Shaun King’s Ongoing Self-own Convinced Me Not to Delete Facebook and Instagram

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Facebook is a sleazy company being run by sleazy people. That’s become crystal clear. I’ve never been a fan. It was clear to me from the beginning that they’d leverage the data we provided unscrupulously. Our personal information and details of our habits are their most valuable resource. So, why did I join? For the same reason everyone else did. It became the simplest way to keep up with friends and family all over the world. I’ve never been particularly good at maintaining long-distance relationships, so it wasn’t as useful to me as it was to others. Nevertheless, I’ve kept my derelict personal account, because I know those connections are there, should I ever need to reach out.

I don’t remember the last time I posted to my private personal Facebook page. It’s been well over a year, maybe more than two. I have a public page where I share my writing, but I rarely publicize it or solicit followers. My Instagram (which is owned by Facebook) doesn’t have any pictures of me or my life — it’s all graphics sharing my writing. I have only around 100 followers. So, why don’t I just push the button and get rid of it all?

TL;DR: I’m in the receipts game now.

Social media posts are important primary documents. Many prominent people share their points of view with the world on Facebook and Instagram. At this point, the major social media sites are already functioning as historical archives. There’s a reason the rules prescribing the retention of government records apply to official government social media accounts. In addition, people tell on themselves rather comprehensively on these sites. It still surprises me just how much. Sometimes it’s a flash of incredibly poor judgment, where someone lashes out and says something offensive. The resulting dogpiles can be well-deserved, but sometimes they’re just as disgraceful as the original transgression. What’s happening is more subtle than flashes of temper or trolling, though. There’s an element of confession at work. Each time we post on social media we reveal something about ourselves. How someone does and doesn’t use social media can tell you quite a lot about them over time. People’s priorities always reveal themselves. People also reveal quite a lot about their temperament and judgment along the way.

I don’t know how many of you are following what’s happening with Shaun King this week, but it’s been quite a lesson in the archival quality of social media. The receipts are always there. For years, King has been dogged by allegations that he has mismanaged or misappropriated funds raised for Black Lives Matter and related social justice work. Grassroots activists also have a litany of complaints about the way he’s treated them, and several — mostly Black women — allege that he’s stolen their intellectual work. King’s responses to the accusations haven’t provided the transparency his critics would like. It’s unclear what heated things up, but King went on a rampage this week, threatening to sue over tweets he alleges defame his character. The flashpoint was King targeting a young, Black college student and activist named Clarissa Brooks over the content of a tweet she’d deleted, in which she asked about the management of funds King had raised in aid of Cyntoia Brown. King has denied participating in any such fundraising effort.

King has been the victim of some brutal personal attacks. As a result, the disproportionate response King made to a deleted tweet and the vulnerability of his target — a young, queer, Black woman who is a student activist — went over poorly in many circles. Why didn’t he take on someone more powerful? King, who has over one million Twitter followers, tagged Brooks in his tweets about her, and she was predictably inundated with attacks from his followers. I believe King initially took this as a victory and believed Brooks would buckle under the pressure. She didn’t, and things soon took a turn as news of the conflict spread. King’s name trended on Twitter as receipts regarding the allegations about him were pulled and shared. Old Facebook posts and videos, old Twitter threads, old direct messages, and emails detailing King’s alleged transgressions were shared widely. First person accounts from activists who say they were treated poorly by King formed the bedrock of the backlash against him. Instead of protecting his reputation and suppressing information he wanted to keep hidden, in a powerful example of the Streisand Effect, he exposed all the misgivings about him to many more people. He’s inflicted quite a grave wound on himself.

This moment was an explosion. It was foreseeable, though. Those subtle confessions I mentioned, those revelations of temperament? They telegraphed the outcome. I used to follow and retweet King, and even before I learned of the allegations about him, something about the way he used his platform always rubbed me the wrong way. It nearly always seemed like he was doing too much, then like he was doing the most. It all began to look self-promoting, self-aggrandizing and grasping to me, which is why when I came across detailed accounts of issues grassroots activists had with him, I wasn’t surprised, because he’d told on himself. I knew it would all come out in the wash one day. I’m not surprised that he’s punching down now that it is.

I don’t know whether or not King is a true narcissist, but he certainly has behaved like one, and the most important thing to know about narcissists is that the person they lie to the most is themselves. They’re incapable of genuine self-reflection. Every promise to change and do better is a false concession. They’re like recurring decimals, repeating their harmful behavior into perpetuity. There was a scarlet thread running through King’s self-promoting posts that was discernible. That thread was a lit fuse. It was clear to anyone who’d really looked at the way he conducts himself that there was going to be a detonation. I can only hope the people in his blast radius haven’t been hurt too badly this time.

I’ve been seriously considering deleting Facebook and Instagram since late last year and have vacillated about the decision almost daily. What I observed this week helped me make the decision to stay on the sites. Valuable information is hidden in the morass. Useful patterns emerge. People tell you who they are, sometimes most clearly when they’re trying not to. Nevertheless, I understand why people accept the sales pitches that are being made by people like King. I understand why so many people are ignoring all the smoke and refusing to consider that there might be a fire. As I shared on Twitter, it’s incredibly painful to admit that someone you admire and respect may lack a moral center. It’s also a frightening thing to confront. It makes you doubt your instincts. It makes you wonder what else in your life is a lie. The closer you are to the person, the more you believe in them, the more destabilizing the revelation is. King was many people’s conduit into the Black Lives Matter space, and they’ve conflated support for the issues with support for the man. Leadership requires accountability, though. The concerns that have been raised about King are valid and haven’t been pulled out of thin air. Threatening to sue a college student over a deleted tweet isn’t a proper response to them. Transparency is what is required.

King is obviously not the only person who needs to be scrutinized. There are other threads — thin fuses — running through social media that careful observers can trace. I follow them from time to time. It’s difficult to know when the explosions will happen, but they nearly always do. So, I’m staying on Facebook and Instagram (and Twitter), because social media is where the det cord and charges are laid. It’s where the reputational bombs will go off. It’s where the rubble will be sifted through. It’s where the ignored warnings will be rehashed. It’s where people like the activists — mostly Black women — who have been trying to alert us about King for years will gather to say, “You should have listened to us.”