Post-Election Racist Tweets Raise Questions

After the president's re-election, a slew of racist comments appeared on Twitter and Facebook. Guest host Celeste Headlee discusses some of the legal and privacy issues raised when people vent online. She speaks with Rey Junco of Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society and The Root's Political Correspondent Keli Goff.

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CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:

When President Obama was re-elected, voters lit up social media sites with their reactions, both positive and negative. Among those many, many comments were a slew of racist remarks. And some Twitter and Facebook users even crossed the line into questionable legal territory. Take 22-year-old Californian Denise Helms. She posted a comment on Facebook so incendiary, she reportedly lost her job; and the Secret Service is now investigating her. Quote, "another four years of this [N-word]. Maybe he will get assassinated this term," unquote.

So we wondered if there's more at issue here than just disappointed and angry voters using social media to vent. To answer that question, we have with us Rey Junco. He's a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society; and from our New York bureau, Keli Goff, she's the political correspondent for TheRoot.com, an online news and commentary website with a focus on African-American perspectives. And Keli Goff has written quite a bit about racist tweets as well. Welcome to both of you.

KELI GOFF: Great to be here.

REY JUNCO: Thanks. Great to be here.

HEADLEE: Rey, let me ask you first. How real are these comments? Is this just people trolling? Are they just saying extreme things, to get a reaction; or is this actual, deeply felt racism?

JUNCO: Well, I think that in any set of inflammatory comments, we can assume that most people are actually being sincere. So the quick answer is yes. But then there are some others who are trying to appear sincere, with the intention of triggering or exacerbating conflict - as you said, trolling. In the case of some of the teens who were publicly shamed online, at least one was found out to actually be a troll; who had used a picture of a teenage girl who had already been the subject of long-term, online harassment.

HEADLEE: And we're going to talk a little bit more about that public shaming you talked about. But Keli, let me go to you because you wrote about this in TheRoot.com. What did you find out, through your reporting?

GOFF: Well, you know, the question I really raised is - is, I actually think that this isn't as terrible as perhaps others might, And my logic is a bit - might be - seem strange to some, but I certainly heard from people who said, you know, bravo; which is, I was pointing out that for much of the first four years of his term, there was this endless debate about basically, subtle racism, and whether or not the election of the first black president signaled the end of real racism, as we know it.

And there are plenty of people who really believe that. I mean, Ann Coulter wrote an entire book about it, titled "Mugged," which is essentially about how liberals, quote, "use fake racism" in the age of the first black president in the post-civil rights movement, to shame white America into shying away from legitimate criticism of this president, and others. And she's certainly not alone. There has been quite a conservative chorus. I will say - really briefly - that I actually wrote a piece last year about the rise of subtle racism and discussions of it, in the age of Obama; you know, such as some of the language that has been used to target the president over the years - and how I was literally, ridiculed by predominantly conservative talk show hosts who just ridiculed the piece, thought it was ridiculous.

And so the point that I was really making about this conversation that these tweets sparked, is that I've definitely had moments where in addition to writing that piece about subtle racism - where I've told people; for instance, my white friends, about, you know, being followed around a store, for instance. And that is sort of racism that's up for debate, right? It's like, well, are you sure they followed you because you're black? Whereas, if someone used the N-word toward me in a store, no one would debate that, right?

HEADLEE: Right.

GOFF: If the salesperson called me the N-word - and that's a bit what these tweets were like; is that you saw so many - particularly white Americans - who were shocked and horrified in a way that I think a lot of black people weren't because we sort of knew that all of this racism had been sort of percolating under the surface, and exacerbated by the first black president.

HEADLEE: Right.

GOFF: And so seeing it on the surface, in some ways, is a good thing because now, it's no longer up for debate.

HEADLEE: Well, that would argue, Keli, that that allows us to respond to it. But Rey Junco, you actually had a problem with the response to these racist tweets, which is what you were talking about before. There was even a blog - it wasn't just an article in the online magazine Jezebel, but there's now a blog dedicated to shaming even teenagers who post racist tweets. What do you think about that?

JUNCO: Well, I think - and let me preface my comment by saying that I'm not trying to give those teens a pass. And the blog, and the article - they're calling out - they're shaming teenagers, which is very different than calling out an adult on their racist behaviors. First, shaming doesn't work as a teaching method for teens. I mean, we already know that. It might actually solidify their racist attitudes. Second, the people who are doing the shaming, they have no knowledge of youth development. They're making some assumptions about these children from their own frame of reference. They're treating them as if they were at the same level of moral and ethnic identity development as they are.

And then, you know, lastly, shaming teens doesn't take into account the vast number of reasons why these children posted such things. And I mean, these are children; these are not adults. If these were adults, we could say, OK, look, you are fully responsible for your actions here - because we have a pretty good sense that their racism is being driven by internal motivation. However, the cause of teen racist behaviors is much more multifaceted; and in none of the things that I read online, these people who were shaming the teenagers said anything about their parents, or the environment that they grew up in...

