Wisdom will tell you, “Don’t feed the trolls,” but what can you do when open forums and public comments degrade into a storm of racism and discrimination? Even the “flag as inappropriate” button can make you feel more powerless, if not just as helpless, as victims of bigotry and hate. Unfortunately, there are few, if any, options for dealing with hateful users who frequently find their way into your social sites, but they’re not going unnoticed.
For every troll who flaunts offensive racism, there are users willing to speak up against hate speech – and if you’re on Tumblr like I am there are numerous Tumblr sites dedicated to exposing that negativity. Spend a few minutes there and you’ll see that it’s a sad, disappointing corner of the internet. It’s not the internet’s fault, it’s just a reflection of our society – if that society had a mask and an unlimited supply to megaphones.
So why would anyone expose racism? Isn’t it a waste of time? My two-fold answer is this: partially because racism is bad and partially because disparaging remarks on open forums are harmful to everyone, not just those they target.
Not all racist-shaming efforts are fruitless, in some cases users do apologize for what they view as a misunderstanding or an accidental racist remark. With so few offenders actually feeling guilt or admitting repentance, it would seem that the fight against racism is an endless one with few rewards, but staying silent is not a viable alternative.
The internet is fertile ground for inclusiveness, but it won’t be that way if trolls are left to do as they please. You don’t have to engage them, but you can expose their behavior to encourage public discourse. Remember, public outcry is the only form of governance on the internet, and the public can and should dictate what is socially acceptable. Hate speech is not.
If you need evidence to see how hate-shaming can bring real-world consequences to racists, look at reality TV show Big Brother. Cast members Aaryn Gries, Spencer Clawson, and GinaMarie Zimmerman have all lost their jobs due to their offensive comments on national television. Even Greek Olympic Swimmer, Voula Papachristou, was expelled from her team prior to the London games due to her offensive tweet. For anonymous trolls, the BBC is getting into shaming racists by exposing their real identities:
Unlucky trolls might even find themselves the target of legal measures in countries where online hate speech is illegal. For example, the UK has laws against inciting hate on the grounds of race, religion, and gender. In fact, one man was arrested this week for sending abusive tweets and making repeated rape threats directed toward Caroline Criado-Perez, whose successful campaign to place a woman on the new banknote made her a target for misogynistic threats at a rate of 50 rape threats per hours. Violating Twitter’s policy will only mean an account suspension in the US – an easy obstacle to overcome if you sign up for a new account.
Legal measures against hate speech are a violation of free speech and won’t change social behaviors, but positive counter-speech can be an effective tool for educating a more enlightened internet citizenry. Abraham Foxman and Christopher Wolf’s recent book Viral Hate: Containing its Spread on the Internet acknowledges that free speech works both ways: Americans do have the right to the expression of hatred, but “the best anecdote to hate speech is counter-speech – exposing hate speech for its deceitful and false content, setting the record straight, and promoting the values of respect and diversity.” Further, they state that this method of hate-awareness is valuable ”not just on the Internet but in every aspect of local, community, and national life.”
So don’t feel badly about your desire to shed light on internet hatred. You’re not alone, and there are Tumblr sites that have already started the good war. Feel free to start your own.
My growing list of anti-racism, anti-hate blogs: