If you are a living, breathing human that consumes media online, you’ve seen it. Someone casually posts something racist online that incites outrage and goes viral. We watch this stranger lose his job or get expelled from her school. Their Google search results turn toxic. They say sorry but it doesn’t redeem them. And we internalize the reality that nothing we post on social media is ever really private.
We’ve long seen this cycle play out on Facebook and Twitter, two networks designed to amplify and spread content that’s “trending.” But lately, we’ve seen the most egregious racist posts on Snapchat, the five-year-old network that’s already surpassed Twitter with 150 million active daily users. Snapchat is built around the premise that content disappears when viewed; it feels like the one digital space left that’s somewhat safe from outsiders. But even this relatively private network of “real” friends isn’t immune to consequences of posting online.
Since the fall semester started, it’s been one racist Snapchat after another. Two weeks ago, Kansas State student Desmund Weathers tweeted out a screencap of then-student Paige Shoemaker’s blackface snap.
The tweet first caught fire online with Kansas State students, and then spread to activists who pushed it out to the wider web. By the afternoon, the student in the photo was no longer enrolled at Kansas State. Eventually, the New York Times and the Washington Post (and Fusion) had written up the story.
This is the pattern of things: A Snapchat is sent, usually of a student sporting blackface of some kind, with an offensive caption that often contains a version of the n word. A screenshot is captured; it presumably gets sent around, eventually landing in the hands of someone outraged enough to post the photo to a more public network like Twitter. It’s then met with dismay by the school’s student body and relevant social justice groups. News outlets pick it up, and the public anger grows so strong that the school is compelled to respond by kicking the student out. Sometimes they apologize.
There’s a reason we’re seeing these racists posts from college campuses bubble up on Snapchat rather than Facebook or Instagram. Snapchat is the “most important social network” for young people, with 72% of users between 12 and 24 years old. Users are more engaged on Snapchat than on any other social media app, spending at least 25-30 minutes a day consuming and creating content.
The logo for the network is a ghost, a nod to the network’s ephemerality. Impermanence is appealing to a generation that has grown up being told—and seeing in the media—that everything they do online is forever. You can see this reaction to the threat of surveillance (by “olds,” by the government, by big data) on other social networks too. Many teens compulsively delete Instagram posts, some keeping their feeds as low as 25 pictures. In a Business Insider post, 15-year-old Ishan Haque lays out why Facebook is no longer an authentic space: “Unless it’s something to do with family or making me look like a good samaritan then no way I’m posting it on there.”
Older people love to point out that they don’t “get” Snapchat, that it’s poorly designed and hard to use. Other networks take you through a series of steps in order to post content, so Snapchat’s simplicity—upon opening it takes you straight to the camera—can be disorienting. But as Nick Bilton wrote in the New York Times, ”ugly gives the person using the app the feeling that whatever you do can be thrown away.” The interface, regardless of your personal taste, simply reinforces a speed and informality of use, above all else. (Bilton even admits that he himself won’t post selfies to Instagram or Facebook, but is known to do so on Snapchat).
The increased frequency of viral racist Snapchats is more than just a product of our technological environment. In contrast to the period around Obama’s election and the beginning of his first term, 63% of adults now think race relations in America are bad, and the majority say it’s only getting worse. Almost daily, we see a black American’s name reduced to a trending hashtag on social media for being killed by the cops. And long gone are the days, as Gregg Popovich pointed out earlier this week, when Al Gore just shaking his head during a debate with George Bush was considered uncouth. Republicans have nominated a presidential candidate who led the birther movement against Obama, has called Mexicans “rapists,” and proposed a U.S. ban on Muslims.
Rabia Kamal, a professor at San Francisco State who teaches anthropology in social media, says she thinks the rhetoric of the Trump campaign plays at least some role in normalizing bigoted speech on social media. “It’s not that racism is new or politicians haven’t used racist rhetoric in the past, but I think there’s something qualitatively different about the current presidential campaign that’s allowing for more visible and unchecked forms of xenophobia to spread,” Kamal said. “And watching it happen with politicians over and over again can then, I think, make it okay, at a certain level, to circulate racist discourse.”
Given the current political climate, young people may feel more free to say whatever terrible thing they want, in public. And similar to Donald Trump himself, anyone can have their racist content, even a disappearing black face snapchat, picked up by every single news outlet in less than 24 hours. It doesn’t matter that snaps aren’t public, that Snapchat lacks a newsfeed with a discovery algorithm. The viral machine is now more powerful than any individual network can ever be. And all it takes to be front (web)page news is one “real” friend who screenshots.