Ignorance alive and well on social media


By Boswell Hutson

This week, social media played one of the most important and illuminating roles in current events thus far. Facebook and Twitter exploded after news that the grand jury of the Ferguson, Missouri case ruled not to indict a police officer after shooting an unarmed 18 year old, Michael Brown.

Though it is certainly arguable to infinite ends now that the case evidence has been released (and seemingly everyone is an expert), the decision of the grand jury in Missouri not to take this case to trial is final. The 12 members of the jury spent time looking at evidence more thoroughly than I will ever be able to, and thus this column is not going to try to examine evidence to prove a point contrary to what the jury decided.

Of course, the news channels flocked to cover Ferguson like it was a war zone or pre-game at the Super Bowl, and the population followed suit, taking strident stances on starkly opposing ideological sides. Another unarmed black man was shot and killed by the police, and in a city that is already the sixth most segregated city in the United States, racial tensions started to explode.

In the inevitable firestorm of political commentary that followed the verdict announcement, I learned that there is a sadly sizeable portion of my Facebook acquaintances who apparently have no memory of the Civil Rights era, and one Facebook friend even stated that the police should turn the water cannons on the protestors in Ferguson — a clear reference to brutal police tactics used in Birmingham, Alabama during the Civil Rights movement.

That comment got eight “likes” on Facebook.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Think about that for a second — this is a tactic that was employed by cruel police chiefs to oppress African-Americans’ political advancement in the 1960s and upon its invocation in a modern context, it was “liked” by this particular Facebook audience more than it was opposed. I don’t know if the person who posted this comment (and those who subsequently supported it) never paid attention in any history class after second grade, or if they just live in a literal bubble, but either way, this is one of many obscene instances that occurred following the verdict announcement played on the field of social media.

Posting something like this to Facebook or Twitter, with no inkling of historical context or prior research, is almost unthinkable. All students see idiotic opinions posted to Facebook every day, but when it gets racial, I’ve realized that maybe Facebook and Twitter are an outlet to be used sparingly when it comes to large, controversial issues.

Too many people say blatantly inaccurate and provocative things across these mediums — and too often, it’s considered a source of news.

What one can gather from the reaction, however, is that we (myself included) are quick to form opinions or leave comments about things we haven’t really had the chance to examine. I believe wholeheartedly in the idea that we should all be able to post whatever we want to our own personal forums — I like to write, and Facebook and Twitter provide an instant outlet for that.

After this week, though, when I found out through social media that many of my friends can’t even admit that white privilege exists or understand basic important aspects of history from 50 years ago, perhaps the instantaneous nature of these sites does more harm than it does good.

However, many of our social media behaviors are indicative of an underlying problem — racial tensions in America still absolutely exist, and we are far from a post-racial society.

If we don’t recognize our problem, there’s no way we can fix it, and thus, if you posted to Facebook suggesting that police turn water cannons on protestors, you are part of the problem. If you are someone who posted to Facebook perpetuating this ignorance by referring to all protestors, peaceful or not, as “thugs” or “pieces of trash” (as I saw from two separate friends), you, too, are a part of the problem.

If you deny that there is a problem, you’re part of the problem.

If social media’s response to Ferguson has taught me one thing, it’s that what’s really important isn’t debating about the specifics of a case none of us will probably fully understand (especially when the details are a little fuzzy), but, rather, admitting and focusing on fixing broader, more systemic problems that Ferguson has illuminated.

We need changes that address police brutality, militarism and transparency alike, but by unfortunate coincidence, these larger problems often times get obscured, no matter how badly we need them, and social media is often not of any help.

Boswell is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected].