In the first 24 hours after the Ferguson grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson in the August killing of teenager Michael Brown, Facebook exploded with more than 11 million posts on the issue.
Though the justice system has acted, for many Americans, a difficult dialogue is just beginning. And nowadays, that dialogue happens not at town hall meetings, but online.
Author and commentator Ibrahim Abdul-Matin confessed to watching the back-and-forth erupt on his own Facebook page days after the grand jury decision was announced.
“I have a lot of white men on my Facebook feed that feel justified in telling black people how to react to murders by police and who also vehemently defend the officers' actions," Abdul-Matin recently told Manoush Zomorodi, host and managing editor of WNYC's New Tech City.
He continued: "On their own pages they have some of the most vile and racist posts and propaganda. I went to school with some of these individuals, and as such, they are part of the tapestry of my life and community. I will not erase them from my feed. If you are my friend and want to know how pervasive the ignorance is amongst white men in this country, I suggest you read some of the things they are posting.”
To engage or unfriend—though it’s not quite Shakespearean, that is the question facing many in the digital age.
“It’s very rare to win an argument on Facebook, and social psychologists know this,” says Zomorodi. “People just sort of buckle down and stay with their point of view.”
Online, conversations about race, police brutality, and the justice system can often float between insensitive and overtly racist.
“This sort of goes to the question of where Facebook fits in to this conversation in general,” says Zomorodi. “Sometimes this is an unwelcomed surprise—we don’t always talk about race with our family members or with people we see everyday. It can sort of come as a shock that Auntie Edna feels a certain way and you have to see her next week at that family dinner.”
Zomorodi says that because these conversations are happening online and not face-to-face, individuals often feel more freedom to push the limits of their dialogue and possibly say things they would never say in person.
“You look for something witty or you want to say something brilliant or smart, you want to say something cutting or the right thing,” Abdul-Matin told Zomorodi. “But then what ends up happening on Facebook is you just kind of vomit—it's an unedited emotional barrage. Spiritual people will tell you that when you’re about to get into an argument, that's when you should stop talking, that's when you should sit down and stop screaming and collect your thoughts and collect your breath. But Facebook just gives you the space to just let it out.”
Even researchers are acknowledging that social media can open the floodgates of heated political rhetoric. Zomorodi spoke with Shannon Rauch, a social psychologist at Benedictine University who studied how people respond to racist messages on Facebook. Rauch sent different messages from a fake white man’s account to a group of white Facebook users.
“They will kind of reject very extreme messages, but when messages are kind of more subtle and more in line with what they would already agree with, they can be pretty powerful,” says Rauch. “Even if they have kind of a racist component to it, if it helps give fuel to their original existing attitudes, they can be very influential.”
Though conversations can become heated, they also can be productive, at least according to DeWitt Campbell, a social service worker with the National Conference for Community and Justice in St. Louis.
“[Campbell] told me that finding and affirming common ground is the only way to move these debates forward,” says Zomorodi. “And the beauty of social media is you can take a break, you can walk away, and you can calm down—unlike at the family dinner table. Don’t respond immediately online, and try to really listen.”
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