When does shaming racist kids turn into online bullying?

64 Comments

Calling out racists who posted offensive comments about President Barack Obama seems like a great use of the internet and social networks — after all, that kind of behavior is easier to identify than it has ever been before, thanks to Twitter search and Facebook profiles. But what if the people making those comments are high-school kids? Is it still okay to identify them and subject them to public ridicule, or worse? Those are just a few of the questions I asked myself after I read a Jezebel piece on Friday that did exactly that — including calls to the schools that these students attended.

These are questions that seem to be coming up more and more frequently as we live increasingly large parts of our lives online: When is it okay to publicize someone’s identity for things they said on Twitter, and what kinds of consequences do we think are appropriate for online bad behavior?

The post by Jezebel co-founder Tracie Egan Morrisey — which was entitled “Racist Teens Forced to Answer for Tweets About the ‘Nigger’ President” — was a followup of sorts to a previous post that highlighted a number of racist tweets posted to the service following Obama’s election victory on Tuesday night. None of the users who posted them were specifically identified, but in the more recent piece, Morrisey identified several students at a number of schools in the U.S. who posted similar comments. The story also went into some detail about them, noting that one student “plays football for Xaverian High School, a private Catholic prep school in Brooklyn, NY,” and that others also play sports for their schools.

What is an appropriate response for a single tweet?

The point of doing this seemed to be that most schools have codes of conduct, particularly for those who represent the school on sports teams, and racist tweets would appear to be in contravention of those rules. But is publicly identifying these students — who are legally children — on a website like Jezebel really an appropriate response to what in some cases was a single tweet? In an email, Morrisey said that she felt there was no issue with writing the story, since the students in question had already publicly identified themselves through Twitter profiles and Facebook profiles:

We actually did not “out” the identities of these tweeters — they did, through their public Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles. They used their real names, listed their schools and their locations, and thus broadcasted these details to the entire world by virtue of putting them on the internet.

We chose to get in touch with the school administrators who are charged with educating these individuals because the institutions not only have mission statements about their educational goals, but they also have student conduct codes.”

Some commenters on Jezebel clearly disagreed with the site’s decision. One comment that got a lot of votes from other readers asked “Is this what we’ve come to?? Internet shaming children, blasting their crimes across the web?” And others who specialize in online behavior, including sociologist Zeynep Tufekci from the University of North Carolina, also said they found the public shaming troubling:

Many of those who took part in a Twitter discussion of the issue with me on Friday believed that the students in question should have to face the consequences of their actions — after all, the internet is a public place, they argued, and even children need to realize that making such comments could affect their lives. Others said that public shaming of racism is the only way to effectively fight such beliefs, and therefore what Jezebel did was appropriate.

Is there no room for online mistakes any more?

One of the things that troubles me about this incident is that it shows how quick we can be to judge a person — especially someone in high school, who may be acting badly for all kinds of complicated reasons — without any real understanding of what is going on, or what the repercussions may be. Making people face the consequences for saying things online is a noble goal, but is there no room even for children to make mistakes without the full force of the internet being brought to bear? As far as I can tell, Morrisey didn’t even try to contact the high-school students she profiled, or their parents.

A quick internet search of one of the individuals mentioned shows that this incident is the top result for their name. Maybe that will fade over time, especially since some of those involved seem to have deleted their accounts — or maybe it won’t. Couldn’t the same thing have been achieved by calling the schools to identify the students, without doing so in the article itself? Morrisey denied that there was any attempt to “shame” those involved, and yet the headline talks about forcing these students to answer for their alleged crimes. Is this kind of online vigilantism really going to solve anything?

Similar issues came up during the recent public outing of a notorious Reddit “troll” named Violentacrez, who was profiled in a Gizmodo post, and the similar revealing of a Twitter user who went by the name ComfortablySmug, who posted inaccurate information during Hurricane Sandy. The Reddit moderator was seen as fair game by many because he created threads devoted to child pornography and other offensive content, but ComfortablySmug was a less obvious case — as we noted in a post and an internal debate that we published about the issues raised by such online lynch mobs.

Both of those individuals were adults, however, and presumably understood the consequences of their actions before they engaged in them. How much should we expect high-school students to suffer for what might have been an offhand comment or an attempt to impress their friends? How much public ridicule or online condemnation is too much, and when does it cross over into outright bullying? These are issues we are going to be confronting more and more as we live out our lives online, and the answers are not obvious.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Cotidad and See-ming Lee

64 Comments

Chris Jackson

As a black man who has been observing prejudice on the internet for years, I have this to say. Those kids deserved to be shamed. I’ve noticed over the years that young white people (and older white people) never truly let go of their prejudiced beliefs. That’s why people here are actually TRIVIALIZING AND DEFENDING these racist remarks. You people are saying we should be forgiving of these kids and remain copacetic and open-minded about racism, but do you ever stop to think of black people reading remarks like this? What about a black man who is open-minded and accepting of other races? How do you think he feels? Where should he stand in this debate? Does your model of a more “open-minded” society include black people who feel like everyone hates them just because of their skin color and little else?

