ABC News

Miss America, bigot shaming, and the media’s vile attraction to the worst in America

Miss America, bigot shaming, and the media’s vile attraction to the worst in America

This doesn’t really have anything to do with video games, but I hope you’re going to stick with me anyway. This issue is getting a little crazy, and it’s starting to drive me crazy too.

The first Indian Miss America was crowned recently, which is pretty great. America is a diverse place, and many people celebrated this, although it’s kind of weird that we’re looking to beauty pageants for evidence of American diversity. One step forward, one step back, I guess.

Buzzfeed published a story made up entirely of racist things people said about the new Miss America. That was the entirety of the news, in fact. That there are racist people out there, and they say racist things. Shaming racists by name, on social media, has become big business. I'm not going to link these stories, but you can find them easily. They feature the most explosive tweets, links to each person's Twitter account, and the idea that something needs to be done.

Why this is a problem

Racist tweets are a search away, they’re always going to happen after most big events, and you get big clicks from people who like to see how terrible their fellow citizens are and then they get to feel superior for not being racist.

It’s not hard to find people who think the election of a mixed-race President or an Indian Miss America are great, or don’t care, or already live in mixed-race families and celebrate this sort of news, but you don’t get people to click on stories that point out the literally changing face of America. But people who post intolerance, or call Obama a racial slur? That’s viral gold, my friend.

And their names are right there, you can take action and become a vigilante! Call their work, send a nasty message, FIGHT BACK!

So why is this bad? First off, because we’re raising up the voices of a crazy group of people and giving them way more power than they deserve, and thus give the illusion that America is filled with vile racism.

It may be that's the reality. It may not. Tracking how Americans, as if it was even possible to lump a country into one homogenous group, feel about those of different ethnicities, backgrounds, and skin tones is damned near impossible, and doing a quick search for racist terms isn’t going to teach you anything about what the average American thinks, or how they act.

This is the journalistic equivalent of me going to your house, heading into the basement, grabbing a handful of shit from your cat’s litter box, and claiming that since it was so easy for me to find excrement, your kids are assholes. Finding people who say vile things online is easy, it doesn’t tell us much of anything, and if we continually focus on those groups of people they'll begin to dominate the conversation and give a skewed outlook on how the United States actually deals with race.

“This creates that proverbial echo chamber. A bunch of people post the BuzzFeed story to their Facebook feed, then pretty soon the morning TV shows and cable-news folks want to talk about the crazy, racist reaction that some people are having in the Twitterverse,” Poynter explained in a recent story. “Then more people share links to those stories. And even more journalists do pieces on that reaction.”

This is about business, and it’s easier to get people worked up about negative things than positive. We’ll click to rubberneck at racists way more often than we’ll read messages of support, and of course in these stories you can see these people’s real names and Twitter accounts, so you get the bonus of being able to take direct action and harass them or shame them yourself. In almost all cases the Twitter accounts are quickly shut down and made private due to this issue, in fact.

There is also the case that in many situations the names on the accounts don’t match up with the person doing the posting, and the video embedded below gives you some good information about why this is so problematic on so many levels.

Which isn’t to say hate speech should be given a pass, and it’s important to talk about it when it happens. You can quote these tweets without posting links to the accounts writing the content, which will go a long way to stop the spread of fighting racism with harassment, and should keep minors and those whose numbers were used to sign up for the account safer from the Internet mob.

We can then use the racist tweets as a jumping-off point to discuss how to actually stop the thinking behind these messages, instead of going straight to calling the perpetrators terrible names and trying to get them fired, or worse.

Perpetuating the idea that some groups are at war with Americans who don't share their values isn't helping anyone, and that's the message sent when we fight fire with fire. It just escalates the sense of distrust, hatred, and fear. We may feel like we're throwing water on the fire, but if you look closely you'll see that it's actually gasoline.

The trend of scraping at the bottom of the social media barrel in order to manufacture outrage and mobilize the Internet lynch mob is gross on just about every possible level, and I don’t want this story to sound like an apology for people saying gross things on Twitter or Facebook.

In fact, let’s say I post something on Twitter that you find insensitive, and you want to write about it. You should do so, and that goes for the Twitter account of most people who face the public. If a developer is gross online, and you know for sure it’s a legit account, there is nothing wrong with spreading the message, reacting to it, or calling attention to it.

As a writer I would hope you would reach out to them for clarification or just a quote about their thinking, but tweets are public statements. They’re fair game for news, and I'm a public person speaking under my own name. This is part of the reason why I use my real name on social networking sites, it's very literally my livelihood, and I want to stand behind what I say and be held responsible for them. You can talk to companies and ask them not to support me if you don't like me, or e-mail my employer to get me fired. I'm a public person. It goes with the territory.

This is a very different situation than someone who had 50 followers a year ago suddenly having their message blasted in front of a few million people, and suddenly finding themselves the target of abuse and harassment. I don't really care if they have ignorant feelings on race, the answer is not putting people in a situation where they face very real physical harm.

Indiscriminately publishing hateful tweets, the accounts of the people who supposedly wrote them, and then collecting a group as some sort of evidence for how terrible people are is bullshit tabloid writing, even though it’s effective at getting people to click, get upset, and then write nasty messages back.

It’s not only elevating hate to a wider audience, it’s encouraging social media to become a more aggressive, confrontational place as your audience begins sending harassing messages to the people quoted. It seems to give implicit permission to the readers to reach out to these people and do something back.

These stories don’t help anyone, they don’t spread awareness of any important issue, and the chances for collateral damage are high. There are ways to react to racist use of social media without feeding into the negative, hateful worst instincts of the Internet, but it takes more time and effort to do so, and that doesn’t really lead to advertisement buys, so it’s unlikely that a more measured approach will become popular.

I want to leave you with this quote, from another story about Miss America.

When I was a little girl, I’d often watch The Miss America or Miss USA Pageant with my family.  My parents had amusing commentary, usually along the lines of, “Lynn could do that” and I would dismiss them, knowing someone who looked like me would never be accepted in a world dominated by blonde-haired, blue-eyed women.

Tonight, not only was Nina Davuluri the first contestant of Indian Heritage to be crowned, but her runner-up was also Asian-American, Miss California/Crystal Lee. 

There is a nasty, disgusting side to American racial politics that is easy to find with a Google search, but Nina Davuluri also means something to a great deal of Americans who don’t look like the average winner of a beauty pageant.

Focusing on the people who have a problem with that, and making sure their message dominates the conversation, hurts everyone.