Racial Inequalities in Social Media Mobbing
by Jeffrey Layne Blevins and James Jaehoon Lee
This is an excerpt from Blevins and Lee’s forthcoming title Social Media, Social Justice and the Political Economy of Online Networks (University of Cincinnati Press, 2021)
Social media conversations about social justice often become racially charged and, in many cases, ugly. A Pew Research Center study by Anderson and Hitlin (2016, August 15) showed that social media is an important venue for news and political information, while focusing national attention on racially involved issues.
In fact, two of the most used hashtags around social causes in Twitter history focus on race and criminal justice: #Ferguson and #BlackLivesMatter. . . . and key news events . . . often serve as a catalyst for social media conversations about race. (Anderson & Hitlin, 2016)
Perhaps less understood, though, is the quality of this discourse, and its connection to racial politics, especially when Twitter trolls and social media mobs go on the attack.
Social media mobbing occurs when groups of people converge on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms around an issue that they are angry about, or a person that offends them. The mob relentlessly trolls that person, or dominates discussion of the issue with a barrage of insults, arguments, and memes. Some of the more notable targets of social media mobbing have been black women, including former Saturday Night Live comedian Leslie Jones, Olympian Gabby Douglas, and the mother of a young boy who fell into a gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo (see Blevins, 2016, August 28).
This calls into question the quality of public discourse taking place in certain venues on social media. Since there are no universally accepted community standards online, conversations taking place via social media can occasionally escalate into a mob-like atmosphere in which the more even-tempered speakers are heckled off the platform in a rabble of highly offensive posts, including some that are explicitly racist. For instance, Leslie Jones, who used Twitter to speak out against sexism and racism, eventually deleted her account under the crushing emotional strain of the social media mob that was trolling her with crude attacks about her appearance (see Fisher & McBride, 2016, July 20).
In another case, the Cincinnati Zoo asked social media users to stop posting memes about Harambe, the silverback gorilla that was put down in order to save the life of the child who fell into the exhibit, because it was hurtful to their staff. Nevertheless, the Zoo’s call for self-restraint only ignited the mob further, which in turn overwhelmed their social media feed with even more posts and memes involving images and mentions of Harambe. As a result, the Zoo deactivated its Twitter account to escape the disquiet (see Chan, 2016, August 23).
A concern present in all of these cases is that the voices in favor of more respectful public dialogue on social media may tend to spiral into silence for fear of being mobbed. As such, social media outlets should consider more carefully how they want to define and enforce community standards for their own platform. In the Leslie Jones case, Twitter eventually banned the mob leader from using its service. But that is just one high-profile incident. More generally across social media platforms, action against mobbing occurs on a case-by-case basis. At the very least, the application of policies seems inconsistent, and it is usually up to the target of offensive posts to initiate the complaint.
Moreover, the targets of race-based mobbing face an uneven display of empathy on social media. For instance, consider disparate reactions faced by black and white parents of children involved in tragic incidents during family outings in 2016. A Black family was visiting the Cincinnati Zoo on May 28, 2016, when their three-year-old son climbed over a barrier and fell into a gorilla exhibit, encountering a 450-pound silverback named Harambe. Despite being dragged around the child was not seriously injured, as zoo staff shot and killed the gorilla within minutes (see McPhate, 2016, May 29).
Afterwards, the child’s mother was widely vilified in a barrage of memes and tweets tagged #JusticeForHarambe for not responsibly looking after her child (see Blevins, 2016, July 9–15). An online petition quickly collected a half-million signatures asking that the mother "be held accountable for her lack of supervision and negligence" and further requested a criminal investigation as to whether this was "reflective of the child's home situation." There was widespread outrage that a gorilla was killed due to an "idiot mom" and speculation that she was "shopping for lawyers and celebrating her good fortune.” One of the more popular memes pictured Harambe with the caption: "Why did they shoot me? I was doing a better job watching that lady's kid than she was." Rallying under the #JusticeForHarambe hashtag a stream of social media posts seemed to mock the slogans invoked in recent social justice movements after black males were slain by white police officers (e.g., #JusticeForSamDebose, #Justice4Dontre, #JusticeForTamirRice, and #JusticeForJohnCrawford, etc.).
In contrast, similar incidents involving white families did not provoke the same kind of vitriol on social media. In the latest instance, tagged #DisneyGatorAttack, a two-year old boy was killed by an alligator at a Disney resort on June 14 while he splashed around by himself in a shallow lagoon a short distance away from his parents (see McLaughlin et al., 2016, June 16).