To go even further into the racism issue, do you people honestly think no one is aware of stuff like this? Rest assured, these things happen on the internet all the time. Some people online seem downright fixated on black people, the racism is so bad. Do you people seriously believe for a second that a black person who’s grown accustomed to discrimination online is going to feel sympathy for these people? Would YOU feel sympathy for someone abusing/harassing you?

No, I don’t feel sympathy for these kids. I don’t believe they are going to get over their prejudice towards black people (any time soon at least). And they are not remorseful for what they have said, we punish everyone else in society for their mistakes; so why should they be treated any differently? Because they are white, so they get a pass? Well how about if these were black kids posting racist remarks about white people? Would your stance change then? I believe it would!

Muswell

Items posted on facebook, or elsewhere on public websites are just that – public! If nobody else is pointing out to these teens the error of their ways (presumably their parents didn’t for whatever reason) then they do need to be held to account for many things: racist rants, disrespect for our president – in fact, disrespect for the Office of the Presidency, and the fact that several seem to want to get scholarships. Do they not realize that many of the higher learning institutions receive federal money? If they have no respect for this presidency and administration then why are they vying for scholarships? You can’t have your cake and eat it, too – or at least you shouldn’t!

They remind me of the ‘secessionists,’ many of whom would be horrified if their various government programs went away – Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security, disability, unemployment, food stamps, housing assistance, etc. – and yet see fit to sign secession petitions when its pretty obvious that the vast majority of them are inherently racist.

President Obama is held in high regard by the people and governments of most of the rest of the world and yet here we are in the U.S. still struggling to overcome the last vestiges of extreme racism and bigotry.

guesto

So the ultimate issue here is: when is it okay for a major corporation to intentionally destroy a kid’s future in order to make a profit or have some lulz? Maybe your answer is that if the kid says something racist, that makes it okay — but for me, that rationale rings hollow.

No one is asking for these kids to be protected from the consequences of their (racist, moronic) actions — if a college admissions officer or prospective employer had googled one of these names and stumbled across the tweets on his own, I would have zero sympathy. But Jezebel went out of its way to gin up consequences (national media coverage, strangers calling schools and colleges) far out of proportion to what most teens, and even most adults, face for errant tweets. Reading Jezebel’s post and having some historic familiarity with the site, I can’t escape the impression that they ruined these kids’ lives for the lulz. Self-righteous lulz, to be sure — but lulz nonetheless. Petty, vindictive gratification.

Commenters supportive of Jezebel have consistently said things like: “if you’re going to post on the internet like an adult [whatever THAT means], you should be treated like an adult.” Yet we clearly don’t feel that way when kids post “adult” photos of themselves — and nor should we. No one is asking Google to de-index these tweets or accord the racists special treatment because they’re underage. But Jezebel *has* accorded them special treatment — has singled them out for torment, just for fun (and maybe for pageviews) — and that’s disturbing and unprofessional.

Jack Barker

These kids are potentially infecting my kids and their friends with their sick venom.
They are no better than drug dealers, and should be subject to similar social consequences.

Guest

It’s sad that this country want to be a role model for other countries, but can’t even cure the hatred in our own country!

nwvintage

Let’s get real. High school students are minors, but they are not “children.” They’re young adults, and they certainly knew that what they were posting was inflammatory. If you’re old enough to post those things on the internet, you’re old enough to get called on it.

Now it becomes time, like every person who’s ever done something stupid on the internet that ended up prominent in search results, to do some good stuff to push down the bad results. Maybe they’ll learn something from it. Certainly seems like they weren’t learning anything from the status quo.

Venetta Keefe

Jezebel was the bully in the case. I’m a black woman, and find the response of Jezebel absolutely offensive. I am deeply suspicious of white folks who try to shame other white people out of their racism, especially children.

Spike

Indeed, as another non-white, I’m greatly disturbed by this. It does little to address racism and more to keep it as highly concealed as possible while harboring resentment for having to keep it concealed. Moreover it seems to be a war between whites using us as ammunition. Secondly, looking at the Gawker Media site, they all seem to be hipsters and the various sort of urban white collar creative class types, notorious for loudly stating how okay they are with other races, but covertly sending their kids to charter schools and private schools and gentrifying blacks and browns right out of their neighborhoods with rising rents and calling out code violations on ethnic stores and markets. Hypocrites, all.

op36

Jezebel is guilty of racism itself.

I’ve seen just as many Obama peeps posting offensive comments towards whites and those who are opposed to him.

Where’s the Jezebel indignation over that?

Sort of like the pot calling the kettle black.

jason

There is an enormous amount of hate speech towards Asians, Jews, gays and women spewed by blacks online and everywhere else. Yes, it is racist for harrassing white kids for using a word blacks use all the time while turning a blind eye to hate speech from blacks.

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