(Mis)adventures in context collapse: A personal reflection on discussing #BlackLivesMatter on Facebook
We’re living in scary times. Terrorism in Europe. Rape on college campuses. Police violence in the U.S. Cop-killing in Canada. The most polarizing U.S. election in my lifetime. And that’s barely scratching the surface.
We’re also living in polarized times. Our lived experiences and scientific research tell us that we live in media echo chambers, surrounded by points of view we already agree with. We post, share and like in violent agreement with our friends without actually hearing, much less listening to, other points of view. The public sphere has imploded, and some days it feels like we’ve collectively given up on civil discourse.
We’re living in times where you can share a thought before you’ve fully thought it through, zing it out around the world on social media and belatedly realize you stepped in it. That you should have contextualized *why* you shared someone else’s thought without providing your own. That a like would have been sufficient. That just because you read a thing and thought it was interesting, doesn’t mean you have to share it. That being tired and multitasking is never a great plan, especially not when Facebook and violence are involved.
Last Friday I stepped in it a bit. I started the day ok, with a short post expressing what the slogan #BlackLivesMatter means to me, why it matters when white people affirm it, and how it all relates to human rights. So far, so good. It felt good to see the likes and supportive comments roll in.
But then I hit “share” on a few memes and posts from other people without contextualizing whether I agreed with every word choice, or if I was sharing them as “food for thought,” or what. I shared before I thought. That was dumb. It was human, but it was also pretty dumb.
I forgot that my 892 Facebook friends don’t share the same cultural understanding of the world, that they exist in very different contexts where the same meme means very different things. Some of that may be due to the echo chambers I mentioned earlier, but mostly it’s because I’m lucky to have a very diverse groups of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. I have friends with high school educations and PhDs. Atheists, Muslims, Christians and Jews. People who only use Facebook for selfies and cat memes, and people who use it for political commentary and debate. Black parents who fear their sons might get shot by a cop, a self-appointed vigilante or some dude with a gun who hates hip hop. Members of the military and law enforcement who put their lives on the line to serve their countries and communities. Their loved ones who know the toll that service takes, and who fear the man or woman they love might not come home one day.
My forgetting all this is all the more inexcusable because I (should) know better. I’ve spent my life bouncing around countries, contexts and cultures. I have degrees in communication, of both the international and regular variety. I’ve read the work by danah boyd, Alice Marwick, Michael Wesch, and others on context collapse online — the discomfort that comes with interacting with your parents, your boss, your drinking buddies, and that one kid from high school who grew up be a Trump voter on the same platform. I thought I had a plan to manage it, using Facebook’s granular privacy settings like only someone who reads privacy policies for a living would do (it’s a weird line of work I’m in, I know).
Facebook recently announced changes to the News Feed algorithm prioritizing personal Facebook content like selfies, vacation photos, and pet videos over news. At first it seemed to me like a cop-out, a way to avoid the hard work of getting it right when it comes to censorship, appearance of political bias, etc. I mostly use Facebook for reading recommendations from my friends who are interested in the same issues I am, or who know way more than I do about things that I want to learn more about. Issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and the context of systemic racism that surrounds it. For that, I appreciate political discourse on Facebook.
On the other hand, if Facebook were only for cuteness and pop culture, maybe the echo chambers would be just a little more permeable. Maybe there would be less armchair punditry (including my own) and we could have more thoughtful, nuanced conversations using a common set of facts as evidence. On that Facebook maybe I wouldn’t feel like I need a publicist to stop me from sticking my foot in my mouth. There could even be an alternate reality where I’d never have conversations involving the terms “personal brand,” “thought leader” or “public intellectual.” Maybe. But for that we’d have to get rid of cable news, too, and more.
Granted, no one is making me post political content to Facebook. Certainly lots of people have strict “no politics on social media” rules for themselves. I respect that. The problem is that not only am I an opinionated loudmouth (if the past is any indication, that seems unlikely to change), I’m also a scholar and activist focusing on human rights and the Internet. One of the great joys of my life is having intellectual discussions with my colleagues. Because they’re spread around the planet, these conversations happen on Facebook. This is a point I want to stress: for many of my friends and colleagues, this is what Facebook is for, the main reason we open that damn mobile app far too many times a day.
Now I get to why I felt compelled to share a barrage of “Black Lives Matter” posts and memes, including a few that I didn’t fully agree with every word. For months now, some of the recurring themes of the political discussions my friends have on Facebook have been the importance of the privileged (that means me) extending comfort to the oppressed and the threatened in their times of need, amplifying the voices of those who are silenced, and stressing that it is not the job of the oppressed to comfort those among the privileged who can’t stand being confronted by their privilege. Generally speaking, I try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. One eloquent post that I read (but did not share) offered this exhortation to reshare content from black voices:
But I hope you do say something, even if it’s just a share (often, amplifying black voices is better than adding your own, so it’s win-win), and if you still don’t want to, I just want to make sure that you understand that it’s not about changing anything. It’s not about presuming you have power or influence in some grandstanding way that people will roll their eyes at (even if they do, and some of them will). It’s not about thinking you’re important or that people are listening to you. It’s about simply showing up for these people and making them feel less unheard and less alone.
I think that’s on point, and that was the guiding thought in my mind on Friday as I shared and re-posted words written by others. I stand by that sentiment. Many white people in the U.S., and many people of all backgrounds outside of the U.S., don’t seem to be acknowledging that the feelings of fear and outrage driving the Black Lives Matter movement are rooted in reality. White Americans don’t see this first hand, as John Scalzi illustrates, just as men don’t experience sexual harassment and rape culture the way women do. That’s why we need to listen to what Americans of color have to say, even when it’s uncomfortable, especially when we don’t agree with every word. For many white Americans, talking about race is extremely difficult, just as talking about gender is extremely difficult for many men. But if we can’t have those conversations with our friends and families, how are we going to have them in the broader society? And we must. That is the real, hard work of politics at its best. We’ve had far too much of politics at its abject worst lately.
These conversations are difficult for everyone, including for me. To me, that highlights that we must have them. I’ve been very gratified the past 24 hours by the private conversations I’ve had with friends and family. Conversations that started in a place of mutual incomprehension, but ultimately left all parties involved (I think) feeling heard and valued, and having learned something important. I wouldn’t have had those conversations if they hadn’t started on Facebook.
So I’ll continue having hard conversations online, including on Facebook. I can’t promise I’ll always get everything right, but I promise that I’ll try. Since amid all the horror of last week, the world also lost Elie Wiesel, I’ll give him the last word:
We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.