There are some important distinctions (besides race) that would account for the more tempered reactions on social media in the latter case. The young child could not be saved, and the parents were suffering unimaginable anguish. Also, the Disney gator attack happened just days after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history at the time, which dominated the national news cycle, as well as social media activity (see Ellis et al., 2016, June 13).
Another accident happened at the Cleveland Zoo in 2015 when a White mother dropped her child while dangling him over a cheetah exhibit (see Denson, 2015, April 12). The boy suffered a broken leg and the mother received probation as a result of the incident. However, there was no widespread campaign on social media to further humiliate the mother, which is in stark contrast to what happened to the black mother at the Cincinnati Zoo.
While it may be difficult to quantify the disparity in social media reactions between these cases, it is not impossible to see the difference. Whether intentional or not, posters often seem to jump to conclusions based on minimal information contained in a meme or tweet, and may further perpetuate insidious forms of racism with hasty likes, shares, and retweets.
While trolls and mean tweets certainly add to the quantity of dialogue taking place on social media, we may at the same time question the quality of this form of public discourse. Ideally, in a society that values free expression, online networks should be a platform for opposing thoughts and viewpoints in a digital marketplace of ideas, without devolving into the communicative equivalent of throwing rocks at each other. Rather, as Johnson (2016, p. 215) has suggested, “digital communication intermediaries like Facebook or Twitter should publish community standards that commit to protecting freedom of expression on their platforms in all but a few clear exceptions,” such as threats of violence, pornography, or other criminal content. Too often, online hecklers do not face their opponents person-to-person, but manage to silence them through threats and intimidation. Given the rise of Twitter trolls and the ability of some groups to shout down other more reasoned voices in sensitive questions about race, perhaps its time for social media to develop community standards for racial animus on their platforms.
Anderson, M. & Hitlin, P. (2016, Aug. 15). Social Media Conversations about Race: How social media users see, share and discuss race and the rise of hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter. Pew Research Center: http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/08/15/social-media-conversations-about-race/
Blevins, J. L. (2016, July 9-15). Social Media Disparity in #JusticeForHarambe and #DisneyGatorAttack. The Cincinnati Herald : B1, B3.
Blevins, J. L. (2016, Aug. 28). Social Media Mobbing Diminishes the Quality of Public Discourse. The Cincinnati Project. http://thecincyproject.org/2016/ 08/28/social-media-mobbing-diminishes-the-quality-of-public-discourse/
Chan, M. (2016, Aug. 23). Cincinnati Zoo Deactivates Twitter Account Amid Flood of Harambe Mentions. Time. http://time.com/4462675/cincinnati-zoo-deactivates-twitter-harambe/
Denson, S. (2015, Apr. 12). Ohio Zoo: Mom Dangling Toddler over Cheetah Pit when He Fell. WKRN.com: https://www.wkrn.com/news/ohio-zoo-mom-dangling-toddler-over-cheetah-pit-when-he-fell/1089250596
Ellis, R., Fantz, A., Karimi, F., & McLaughlin, E. C. (2016, Jun. 13). Orlando Shooting: 49 killed, Shooter Pledged ISIS Allegiance. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/12/us/orlando-nightclub-shooting/index.html
Fisher, L., & McBride, B. (2016, Jul. 20). “Ghostbusters” Star Leslie Jones Quits Twitter After Online Harassment. ABC News. https://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/ghostbusters-star-leslie-jones-quits-twitter-online-harassment/story?id=40698459
Johnson, B. G. (2016). The Heckler’s Veto: Using First Amendment Theory and Jurisprudence to Understand Current Audience Reactions Against Controversial Speech. Communication Law & Policy, Vol. 21, No. 2: 175–220.
McLaughlin, E. C., Berlinger, J., Fantz, A., Almasy, S. (2016, Jun. 16). Disney Gator Attack: 2-year-old Boy Found Dead. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2016/06/15/us/alligator-attacks-child-disney-florida/index.html
McPhate, M. (2016, May 20). Gorilla Killed After Child Enters Enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/30/us/gorilla-killed-after-child-enters-enclosure-at-cincinnati-zoo.html
Noelle-Neumann, E. (1974). The Spiral of Silence: A Theory of Public Opinion. Journal of Communication, Vol. 24: 43-51.
 See Noelle-Neumann (1974) for an explication of “spiral of silence” theory.