Blame it on the internet

In authoritarian regimes, the demonisation of social media is a transparent play for power.

Turkish prime minister says social media is big trouble for society [AP]

In June 2013, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that Turkey was under threat.

“There is a problem called Twitter right now and you can find every kind of lie there,” he told reporters following days of mass protest in Istanbul. “The thing that is called social media is the biggest trouble for society right now.”

Days later, 25 Twitter users were arrested on charges of inciting demonstrations and spreading propaganda. Officials claimed they used Twitter to organise protests.

“If that’s a crime, then we all did it,” said Ali Engin, an opposition representative.

Social media was not Erdogan’s biggest problem. His biggest problem was that citizens whose lives and nation harmed by his rule, were fighting back, and they had found an effective medium through which to organise and express their protest. Twitter was the problem because its users had identified Erdogan as the problem.

Erdogan is far from the only leader to use “social media” as a stand-in for the people who use it. Repressive regimes ascribe inherent characteristics to the internet as if it were a contact disease. In Azerbaijan, Facebook gives you “mental problems”. In Saudi Arabia, Twitter costs you a spot in the afterlife. In some countries, official denouncement of social media is followed by the arrest of those who use it to criticise officials.

When the powerful condemn the medium of a marginalised messenger, it is the messenger they are truly after. Most recognise that in authoritarian regimes, the demonisation of social media is a transparent play for power. Few who see themselves as advocates for justice support the condemnation of those who use it to fight for their rights.

Most recognise that in authoritarian regimes, the demonisation of social media is a transparent play for power. Few who see themselves as advocates for justice support the condemnation of those who use it to fight for their rights.

That is why it is startling to see social media portrayed in nearly identical rhetoric by those who claim to support social justice.

“Twitter is a poisonous well of bad faith and viciousness,” tweeted Nation columnist Katha Pollitt after engaging in Twitter debate with feminists who disagreed with her views. Pollitt’s comments were followed up by a Nation cover story called “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars”, which described Twitter as a site of “Maoist hazing” and “perpetual psychodrama”.

The article was written by Michelle Goldberg, a journalist, who in December wrote a spirited defense of Justine Sacco, the white PR executive who tweeted a racist joke mocking black Africans dying of AIDS. The antagonists of Goldberg’s “Toxic Twitter” were female activists of colour, although particular wrath was reserved for Mikki Kendall, a prominent black intellectual best known for starting the hashtag #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen to highlight the lack of support for women of colour in the mainstream feminist community. The hashtag was partly inspired by white feminist defence of Hugo Schwyzer, a writer who had attacked women of colour online and confessed to numerous acts of harassment, describing himself as “a breathtakingly cocky fraud” and a “piss-poor feminist”.

Nothing about Schwyzer was in Goldberg’s article. Instead, Goldberg frequently alluded to Kendall’s bad reputation.

“Many consider her a bully, though few want to say so out loud,” she wrote in the pages of a magazine to which over 100,000 people subscribe. No “fear” stopped Goldberg from calling Kendall a “bully” in one of the most prominent publications of the American left. But despite the lengthy profile, she could not name a single case of Kendall bullying anyone.

Target the medium, slander the messenger

It is a tactic reminiscent of dictators facing a challenge to power: Target the medium, slander the messenger, ignore the message.

What is Kendall’s message?

“Feminism as a global movement meant to unite all women has global responsibilities, and – as illustrated by hundreds of tweets – has failed at one of the most basic: It has not been welcoming to all women, or even their communities,” she wrote in the Guardian last August.

Since then, she and other female intellectuals of colour have used Twitter hashtags to draw attention to social issues like poverty, racism, stereotypes, media bias and the sexual exploitation of black girls. They were wildly successful, reaching millions of users who appreciated the opportunity to have their struggles acknowledged and their voices amplified.

As in any discussion of a contentious issue – online or offline – the conversations from hashtag activism are heated. In the view of Goldberg and others, this renders some women “afraid to speak”.

“So glad [Goldberg] wrote about online feminist toxicity in The Nation. So many of us are scared to talk about it,” tweeted feminist writer Jill Filipovic, who, like Goldberg and others cited in the piece, has a mainstream media platform where she can talk about it regularly.

As I have written, the mainstream media is no different than social media in its callousness and cruelty, and in many ways it is worse because of its perceived legitimacy. In the last few months, mainstream authors have bullied a cancer patient, inspired a transgender woman to commit suicide, and argued that violence against black men is justified. The prestige of old media gives bigoted ranting respectability, recusing the author from consequence.

Social media is viewed by gatekeepers as simultaneously worthless and a serious threat. Balancing these opposing views requires a hypocrisy that can be facilitated only by the assurance of power.

Gatekeepers to mainstream feminist venues, like Jezebel founder Anna Holmes, proclaim that tweeting is not really activism. In contrast, the women behind hashtag activism argue that Twitter is one of the few outlets they have in a world that denies them opportunities.

“Twitter hashtags happen because the chances of getting real contact and effective representation from our ‘leaders’ is non-existent,” notes writer and activist Sydette, who tweets as “Black Amazon”. Her statement mirrors those of activists around the world who use Twitter to oppose repressive governments.

Twitter activism among black Americans causes discomfort because it highlights the structural nature of racist oppression in the US as well as the complicity of those who uphold and benefit from it. When US journalists cover Twitter activism in other countries, they portray it as empowering. When marginalised people of colour – people whose own history of oppression in the US is systematically played down – share their plight online, it is recast as aggression, exaggeration and lies. This, too, mirrors the rhetoric used by dictators around the world.

Rhetoric is not the same as action. But it is the disparate nature of repressive foreign dictatorships and the comparatively open media environment of the US that make the similarity in rhetoric so striking.

Does Twitter activism matter?

What does it mean for Twitter activism to “matter”? Four years ago, I wrote about Kyrgyzstan’s use of social media during its 2010 uprising, which was dismissed by foreign commentators as unworthy of note. But it was not social media they were dismissing. Kyrgyzstanis used social media to reach other Kyrgyzstanis, but this focus on their own community made them, to outside commentators, impenetrable and irrelevant. The dismissal of Central Asian social media was in fact a dismissal of Central Asians. Western reception – and approval – was viewed as more important than the relevance of the medium for the community in question.

“There isn’t a neat separation between the online world and a separate place called the ‘real world’,” write activists Mariame Kaba and Andrea Smith in a thoughtful rejoinder to the Nation piece. “In the 21st century, these places are one in the same. As such the concept of ‘Twitter feminism’ strikes us as dismissive and probably a misnomer.”

“Twitter activism” is dismissed because the people who engage in it are dismissed – both online and on the ground in Western countries where few minorities hold positions of power. Media is one form of power, and hashtag feminism is an attempt to challenge the narratives that bolster discriminatory practices.

Hashtag feminism makes visible what was never truly invisible, but what people refuse to see. The simultaneous sharing of personal stories is a revelatory process and a bulwark against gaslighting. Our pain matters, they say, to those who deny their pain ever existed.

In her history “The Warmth of Other Suns“, Pulitzer-prize winning author Isabel Wilkerson describes the migration of African-Americans fleeing the Jim Crow south. She notes that their migration resembled the pattern of those fleeing famine, war, and genocide, despite the fact that African-Americans were moving within their own country. This is not a distant history. The protagonists of Wilkerson’s book lived in our lifetime, and the legacy of racial violence, segregation and exclusion they experienced continues into the present.

It is difficult to confront a complex history. It is painful to acknowledge systematic injustice. It is uncomfortable to hear firsthand accounts that contradict the dominant narrative, or that undermine what many would like to believe.

But it is easy to blame the internet. 

Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.