The Internet loves an opportunity to feel good about itself almost as much as it loves an opportunity to shame.
It was an Internet fairytale come true. Hurray!
While it’s an example of the Internet’s power to right wrongs through extreme publicity, and broadcast social norms such that other principals will hesitate before punishing a Muslim teen for an engineering project, it also highlights just how rapid and intense virality can be for those at the center of a social media storm.
When stories like Cecil the lion or Rachel Dolezal break, the Internet’s self-righteous masses are quick to pile on shame. Recently, these shows of Web-wide moral superiority have attracted criticism, and for good reason. The Internet shame machine accomplishes little other than to villainize in exchange for a boost in the vocal Internet citizen’s self-worth. The Tweet cycle moves on, but the victim of the shame machine probably doesn’t.
(Just ask Justine Sacco.)
+Commentary: I’d rather not ask Justine, thank you. Her redemption tour and features in leading publications are a PR ploy which as a critique subject would have been time better spent. While again, whether we are using social media to tear-down or uplift, it seems that there is no lack of technology reporters who will use both sides of a coin debate for the ugly side of the internet. A damned-if-you-do or damned-if-you-don’t scenario writ large. Each and every time this becomes an issue they trawl out Justine Sacco, who is doing fine by the way, and has a job. Or Cecil’s Dentist, or insert whomever happens to be experiencing a public relations nightmare at the most recent moment.
They also almost happen to be morality tales embedded in white victims. Now I’m not accusing Kristen V. Brown from Fusion of racism, but there is a deadly but casual white-supremacist and decidedly patriarchal tone to her righteous indignation that supposes a moral superiority in using a hashtag.
The disdain that she feels for any amount of internet fame is apparently only framed in whiteness. This reeks of attention policing of the highest order. Choosing this case shows a rather bankrupt empathy, told as a hottake, which doesn’t use anything specific as its locus except, you know people are bad, high school is hard, attention is corrupting.
Never mind that we live in a world, where the nightly news will fall over itself to ‘report’ on a tweet by a celebrity, or that we live in such a tabloid laden age that capitalizes on just such feel-good stories. In fact, this isn’t new. Your nightly news & the 24-hour newscycle loves a human interest story. A century ago the print media excelled and created the mold for just this kind of reportage. Which is what this is, but it is more than that also. It highlights the very persistent and dangerous propensity for Islamophobia in America.
Where were the Kristen V. Brown’s to report on the dark side of ‘internet fame’ when it came to Sweet Brown or Antoine Dodson? Or any of the internet viral sensations that bring the full force of internet mockery or shame upon an individual? Suddenly these critics are silent. Then while they are laughing and rollicking in the fleeting humor of the world wide web they could care less about the impact on a person’s life. Or is it just the people of color?
Not too long ago, there was a story of redemption that had both sides of the coin but Ms. Brown seemed to ignore that, as armchair critics tend to. The Icing Smiles, Inc Elsa Cake that was roundly mocked and shared. When a narrative behind the cake was revealed, we all felt collectively bad. Yet it also helped generate much interest in, and support for a worthy cause that wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the social media circus. This sort of thing happens daily, if not hourly, on social media platforms.That shows that the power works both ways.
The thought that because something received a great deal of attention, and may not subside soon, is not a bad thing. As the two inserted stories (click the thumbnails) above highlight it can lead to rather wonderful benefits, but what I noticed lacking from this particular ‘think piece’ was the overarching mythological anchoring. Taking a Muslim kid in America, highlighting the stop-and-frisk style profiling and widespread prejudice that goes completely unchecked in this country is powerful. If it wasn’t, then why do a large percentage still believe we have a secret Muslim President?
To reduce that down to an #IStandWithAhmed phenomenon being deployed solely as a “feel good” tactic employed by a slacktivist society is rather a jump. This very same rationale was used in the beginning of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which a year on has achieved such prominence that the mainstream media is now trying to morph that into a bogus war on police and terrorist organization trope.
First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.
Dehumanization tactics in full force effect. Likewise, the above article highlighted why this ‘let’s look at both sides of this’ tactic is simply faux-objectivity laced with inherent biases masquerading as journalism. What is left out is the number of brown kids, those outsiders, those who are bullied and terrorized on the margins, were in some way uplifted by the coverage. Representation matters.
