Last week, journalist and activist Shaun King tweeted a picture of two college students in what he thought was blackface posing in front of a Confederate flag with the caption “White students @ Southern Illinois University (@SIUC) decided to put on blackface and pose in front of a Confederate Flag to celebrate Trump.”
After realizing the blackface was actually a popular, cosmetic face mask, I did something that King failed to do: Vet the information. I quickly unraveled facts which reveal that these two students are anything but racist. In fact, they are extremely liberal and fight for the “same team” as King. My story debunking King’s tweet can be found here.*
My goal was to save the reputation and livelihood of two people who did nothing wrong by exposing the context and truth behind the picture. Once the story quickly went viral, I began rolling out the “Mission Accomplished” flag. Now that people knew the context of the picture, they will switch their opinion.
That was naïve.
Despite a reasonable explanation of the picture supported by facts, including a statement from the accused herself, not only did few people accept the information, but they doubled down.
This is not an isolated incident. Rather, it’s a widespread issue that has been highlighted (and committed) by several high-profile journalists. In his book “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” Jon Ronson discusses the vitriolic, knee-jerk reactionary behavior of the internet. The consequences? Lives are ruined.
Before throwing someone under the bus on social media, we never once stop to think 1) If it’s true 2) What are the consequences and 3) Do the consequences justify the alleged offense? If the answer to Question #1 is “no,” then the answer to Question #3 is a huge “NO!”
But what about Question #2? Today, we’ll retweet or share a public shaming Shaun King or some other public figure posts, be outraged for a few minutes and go about our lives business as usual. The next day, we wake up forgetting it even happened.
Miranda Fair and her boyfriend do not have the luxury of waking up the next day like nothing happened. Hundreds if not thousands of people reached out to her university demanding she be expelled. Potentially millions of people around the world only know her as racist. Those people may never recognize her in person, but the people in her community sure will.
In his book, Ronson interviewed a woman whose life was also turned upside down by social justice warriors misinterpreting a tweet. She lost friends, her dream job and was psychologically damaged by the barrage of messages. I would tell you her name, but you probably forgot it anyway. She did not forget. She has not been allowed to.
I knew Ms. Fair would likely suffer the same consequences. Hopefully, my story would get out there quick enough and to enough people. It wouldn’t matter. Ms. Fair’s mother reached out to me and said the following:
“Her soul is absolutely crushed. And watching my child be ripped apart on an international level is something that no one will EVER understand. This is bigger than anything anyone can imagine.”
She was right about that last sentence. No one seemed to imagine what was happening. If they did, the reaction to my story would not have been what you saw above.
And that’s the problem. We do not care to imagine what’s happening on the other side of the computer. On the internet, we are all either faceless avatars stripped of our identity as a human being or we are just as emotionless and still as the image on your screen.
Every single one of us is just one social media post away from obtaining 15 minutes of fame that we never wanted and for reasons that are completely erroneous. That funny joke that your friends and family find hilarious could turn you into public enemy #1. Some picture someone else took out of context could end up flooding your dean’s inbox as people call for your head.
You may think you do nothing that will result in such a colossal misunderstanding. So did Ms. Fair and many others before her.
The irony in all of this is that many of those who refuse to reverse their preconceived notion that was based on false information are the same people who cannot fathom why Donald Trump is the president-elect. They call Trump supporters uneducated heathens full of hate while they dismantle an innocent human being who shares their same ideals.
The wonderful thing about the internet is that we all have the potential to reach millions of people, giving the average (and below-average) person a voice. The bad thing about the internet is that we all have the potential to reach millions of people, giving the average (and below-average) person a voice.
Vox recently posted a story about a study that suggests calling people racist does nothing to prevent racism. Rather, having a conversation could potentially reduce bigotry. Well, here we are. Let’s talk.
We have been given a very powerful tool that has the ability to cause significant and positive change, like we saw in Arab Spring. Instead, we have chosen to destroy one another.
Let’s use this situation as a learning example and stop tearing each other apart. At the very least, accept information that exonerates a person from wrongdoing and do what is right: apologize and clear the air. Otherwise, watch out.
It’s a minefield out there.
Note: Shaun King could not be reached for comment. The tweet in question is still up as of 9 a.m., Thursday, Nov. 17, 2016.
*Since I wrote that article, it has been confirmed that the photo was taken on Nov. 6, before Election Day. King claimed the photo was a celebration of Trump’s victory.