Social media mobbing diminishes the quality of public discourse

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 hLeslie Jones compared to Harambeow 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

Jeff Blevins speaking about social media mobbing on Fox 19

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 at the Rio Olympics

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.

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Social media and social justice movements

Social media and social justice movements

By Jeff Blevins

Today, everyone can be a storyteller. Social media and mobile streaming applications have the potential to change the relationship between news media and the public in significant ways, as virtually everyone now has the ability to document and live stream events to a global audience. To say the least, social media has become a primary venue for public commentary about current events, disrupting the gatekeeping power once held by national news outlets.

Social disparity in social media


Harambe, a western lowland gorilla, who was fatally shot to protect a 4-year-old boy who had entered its exhibit at The Cincinnati Zoo. (Jeff McCurry / AP)

In an article I wrote for The Cincinnati Herald, I point out the social disparity expressed in the incident that happened at The Cincinnati Zoo with a child and Harambe, and the incident that happened at Walt Disney World with a child and an alligator. Why was there an uneven expression of empathy towards the parents in both of these cases? What effect does this expression have on our communities and our political infrastructure?

Instant imagery and commentary in police shootings

Social media provided instantaneous imagery and commentary in the most recent police shootings. Diamond Reynolds live-streamed the shooting of her fiancé, Philando Castille, when they were pulled over by police for a broken taillight in Falcon Heights. Videos were posted online when police in Baton Rouge shot Alton Sterling, prompting an investigation from the justice department.

Civil unrest followed the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson in the summer of 2014. As the hashtag #Ferguson trended on Twitter, national and international news outlets followed social media activity in covering the protests, looting and militarized police response.

Sam DuBose

Sam Dubose (Photo courtesy of WCPO)

And in Cincinnati last summer, Sam DuBose, an unarmed black motorist, was shot and killed during a traffic stop by Ray Tensing, a white University of Cincinnati police officer. Local community groups led by @BlackLivesCincy and @theIRATE8 quickly mobilized on social media to decry the incident and confront competing narratives that it was justified.

Studying social media in social justice movements in Cincinnati

As one of The Cincinnati Project scholars, over the course of the upcoming academic year I will examine the role of social media in social justice movements in Cincinnati and share what I learn through a series of commentaries for local news media, conference presentations, and research papers.

A primary goal of this study is to understand how social justice groups and the public use social media to provide a more diverse array of commentary about the meaning and implications of civic activity, as well as assess the quality and clarity of their discourse on social media through qualitative textual analysis. I aim to show how historically marginalized groups have exercised their First Amendment rights in ways we haven’t seen before.

I also hope to discern more specific lessons about the power and utility that social media can play in civil discourse about social justice. I look forward to bringing the results of this study outside the university and sharing them with social justice groups and the public, who may rely on social media platforms as a primary means of expression. Understanding the impact of our social media channels and the power of our voices can improve the informational, communicational, and relational livelihood of everyone in our community.


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