Collectively we all, but most specifically those espousing media critiques while reporting on technology, love to talk about the democratization of the web, or the egalitarian nature of technology. Both utterly fallacious but feel-good tropes. Likewise ignoring the simple truth staring us in the face. Social media is mostly about lurking, and for those most active participants merely a performative space. So to highlight that some shared this as a way of earning some gravitas or brownie points does nothing to highlight how this author used a ‘devil’s advocate’ approach to essentially erase and invalidate all those marginalized kids, some of whom under such pressures may even contemplate suicide, is very problematic. Because the author herself hasn’t experienced being falsely accused by the police of terrorism, nor can she imagine that, along with being placed in handcuffs and traumatized and made a spectacle of, is apparently irrelevant to the inquiry at hand. This is about all those fakers who wanted to have warm & fuzzy feelings. Really?!?
Those who saw themselves (both old & young) in the experiences of this high school student matter. People taking pictures with clocks yesterday and sharing them, saw a visceral familiarity in the plight of Ahmed. Not internet warriors trying to bolster their Klout score via a few taps of the keyboard and an ironic selfie. To deconstruct this down to a Manichean dichotomy is lazy. The school-to-prison pipeline is real, this being emblematic of that, feeds our overwhelming human need for narrative. Of course we strike a self-congratulatory tone when in some small part we’ve made this kid from Texas famous.
Where was a mention of the other kid from Texas, a tiny girl from McKinney attending a pool party? Was her life ruined by the attention it received in the aftermath or by having Megyn Kelly tell a rather vast audience that “The Girl Was No Saint Either.” Has anyone checked in with this victim? No but we still are told to care about a careless tweet by Justine Sacco as being the downfall of Western Culture and internet civility. If you are going to inquire about the ways in which the internet falls over itself to pat its own back, and how this is not necessarily the same thing as actual activism it really helps if you understand how activism works, and what role the internet currently plays in it.
All critiques are not valid, most technology reporters will tell you what part the social media played in #ArabSpring for toppling dictatorships but stop short of saying the #BlackLivesMatter has done anything in this country to bring attention to the lack of justice in our own. They will use any attention paid to even the most minor of incidents by dehumanizing it into a counterfeit display of white guilt or worse. Such displays of white fragility are very real, and it will do anything to protect itself from feeling anything remotely uncomfortable. That is how this story read, like an #AllClocksMatter chorus. Highlighting very reprehensible people (Cecil’s Murderer, Rachel Dolezal & Justine Sacco) as a counter balance to a heart-warming story about a kid who was not just unfairly or reprehensibly treated, but also manhandled and arrested with a clear violation of his civil rights, is ludicrous.
Ahmed is right to sue, to keep such things from ever happening again. When years from now School Administrators are less likely to pursue such draconian tactics this won’t have an easily reported angle to highlight in your human interest story. Or in your think piece about how the world is falling apart and technology makes it easier. In fact, right now all across this country and probably the world, school officials are meeting and discussing the ways to deescalate this sort of situation to keep from becoming a national news story.
That is progress. Yet the only reason this became a situation is because predominantly white kids have gone on murderous rampages in their schools. The hyper-vigilance that created this phenomenon is a byproduct, coupled with the residual effect of a ‘War on Terror’ and entrenched fear of the other. Security Theater 101.
Nowhere highlighted was this counter-point discussion. Or the fact that many people (most of whom are white) probably did some much needed soul searching in the ways their fear will prompt racial profiling. It helps that this kid is an exceptional case, that he had respectable optics. Yet even a can of Diet Coke on an airplane can present a threat if you are wearing a hijab, so why not a self-made clock in a school?
The greatest flaw currently is ‘jounalists’ invocation of “self-righteousness” as a primary reason people would make a story like Ahmed’s viral. It is overly reductive and lacks the many nuanced ways in which people actually use Social Media. Will it reflect both the best and worst impulses of its users, of course. Yet when interrogating the locus our attention should be broader. Yesterday there was many critiques of why this story, rather commonplace occurrence, would take prominence over others of equal value. Emblematic of a particular kind of victim, the kind that gets invitations to Facebook HQ & the White House. Not the bothersome non-saintly kind that was wearing a bikini and had the temerity to voice her concern.
Newsrooms are run by looking at the analytics behind their stories, none probably more than Fusion (unless we count Buzzfeed) and seeing a million tweets employing the hashtag #IStandWithAhmed is enough to trigger an undisciplined analysis that this has to be strictly because it stirs strong emotion. That is either love or fear. No shades of gray inbetween. Got it.
