Since the killing of Mike Brown and the police violence that followed, I’ve struggled to make sense of what it all means and how things could ever change. I thought about the killing of Trayvon Martin, and if the outrage it sparked made any long term impact. I felt numb watching the video of Kajieme Powell getting gunned down by police just a few days after, and a few miles away from, where Mike Brown was killed. I thought back to Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell and Eric Garner (all killed by police), and read statistics like that white police in the US kill an average of at least two black men a week. I felt sad, angry and frustrated. Then I went on Facebook and was inundated with videos of the #IceBucketChallenge.
A part of me was simply affronted that the current events issue I cared most about wasn’t the primary topic of discussion. But it was more than that. Something about the stark contrast of the protests in Ferguson and the tone of the #IceBucketChallenge rubbed me the wrong way, and stuck with me.
Over the following days this dissonance nagged my brain, and I began to try to dissect what exactly was most bothering me. A few things became clear.
Different People, Different Conversations
The first thing that became apparent was that different groups of people were having different conversations. Certain people predictably spoke out against Mike Browns death, while other people, equally predictably, seemed to be either decidedly ignoring #Ferguson or simply unaware of what was going on.
While there were of course exceptions, the racial divide between these groups was undeniable. The topic of #Ferguson tore through my social circles that included people of people of color. Meanwhile my groups of white friends went about as though nothing had happened.
This reality was extremely heartbreaking. The lack of productiveness among my white friends was unbelievable. I think for many of them there was a calculation that they had nothing to gain from talking about race. Afraid of being called out on their views, or of making other white people feel uncomfortable, I think it was just too easy for my white friends to ignore the issue altogether. They didn’t see the damage their silence and inaction was causing.
I would like to think that at the root of this inaction was an ignorance or unawareness. My white friends were not forced to confront these issues because they were not engaging each other and had little to no meaningful contact with people of color. But isn’t that what the internet and social media is supposed to enable? The ability for ideas to spread across society?
Filtered v. Unfiltered Posts
One strange thing I noticed was that on Twitter, #Ferguson exploded and immediately began trending, while the topic on Facebook didn’t start peculating until much later. It’s true that Twitter has a higher proportion of African American users than Facebook does, so the issues discussed above were definitely at play, but there was something more.
Unlike Twitter, the Facebook newsfeed is curated by behind the scene algorithms (known as ‘edgerank’) that show Facebook users a very limited number of their friends’ posts. It was very clear that, for whatever reason, Facebook was heavily favoring posts of the #IceBucketChallenge over #Ferguson posts, essentially hiding the #Ferguson posts from view. There seem to be several possibilities as to what went on…
First, it’s possible that Facebook recognized #Ferguson posts as ‘downer posts’ and buried them for that reason, as they did an a secret recent experiment.
Second, it’s undeniable that way that #IceBucketChallenge posts often tag numerous other people in them helped those posts proliferate much more efficiently than #Ferguson posts (so no real fault to Facebook there).
Finally, it’s likely that Facebook favored posts on topics from certain influential users, who also happened to be white and not discussing Ferguson. In this case, Facebook was simply mimicking our offline world where a powerful, predominately white group of people, set the agenda for the national discussion.
Whatever the reason, Facebook was re-enforcing a racial divide that makes a discussion about race nearly impossible. It was silencing already disempowered voices trying to draw attention to an important national issue, while magnifying the usual viral, feel-good content, that populates much of the web.
Once I started posting about #Ferguson on Facebook other #Ferguson posts quickly populated my newsfeed. This “filter bubble”, where Facebook users see a customized version of only items that Facebook targets at them, has worried me for a long time but this clear cut example took my concerns to a whole new level. While I won’t place all the blame on the “filter bubble”, the extent to which white Americans are out of touch with the realities of being black in America is truly scary.
The #IceBucketChallenge and #Ferguson have more in common than simply being two competing news items in our current 24 hour news cycle. Both issues involve tragic death. One by a terrible disease, one by unwarranted violence. Both hashtags are a form of activism and awareness raising. One to promote ALS research, and one to shed light on systemic police brutality. However how the two issues were handled couldn’t have been more different.
The #IceBucketChallenge became a fun and social way to feel as though you’re making the world a better place. Meanwhile, #Ferguson became a polarizing third rail that many politicians, celebrities, and leaders remained silent about.
To see white people laughing and patting themselves on the back for doing the #IceBucketChallenge while other’s were mourning another casualty of police violence, was painful. How dare people, in a moment of turmoil and pain, take the opportunity to claim to be selfless and charitable by completely ignoring #Ferguson altogether.
In many ways the #IceBucketChallenge was used as a distraction by the media and others to avoid addressing #Ferguson. I was infuriated that important people in the media would participate in something as light-hearted as the #IceBucketChallenge without ever addressing the immediate and pressing issues around race and justice in #Ferguson.
I’m Not the Only One
Early on I wondered why I was the only one who was so struck by this dichotomy but soon after I saw that many other people were observing the same phenomenon, and were equally frustrated by it. Below are just a few examples.
Below is a tweet from a Washington Post reporter…
— Anup Kaphle (@AnupKaphle) August 18, 2014
Jon Stewart used this observation as the intro to his first Daily Show episode after being on haitus…
Rappers Fabolous and Wale alluded to this in their song “Don’t Shoot”… “Yeah, I seen a lot of ice water tossed, and I know it’s for a cause My only question is, what we doing for the loss of Mike Brown? Cuase right now, I challenge you to use your talents to Speak up…” (2:45) “I’m sure the general population trying to be more active But when the light finally catches you, you ice challenge Okay, and I support the ALS just like the rest of them But you have yet to pay your debt…” (3:38) This tweet is from a contributor to The Economist….
Maybe we need a Tear Gas Challenge to get Facebook interested in Ferguson. — Glenn Fleishman (@GlennF) August 18, 2014
And this tweet comes from the public policy director of Yelp…
My Facebook feed is videos of white folks dumping ice water on themselves while my Twitter feed is videos of black folks getting tear gassed
— Luther Lowe (@lutherlowe) August 18, 2014
Every time I hear people talking about the #IceBucketChallenge I am reminded about what people are not talking, #Ferguson. To me, these two hash tags demonstrate how wide the racial divide in America really is. Whether it is because a “filter bubble” hides important racial issues from the white community, or because white people actively avoid the topic, their silence in this struggle extremely damaging.
The self-congratulatory tone of the of #IceBucketChallenge stands in such stark contrast to the violence in #Ferguson, the side-by-side imagery is jarring. The whole incident seems to be be the perfect microcosm of how the longstanding marginalization of black Americans is neglected while white America congratulates itself on how much they care for one another.
On a positive note, hopefully this example can be used to illustrate to others how their charity and good will can (and should) be channeled to more substantive issues.
This is an awesome project (I’m glad the ALS Association withdrew their trademark applications, or else projects like this could not be done). Finding this really made me happy : )