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When the Washington Capitals beat the Boston Bruins in the NHL Playoffs, it was one of the league’s few black players, Joel Ward, who scored the winning goal.After the game, a bunch of people said horrible, racist things about Ward on Twitter.
A mid-sized parody Twitter account that focuses on Philly sports called @FanSince09 then exposed these people to the world by retweeting them, and the whole thing went viral.
The next day, every major sports news outlet ran some variation of this headline, “TWITTER EXPLODES WITH RACISM AFTER HOCKEY GAME.”
In the weeks since, some of the racist tweeters have been called into their respective principals office, and others have been kicked off youth hockey teams.
But the real story here isn’t that people on the Internet openly fired off racist remarks at Ward after the Caps beat the Bruins. The real story is that people on the Internet are openly saying racist things 24 hours a day, 7 days a weeks, 365 days a year.
It’s easy to think of the Internet as more-or-less a representation of the real world. But how can that be when the nature of racism online is so different than that of our day-to-day lives?
The Internet is overflowing with overt, savage, relentless racism—it seeps out of the underground where we like to think it lives, and comes right to the surface.
The Internet is overflowing with overt, savage, relentless racism — it seeps out of the underground where we like to think it lives, and comes right to the surface.
It’s everywhere—on Twitter, Facebook, and the comments section of every major website (before the moderators can catch up, that is), including this one.
The real world isn’t like that.
Racism still exists in the fabric our institutions, laws, and cultural assumptions, but overt, loud, screaming-it-out-the-window racism is largely confined to the margins of society.
So why is the Internet so different?
Here are two theories that dance around the answer, but don’t totally suffice:
1. Group polarization. It’s a simple concept: a group of like-minded people will become more extreme in their opinions after discussing it with each other.
Former Harvard law professor and current White House administrator Cass Sunstein has written about how group polarization functions on the Internet (PDF) — concluding that the ideological self-segregation that happens online produces more extreme points of view.
Basically, people only read things online that they agree with, and only talk about it with people who share their point of view. As a result, their opinions become more hardcore.Maybe people can become more bold in their racial prejudices after living in a fragmented cyber world where those prejudices are shared by the vast majority of people.
2. How to get noticed on the Internet. The person with the loudest, most inflammatory opinion gets the most attention.
That’s how the Internet works.
When people say racist things in the comments section, they start a whole firestorm that becomes a bigger deal than the article itself.
Racism allows people a fleeting moment of popularity. In a medium where millions of people are virtually screaming at the tops of their lungs all day long, racism gets you noticed.
These two things probably have something to do with it. But the here’s the easy, boring, right answer:
Anonymity. The right explanation to any mystery is usually the simplest one, and that’s what this is: People are racist on the Internet because no one knows who they are.
Online, you can say whatever you want in a public forum without consequences. In real life, you can’t.
There’s a famous New Yorker cartoon that reads, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” Well, no one knows you’re a racist either.
BUT, sometimes the Internet does know if you’re a dog (er, racist). The racist tweets directed at Joel Ward came from people who used their real identities online. That’s why @FanSince09 and his followers—the Twitter Justice League, they’ve semi-jokingly called themselves—were able to expose them so easily.
So why would people put their real names on their Internet racism? Has the anonymity of Internet comment sections conditioned these people to assume that all of the Internet is anonymous?
We asked the person behind @FanSince09 (who wishes to remain anonymous, ironically). And he or she had an interesting response, “Social Media has really changed online privacy, now everything you say has a face to it (unless you specifically go out of your way to avoid that), and nothing goes away.”
The Internet is transitioning to a new era where concealing your identity online is less and less prevalent. You are no longer a “username,” you are a Facebook name, or maybe a Twitter handle.
Will the overt racism that defines the Internet also disappear once anonymity is gone?
Logic suggests it will—that only people who will be racist online are, 1) people who are openly racist in the real world too, and 2) dumb teenagers who are short-sighted and solipsistic.
But on the other hand, it seems almost impossible to imagine a racism-less Internet.
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