HEADLEE: Right.

JUNCO: ...or the education they're receiving at schools. And I think those are the things we need to focus on. And when we see these kinds of behaviors from teenagers, educate them in a way that's going to help them...

HEADLEE: Right.

JUNCO: ...grow, not shame them in a way that's going to make them lock down.

HEADLEE: Well, we can talk more about that. But first, if you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. We're talking about racist tweets that cropped up after President Obama was re-elected. I'm joined by Rey Junco, a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society; and from our New York bureau, Keli Goff, a political correspondent for TheRoot.com.

Let's talk a little bit more about the psychology of ranting. And Keli, I wonder if you think social media actually encourages this kind of negative comment, especially when you're talking about teenagers. Perhaps there's a reward in the amount of attention that you get.

GOFF: In a word, yes. And I want to be clear. It's not just in term of racist tweeting; it's just in term of saying mean things in general. I mean, I know that myself and a lot of other writers, we often ask ourselves, if people didn't have to - didn't have the option of remaining anonymous online, how many people would write comments under blog posts that simply say: You're the dumbest person who's ever walked the planet of the Earth - you know?

And so I do think that that - being able to hide behind the safety of a laptop - and actually, I'm sure that he can comment on this more; I think they've done things about the psychology of being able to be anonymous, and how that sort of empowers and emboldens people in a way that if you were sitting right next to someone or even sitting in an audience, you wouldn't shout up to the stage: You're the dumbest person who's ever walked the Earth! And so, yes. And I actually, I feel great empathy because I couldn't imagine being a teenager growing up today, with the level of bullying. I mean, one of the reasons we talk about bullying more is - I don't know that it's physically happening more, but it's certainly more prevalent...

HEADLEE: Yeah.

GOFF: ...because we're seeing it online, right?

HEADLEE: Right.

GOFF: And again, there's a certain power that comes from hiding behind your laptop, and being able to say things you wouldn't have the courage to say to someone's face.

HEADLEE: Well, then, Rey Junco, let me ask you. Obviously, you say public shaming doesn't educate teens, but we should mention that putting stuff out on social media could last for the rest of their lives. This could hurt job prospects for them, later on in life. It could hurt them when they decide to go to college. What's a better way to educate teens, then, other than shaming?

JUNCO: Well, and I think this is where we're losing an opportunity because the schools - and we're talking mostly here, in this case, about high school teenagers - is that educators, at these levels, have really shied away from interacting with social media in educational settings. So if they ever do talk about social media, it's from a very paternalistic and abstinent framework - like, don't post these things online because you don't want others to see this; or you've got to stay off these sites. And sure, that's fine to talk about, but teachers need to go further and teach civil discourse in online spaces, as well as discussing the benefits and pitfalls of living our lives online; you know, for instance, how mistakes can be interpreted, like in this - in these cases with the teenagers.

GOFF: Can I piggyback, too, on what he said? I think that there's an analogy here, sort of, in what I like to draw between sex ed - go with me on this one, for a second...

(LAUGHTER)

GOFF: ...in that people often say, after the fact, you should not have gotten pregnant....

JUNCO: Right.

GOFF: ...but people always have a debate about what kind of conversation we should be having beforehand.

HEADLEE: Oh, that's interesting.

GOFF: And that's what you often see in these social media cases, right? Everyone decries the bullying after someone's gotten hurt, after a kid's committed suicide. But he's totally right - where is the conversation, or curriculum, where we make this just as serious as teaching someone how to drive? I mean, a lot more kids are able to do damage online these days than even behind the wheel; and I'm not even saying that facetiously. I mean, you're completely right - job prospects, college prospects, someone killing themselves. So it's just one of those things where I think the educational system has been slow to evolve and as a result, we're seeing this.

I do think, though - I want to be clear. I agree with him in that we should not be holding kids to the same standards as adults; and so maybe there's a conversation to be had about not publishing the names of some of these students, and going directly to the faculty. But I will also add that if a kid can post a drunken photo of themselves on Facebook and have that hurt their college admissions chances, I don't know that I can go along with the argument that them, you know - let's say, harassing someone, which I'm not claiming one of them harassed the president; but if they harass someone with racial abuse online, that that shouldn't be something that a college admissions officer should see, too.

HEADLEE: Although...

GOFF: I just think it's a fine line.

HEADLEE: You also need to make them aware of where that line is...

GOFF: Exactly.

HEADLEE: ...that goes from just saying something negative, and it crosses the line into a threat.

I've been speaking with Rey Junco. He's a faculty associate at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. And from our bureau in New York, Keli Goff - she's political correspondent for TheRoot.com. One way or the other, guys, the conversation's going to have to continue.

GOFF: Thanks so much.

HEADLEE: Thanks for joining us.

JUNCO: Yes. Thanks.

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