There once was a time when an editor, an institution, and a financial incentive stood between any would-be pundit and publication. Then came the internet which, for better or for worse, removed each of those barriers, allowing for the rise of the blogosphere as a powerful engine of opinion and news analysis. One consequence of this shift has been the democratization of the press: Where there used to be few voices, now there are many. Another effect, however, has been the proliferation of a whole lot of extremist, hateful, and just plain bad writing. Indeed, the internet has provided a forum to more than a few degenerates with journalistic aspirations.
The latest chapter in the saga of media democratization is Twitter’s rise as one of the world’s most prolific source of ostensibly “published” content. Twitter is unique in that it “publishes” even those individuals who had no particular intention, desire or reason to have their writing viewed by anybody but their friends. Yet new internet news sites like Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post—which scour Twitter for the latest eye-popping trends—have elevated the tweets of no-name wackos to the status of news. The result of this new genre of Twitter-based reporting is that every few weeks we are inundated with stories about the depravity of society, as exposed by a few dozen reprehensible tweets.
Recently, two Twitter incidents have made headlines. First, a dozen or so disgustingly racist tweets about “The Hunger Games” caught the attention of Jezebel, the Huffington Post, Buzzfeed, and even The Week. Then, just a few weeks later, several dozen repulsive, hateful, and equally racist tweets about a Boston Bruins hockey game were reported on by the Huffington Post, Sports Illustrated, and even the Washington Post. This has had the simultaneous effect of, on the one hand, sensibly reminding us of what lingering racism still lurks on the fringes of society, and, on the other, making those fringes appear much larger than they really are.
When people see such tweets reposted on news sites, they are, appropriately, shocked and appalled at the unbridled racism that still exists in our society. It is absolutely true that we too frequently forget about the hateful element that lives among us. And while the internet has long been home to such vitriol, it is usually delivered under the cloak of anonymity. There is, no doubt, something particularly shocking about reading a racist tweet posted under someone’s real name on Twitter. However, when Buzzfeed publishes a story about “10 Incredibly Racist Hunger Games Fans,” it gives readers an outsize picture of the amount of racist garbage on the internet. Surely, each of those tweets is repugnant, and we should be constantly working to eliminate such sentiments from our community—but 10 people does not a degenerate society make. The heavy reporting of such tweets gives people the false perception that racism in America is actually getting worse, when in actuality it is just being uncloaked.
The other recent incident in which two dozen Boston sports fans unleashed a barrage of racist tweets directed at the Washington Capitols’ Joel L. Ward following his winning goal against the Boston Bruins is a bit more concerning. The website Blacksportsonline.com found 18 repulsive tweets containing the n-word. The number of Boston sports fans, while big, is considerably smaller than the pool of people who saw the Hunger Games, which suggests that this incident calls to light a deeper phenomenon. Indeed, this should be taken as a serious reminder that Boston and Boston sports culture have a dangerous history of racism which occasionally still rears its head. That said, as someone who’s spent his whole life in and around Boston, I didn’t need the Washington Post to remind me that there are at least a few dozen racists who still watch the B’s.
There are certainly some upsides to this over-reporting of tweets. For one, it forced the Bruins to issue a statement condemning racism among their fans—a step which was long overdue. Second, it is valuable to be ever-vigilant against the racist and hateful streak in our society, no matter small it may be. However, we must be careful not to interpret this new insight into the musings of racists as a sign that racism is increasing in America, or that the progress of the last fifty years has been for naught. Our society is not, nor should it ever be, defined by a few dozen tweets.
Michael F. Cotter ’14, a Crimson editorial executive, is a history concentrator in Winthrop House.