Analysis: Twitter Shaming Might Be Funny, But Is It Effective?

PHOTO: Media companies have gotten into the game of calling out bigotry on Twitter.

Marcandrelariviere/Flickr

On its face, the @YourInAmerica account by BuzzFeed's Andrew Kaczynski is funny. After all, it mocks users who make grammar mistakes when they're angrily tweeting that foreigners ought to "learn English."

How could it not be gratifying to turn ignorance against itself for public amusement? Particularly when tweets say something like, "F*ck Spanish b*tch your in America speak my language." And the BuzzFeed account shoots back, "You should learn it too. It's 'you're.'" But before we all pat ourselves on the back for sticking it to racists and xenophobes, let's acknowledge this much: Twitter shaming has its limits.

For one, the 140-character @YourInAmerica snark probably isn't going to make anybody less racist or show them the error of their ways. And when you start sounding like the people you're calling out -- telling one user to "f*cking spell properly" and another that they're "embarrassing" themselves -- you're not exactly heightening the discussion.

An expert on cyberbullying, Slate's senior editor Emily Bazelon writes that cyber-shaming often gives offenders "reason for indignation" rather than reason for change.

"If you come under attack for something you thought you said privately, however wrong you were about that, wouldn't you feel anger more than remorse?," Bazelon asked in a recent article.

In a phone interview, Bazelon added that "making an example" may dissuade others in the future from publicly espousing the same view, but it can also backfire in some cases, and cause the offender to "dig in their heels."

To be fair, BuzzFeed is not alone in this. In the past year, a handful of articles have been written calling out Twitter users for racially charged tweets, like criticism of Gabby Douglas' hair or complaints that a character in the Hunger Games was played by a black actress. But, earlier this month, Jezebel took it to a whole new level when they went after people, many of them minors, who called the President a "n***er" or a "monkey" on Twitter after the election, posting their tweets and contacting the users' high schools and colleges to see if they'd be punished for their actions. Gene Demby, editor of the Post Bougie blog and former editor at HuffPost BlackVoices, responded to Jezebel's racist-outings with a piece called "Doing Anti-racism Wrong" in which he criticized the article for presuming that shame is an effective means of "unlearning racism."

He also pointed out that campaigns like these are taking aim at the wrong people and creating cartoonish enemies for the left to fight against.

"[Some people on the left] are making bad arguments, because they're arguing against dumb people," Demby said. "If you're fighting against the klansmen, you're not dealing with the more realistic kinds of racism. In real life, nativists and racists love their kids and they aren't monsters."

The caricature of xenophobia created by shaming campaigns like BuzzFeed's are also a bit orchestrated. After all, the tweets that are being made fun of tend to be carefully curated lists built through Twitter searches of predetermined keyword combinations.

But, Kaczynski defended the account, saying, "the Twitter [account] is more for entertainment purposes, I'm not an activist, so I'm not someone who is trying to influence, necessarily, peoples' opinions."

He also thinks the account serves a few purposes. It may make people less inclined to tweet nativist sentiments in the future. In addition, he argued that it "shows there's a broader problem in society that people are telling people to learn our language and don't even know the proper grammar themselves."

But, Demby, who admits that he found the @YourInAmerica account amusing, noted that a handful of teenagers posting overtly racist or xenophobic messages on the internet shouldn't be a journalist' primary concern. Rather, those pursuing nativist or racist agendas with the benefit of being well-educated and being in positions of power are the real threat.

In other words, there's nothing necessarily wrong with mocking idiocy for a good laugh, and BuzzFeed's account seems to have caught on. But, instead of going after teens calling the President the n-word or xenophobes who can't spell, why not take a serious look at New York City's "stop and frisk" policy or the effects of Arizona's SB1070? This is where today's journalists are truly needed.

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