Want To Know How To Fix Facebook? Listen to Black Twitter.

For years, Black people have been the canaries in the coal mine for social media abuses.

Kimberly C. Ellis May 22, 2018

Black Twitter courageously confronted white supremacist trolls in the aftermath of the Trayvon Martin killing. (Photo by Kena Betancur/Getty Images)

In their 2002 book The Miner’s Canary: Enlist­ing Race, Resist­ing Pow­er, Trans­form­ing Democ­ra­cy, Lani Guinier and Ger­ald Tor­res warned, Those who are racial­ly mar­gin­al­ized are like the miner’s canary: Their dis­tress is the first sign of a dan­ger that threat­ens us all.”

Twitter should target the domestic terrorism of white supremacists (the single greatest threat to American democracy), who use social media to gain a greater platform and notoriety.

This metaphor holds true on social media, in par­tic­u­lar among the online com­mu­ni­ties mak­ing up the cul­tur­al phe­nom­e­non known as Black Twit­ter.” Issues from fake news to trolling have long affect­ed Black Twit­ter users, and we have long been rais­ing the alarm and fight­ing back.

After Trayvon Mar­tin was killed in Feb­ru­ary 2012, white suprema­cists took to social media to send pic­tures of his dead body to Black users. Some went fur­ther and turned his trag­ic mur­der into a game they called Trayvon­ing.” They would dress up in clothes vague­ly sim­i­lar to Martin’s, and then pose in his death posi­tion, often with a can of soda and Skittles.

This harass­ment was psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly trau­ma­tiz­ing, res­onat­ing with a racist tra­di­tion that goes back at least to the post-slav­ery South, when white suprema­cists cir­cu­lat­ed post­cards with pho­tographs of lynch­ing vic­tims. The goal is to put Black Amer­i­cans back in their place,” or, as they say now, to Make Amer­i­ca Great Again.” 

Each pic­ture and each account had to be sep­a­rate­ly report­ed, and Black Twit­ter spent a great deal of time tweet­ing out mes­sages such as Please report this account,” a form of col­lec­tive defense to get Twit­ter to ban users and see the pattern.

Con­trast this slug­gish reac­tion to what hap­pened in 2014, when two Twit­ter users pho­to­shopped pic­tures of Robin Williams’ dead body and sent them to his 25-year-old daugh­ter, Zel­da. She, under­stand­ably, left Twit­ter and Insta­gram, ask­ing fol­low­ers to report her abusers.

The next day, Twit­ter began review­ing poli­cies.” We will not tol­er­ate abuse of this nature on Twit­ter,” said the company’s vice pres­i­dent of trust and safe­ty, Del Har­vey. We have sus­pend­ed a num­ber of accounts relat­ed to this issue for vio­lat­ing our rules and we are in the process of eval­u­at­ing how we can fur­ther improve our poli­cies to bet­ter han­dle trag­ic sit­u­a­tions like this one.”

Would Zel­da Williams have received pho­to­shopped pic­tures of her father’s dead body if Black Twitter’s 2012 com­plaints had been tak­en more seriously?

It’s not that Twit­ter could not have dealt with trolls. An April 5 Endgad­get report stat­ed that Twit­ter has removed 1.2 mil­lion accounts pro­mot­ing ter­ror­ism since 2015, uti­liz­ing the company’s own inter­nal tools and algo­rithms” cre­at­ed from years of hard work mak­ing our site an unde­sir­able place for those seek­ing to pro­mote ter­ror­ism.” Twit­ter should tar­get the domes­tic ter­ror­ism of white suprema­cists (the sin­gle great­est threat to Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy), who use social media to gain a greater plat­form and notoriety.

Now that Robert Mueller’s inves­ti­ga­tion of the rela­tion­ship between Putin, Rus­sia and U.S. elec­tions has revealed heavy manip­u­la­tion of both Twit­ter and Face­book plat­forms to pur­pose­ful­ly troll the pub­lic and spread fake news,” the full tox­i­c­i­ty of this coal mine has been exposed. Every­body is in dan­ger, not just Black peo­ple and not just women. Recent head­lines reflect Twitter’s sud­den pan­ic: Twit­ter CEO Admits Com­pa­ny Did Not Ful­ly Grasp Abuse Prob­lem,” Twit­ter Asks for Help Fix­ing Its Tox­i­c­i­ty Prob­lem,” Jack Dorsey Asks for Help to Make Twit­ter More Healthy’ ” and, my per­son­al favorite, Twit­ter Is Now Specif­i­cal­ly Focus­ing on Increas­ing Black, Lat­inx and Female Rep­re­sen­ta­tion.” Oh, the irony of Twit­ter try­ing to increase employ­ee diver­si­ty: I can’t help but remem­ber a piece I wrote for Al Jazeera Amer­i­ca, Time for Twit­ter to Pull From Its (Diverse) Ranks,” back in 2014.

Amer­i­cans must decide what kind of coun­try they want to live in and take action dur­ing the midterms and beyond. We can only hope that Twitter’s changes are not too lit­tle, too late. It is a tes­ta­ment to the pow­er of Black Amer­i­ca, Black cul­ture and Black Twit­ter that, unlike the canary in the mine, we do not die from the tox­ic air. But we sure­ly could have used pro­tec­tion much soon­er. We would all be breath­ing the bet­ter for it.

Kim­ber­ly C. Ellis, Ph.D., is the author of the upcom­ing book The Bom­bas­tic Bril­liance of Black Twit­ter: A Decade of Tweets (20092018) and a pro­duc­er for the 50 Shades of Silence (@50Shades) cam­paign to end cyber abuse, online harass­ment and revenge porn.
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