Social media mobbing diminishes the quality of public discourse

By Jeff Blevins

In July, I wrote about social disparity and social media, using an example of how groups of people flocked online to attack The Cincinnati Zoo when it killed Harambe, a silverback gorilla, to save the life of a young boy who fell into its exhibit.   Commenters were especially vitriolic towards the African American mother of the boy, who was blamed for not properly looking after her children. Later that month, Saturday Night Live comedian and Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones was asking Twitter to intervene and act against the many people who were sending her insulting and racial tweets, including the one shown on the right comparing her to Harambe.

Not too long after this, both Leslie Jones and The Cincinnati Zoo shut down their Twitter accounts, at least temporarily defeated by the social media mobs.

Social media mobbing

The phenomenon known as social media mobbing occurs when a group of people converges on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms around an issue that they are angry about, or a person that offends them. The mob relentlessly trolls that person, or dominates discussion of the issue with a barrage of insults, arguments and memes. Meanwhile, the voices in favor of more respectful public dialogue on social media may tend to spiral into silence for fear of being mobbed.

Social media outlets should consider community standards

In an interview with Kara Sewell on Fox 19 Cincinnati’s morning news program, I join many others to call into the question the quality of public discourse taking place in certain venues on social media. Since there are no universally accepted community standards online, social media outlets should consider more carefully how they want to define and enforce standards for their own platform. If they do not prioritize this issue at least for moral and ethical reasons, then they should do so for their own profitability and long-term reputation.

“Most mobbing targets are successful women of color”

In the Leslie Jones case, Twitter eventually banned the mob leader from using its service. But, that is just one high profile incident; what happens to those with less public influence when they report mobbing? In an interview for NBCNews on August 26, Debjani Roy, the deputy director of Hollaback, a nonprofit committed to ending harassment in public places and the organization behind Heartmob, said, More often than not the targets are successful women of color because these harassers and abusers don’t believe in our full and equal humanity. This is a deeper problem, and the various expressions of it online are repugnant. These people who are doing this are not trolls, they’re harassers, abusers and in the case of rape and death threats, criminals.”

Gabby Douglas, in an interview with Rachel McRady and ET about the social media mobbing she experience on Twitter during the Rio Olympics, “I tried to stay off the Internet because there’s just so much negativity,” she said. “Either it was about my hair or my hand not over my heart [on the medal podium] or I look depressed. … It was hurtful. It was hurtful. It was. It’s been kind of a lot to deal with.”

We have the power to maintain positivity in public dialogue

As one of The Cincinnati Project Scholars this year, I will continue to study the role that social media plays in public dialogue about social justice related issues. Social media can play a meaningful role in empowering everyone in our community. Like those who supported Leslie Jones by the creation and use of #LoveForLeslieJ, we have the power to push back against the crude and harassing posts with words (and images) of encouragement and support.

Social media mobbing diminishes the quality of public discourse
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