Posted on 19 March 2013
So at my job (the views of which are in no way reflected in this blog at any time!) we have a listener line where we encourage people to call in and share their opinions on the stories of the day. It is 99.99% of the time fully appropriate commentary, and often gets aired. But every once in a while there is a call that is either purposely or inadvertently racist, prejudiced, or in some way offensive. In those cases, the call is deleted and heard by no one outside of the person who checked the voicemail.
This form of filtration occurs at most media outlets. For the most part, the approach to offensive comments is to not air them, not publish them, and generally give them no voice. The Globe and Mail‘s commenting rules state: “Personal attacks, offensive language and unsubstantiated allegations are not allowed.” CBC.ca bars “any of Your Content that is offensive and likely to expose an individual or a group of individuals to hatred or contempt on the basis of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age or mental or physical disability is prohibited.” And so on.
But in the age of social media, the people who hold these points of views don’t need to go through traditional media- not even the comments section of their websites. They freely publish their opinions on blogs, Facebook pages, and Twitter.
And so a new tactic has sprung up: round up the most offensive of these tweets and comments and show them to the world. The Gawker network posted a round-up of racist tweets following Obama’s re-election.1 Similar galleries of tweets and screenshots from Facebook and Reddit went up yesterday following the Steubenville case (in which two teenage boys were found guilty of raping a sixteen-year-old girl). Commentators decide to focus on the alleged promiscuity, drunkenness, and moral character of a young girl who was raped- putting as much or more blame on the victim as they do on those charged with an actual crime.
@MattBinder, whose tweet I posted at the top of this, runs a website called “Public Shaming” that regularly posts screenshots of people saying ignorant things, ranging from not knowing where Baltimore is after the team wins the Superbowl to straight-up ranting over the fact that the new Pope is Argentinian and African-American First Lady Michelle Obama was at the Oscars (note: they do not use politically correct terms like “Argentinian” and “African-American”). A sample from his site this morning, on Steubenville: “I honestly feel sorry for the boys in the Steubenville trial. That w***e was asking for it.” From Obama’s inauguration: “The only reason police would arrest someone who assassinated Obama, would be shooting a c**n out of season.” Lest we get too smug thinking this is limited to the United States, at least a couple of the blame-the-victim tweets are from Canadians, and during the Idle No More movement a Manitoban newspaper had to shut down its Facebook page because the racist comments were getting out of control.
These are the sorts of things that the traditional media filters weed out. I get why the decision would be made to not publish them: you don’t want your outlet to give wider voice to bigots. But at the same time, because these sorts of comments are actively filtered by the de facto public forums, it’s easy for the wider audience to be completely unaware of their existence. The newer approach rounds up the offensiveness and puts it front and center for all to see. Instead of burying these viewpoints, it forces us to confront them, and the fact that other people- our fellow citizens- are the ones who hold them.
The Globe: “We will not allow our site to become a haven for personal attacks and offensive behaviour.” Ie: If you believe this horrible stuff, you can’t say it here.
Binder’s approach: “If you believe this horrible stuff, you do us a great service letting us know.”
I’m honestly not sure which is more effective.
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