do Not Feed the Trolls.” These are scattered young individuals with little influence over their surroundings.
Furthermore, focusing on immature, ignorant tweeters distracts from more significant issues of racism that actually affect people of color who might be found in the outed teens’ peer group—such as “stop and frisk” and zero-tolerance policies, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Instead of feeding young trolls, we should be reexamining the institutionalized systems that truly demonstrate prejudice.