When you find people saying awful, vile things online, should you sound the alarm or keep quiet about it?
The incident which brings this question to mind comes from a hockey game last night, in which Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban scored a game-winning goal in double overtime to beat the Boston Bruins in the NHL playoffs. Naturally, that kind of situation whips both fan bases into an emotional state: you have all the tension of sudden-death overtime hockey, Boston and Montreal have been bitter rivals for almost 100 years, and Subban is a brash, sensational player who won the 2013 Norris Trophy as the league’s all-around best defenseman.
Oh, and he’s black, too.
In the sudden rush of tweets capturing the elation and disappointment from the Montreal and Boston faithful, there were, unfortunately, a number of offensive and racist messages posted by fans on Twitter. One young woman shared a picture of a noose with the text “tied something for Subban”, while another published a picture of a gorilla carrying a hockey stick.
I could only look at these and shake my head, wondering how it is that in this age we still have people who not only practice such mindless bigotry, but do so out loud, in the equivalent of a global town square. We’ve seen this type of thing before, of course, and I’m sure we’ll see it again, but I was torn over how I should react. Should I retweet these messages, participating in the widespread ridicule and condemnation of them, or should I avoid casting the spotlight on those who spread hateful, harmful messages, thus giving them a platform for their hate?
On the one hand, I can see the value in outing such filth and declaring in the most public way possible “this is unacceptable behavior”, because it serves as a reinforcement of important social norms. Failing to respond in this manner could be seen as tolerance or even acceptance. Alternatively, one can say that repeating these messages, even while condemning them, provides a broader forum for hateful, divisive speech and emboldens those who sympathize with those sentiments.
When does the reaction go too far?
Reportedly the dreaded “N” word was trending on Twitter in Boston last night, but how much of that was due to actual racist tweets, as opposed to the re-sharing of those messages by those criticizing them? In other words, if you have a few tweets that say [something awful], and thousands of people react by replying to those individuals or retweeting the comment along with their own “can you believe this” commentary, all we see from the outside is that [something awful] is trending in Boston – which may lead to a completely incorrect understanding of the events there. Barstool Sports makes a case that the whole thing has been overblown, and indeed if you do some digging through Twitter search for the various keywords involved here, you’ll see that almost all of the content is critical of racist attitudes. There certainly weren’t legions of bigots sounding off around Boston, like many reports would have you believe.
I’d be interested to get your take on this kind of situation. When you see something abominable posted on Twitter, how do you respond, and have recent events changed your thinking in this regard?