Indianapolis readers of this blog may remember P.E. MacAllister, now deceased. P.E. was a local businessman/philanthropist, the sort of Republican who used to exist “back in the day”–a model citizen who placed good government above partisanship, and when a Democrat was elected Mayor, willingly worked with him on city projects.
P.E. was also a serious biblical scholar, who wrote a book called–if memory serves–The Tongue of the Serpent. It was in his book (which he graciously gifted me) that I encountered the origins of scapegoating.
Evidently, in biblical times, the inhabitants of a village would come together, and one of them would lay hands on the head of a live goat while confessing all the iniquities of the people– all their transgressions, all their sins. They would put those sins on the head of the goat, and send it away into the wilderness.
Where is that goat when you need it…??? Ah, well….
Scapegoating, as we all know, has evolved, with various marginalized folks taking the place of the goat. It now works with other unfortunate practices, especially hate speech and disinformation, and the prevalence and impact of all of those practices has been magnified by social media.
The Brookings Institution has published a report suggesting how concerned folks might deal with these techniques of spreading online racism. The report, titled “Bystander Intervention on Social Media,” stresses the need for online interventions against the “very real threats that can grow out of online abuse,” and identifies four primary discourses for spreading racism online: stereotyping, scapegoating, allegations of reverse racism, and echo chambers.
The researchers wanted to identify effective strategies available to bystanders that might be used to combat hate speech and misinformation online. At a time when many of us feel helpless to counter the mounting threats we face–growing tribalism, the rise of autocracy, climate change, etc. etc.–it’s comforting to be told that there is actually something individuals can do about at least one of the challenges we face–online racism.
We found that people of color are being targeted by organized misinformation efforts using digital technologies. We identified four primary racist discourses that operate on social media: stereotyping, scapegoating, allegations of reverse racism, and echo chambers. For example, Trump’s March 2020 tweet involves scapegoating in that he blames Chinese people and China for the spread of coronavirus in the U.S., thereby absolving his government of responsibility. Addressing racism on social media requires understanding that users who spread racist misinformation do so differently, sometimes compounding multiple forms of racism in just one post.
The researchers identified several techniques for combating online racism, and emphasized that they aren’t equally effective.
For instance, our study reveals that education and evidence-based or content-moderated discourse are prosocial techniques. These reactions to racist posts foster dialogue in the same way that they seek to debunk racist rhetoric. On the other hand, some methods, such as callouts, ridicule, and insults, were antisocial. These methods failed to minimize the hostility amongst users or against persons of color. Therefore, Internet users who want to speak out against online racism must consider the purpose of their interactions. If they want to reduce the presence of racism on social media, they must keep in mind that certain approaches may have the opposite effect.
Effective or not, the use of any intervention tactics was relatively rare. Most users on the platforms analyzed by the researchers simply refrained from intervening in racist conversations entirely. Only around one in every six Twitter conversations and somewhat fewer than 40% of Reddit discussions included any bystander behavior. The authors say that needs to change.
As the article concluded:
“Silence and inaction do nothing but cause biased perpetrator behaviors to proliferate as they feel unquestioned.” This is one of the most important implications from our analysis. Targeted aggressions can have real consequences on a victim’s mental and physical health. When bystanders step in and help to make aggressions visible, disarm the situation, educate the perpetrator, and seek external reinforcement or support, these approaches provide crucial support in preventing some of the most detrimental effects. Understanding the best strategies for online bystander intervention is the first step in targeting aggression online. If we want to see a genuine change in how social media users discuss racism, we must foster a digital culture that values prosocial discourse.
Distasteful as it can be to engage with bigots, we need to take this advice seriously.