Social Critique of this variety is always more psychologically telling of the author than the culture. A writer says people are too judgmental, while simultaneously passing judgment on the millions who shared the story yesterday. Lack of irony apparently nowhere visible in this hypocrisy. If you doubt the value or validity of such a story, and lump it in with internet swarms (at times depending on level of infrahumanization are called mobs, lynchings, or worse) there is this urge to objectify and a clear denial of subjectivity. Them vs Us.
We the good citizens of the internet who never use our solidarity to exploit it upon a moralizing high horse repudiate all those others who would offer death threats and harassment for kicks and brownie points. This reeks of the moral crusaders of the late 19th Century or the Prohibition, with just a touch of eugenics. That not everyone should have access to this, or if the will of the people is actually heard then it must because they’ve been bamboozled? Mmmkkk.
Yet clearly this story was only concerned with what it deemed impostor activism for a quick shot of an illusory “self-worth” when a quick perusal of the top news story postings on Facebook would reveal that the coverage not only provided support but unabashed racism. It took me no less than three clicks to find anti-Muslim pronouncements by flag-waving patriot profile pictures denouncing this in foul language.and full of false-flag conspiracy theories. That is the reality of this situation. Even while seemingly tons of people showed support, there were a small vocal minority using it to practice open hostility. Which in my mind aligns this finger-wagging article with the rankest of internet comment trolls.
Some years ago when watching TV with racist family members they would chime up about how many blacks were now on their TV, as if it was an affront. To my mind that is not unlike how someone must view an outpouring of support, overwhelming generosity, and the justice of the police dropping charges and think that people who rallied around this kid were somehow doing it to feel good about themselves. Like it was the Affirmative Action program for an internet age that magically erases white guilt.
When people take direct action for cases like these, and recently it happens all the time, they tweet out the number to the school, police station, and they are inundated with calls from people world-wide expressing their outrage. It is no doubt taxing on a those people, but to somehow equate their discomfort for the pain and humiliation caused by being unjustly arrested is heartless.
The connections, the inspiration, the support will all subside. For years to come he may be known as that kid, may get a Ted Talk (click the story above in the first thumbnail) and parlay it into a career. Yet to reduce him completely down to being a Potemkin village of supposed humanity is rather harsh and completely unrealistic. Reducing all the complex components to teen age peer pressure and life-long stigma seem to miss the point. He isn’t somehow a child star in Hollywood of the 80s. TMZ may or may not feature him in a “Where are they now/All Grown Up” segment if they still exist in 10 years.
As long as the internet exists there will be attention policing, this is a rather insidious evolution of the concept where it replaces the suggestion that we focus on something ‘more worthy,’ but that whatever we focus on scorn or support is ultimately a narcissistic ploy. That is wrong, not reflected in reality, and mostly the realm of techonologists or reporters who wish to in some way raise their fragile egos up from the masses of unwashed and uncouth sentimentality.
In fact because of stories like this it is not unlikely that some racist somewhere didn’t go out and harass or target an identifiable Muslim person. Or worse a Sikh, because ignorance and racism make for dangerous bed partners. Backlash after such incidents are as predictable as the Trump supporters who beat a homeless Mexican man. Let’s not focus on that, though. Better we feel bad that we didn’t have the proximity or the power to storm the jail and free Ahmed ourselves.Even if in so doing we may have put our very lives in danger. No, offers from MIT, Mark Zuckerberg & FB, NASA, etc… are doing ‘nothing’ but congratulating ourselves on being human. Apparently this trend to make our lives less empty, because, well I guess technology?!?!
The same internet that can raise $55,000 for potato salad is entitled to make Ahmed Mohamed a star. They are not symptoms of societal ills, nor the decline of Western Civilization. They do not even sociologically speak to our needs to feel good either. Nor psychologically can they divine the heart of the issue. Words and actions: You Matter. We Matter.
Activism, support, rallying around a cause are not trends. They are a facet of the complex human nature that drives us all. Using bogus-science or pop-psychology to inveigh this moment framed as a human failing and ultimately harmful is uncritical thinking. It is revolting in that it illustrates the mental contortionism a white person will go to not feel bad, or if confronted with white supremacy will find a way to blame it all on a brown boy with a clock.