Technological illiteracy, willful ignorance and hyperbolic outrage are drowning the discussion of real issues writes Oliver Balaam.
Last week, in the wake of the fatal shooting by Smyrna police officers of Nicholas Thomas, an unarmed 23 year old black man, Facebook users were dismayed to discover that the website had blocked one of the earliest reports of the shooting, rendering the story unshareable.
Users quickly took to other networks to condemn what they perceived as censorship of the story. One user tweeted “Mark Zuckerberg: ‘Black Lives Don’t Matter.’” Another lamented that “in some countries Facebook is censored by the government, in ours Facebook censors us. Two sides, same coin.”
Far from the company assisting a police cover up, what actually blocked the article was the network’s automated spam prevention system. The system has certainly had a few growing pains, but it’s ultimately designed to fight against malware and phishing, not activists and news organisations.
This is just one in a long line of misguided outcries against the perceived political biases of automated systems. In 2013 for instance, Amazon was caught up in a row over one of their third party sellers, Solid Gold Bomb, whose t-shirts slogans included “Keep Calm and Hit Her” and “Keep Calm and Rape A Lot”. Again there was outrage, and again it was entirely misguided.
The truth is that the t-shirts never existed at all. Solid Gold Bomb used an algorithm to combine words plucked from a few lists, likely free online dictionaries, to generate their slogans. The slogans were then automatically superimposed over a photo of a blank t-shirt to produce the images displayed on Amazon. Thousands of t-shirts are created in this way every day. Yes it’s the creatively bankrupt equivalent of outsourcing design work to a room full of monkeys with typewriters, but it’s not misogynistic. The problem in this case wasn’t rape culture, but a lack of basic quality control.
I don’t mean to say that there aren’t real issues at the heart of these scandals, but I think it’s important to realise that misinformed hyperbolic outrage does more harm than good to those tirelessly campaigning against these real issues.
Rape culture is a terrifying global epidemic that threatens every woman alive today. Militarisation, corruption and institutional racism are pervasive systematic problems that affect police forces across the United States, and the tragic death of Nicholas Thomas was a result of these problems. There are even valid concerns to be had with Facebook’s monopolistic power to dictate what its 1.4 billion active users see, and what they don’t see, on a daily basis.
Legitimacy is the cost of contrived outrage, so to effectively campaign we must focus on real issues, and attack root causes, not symptoms. To do otherwise is at best unhelpful, and at worse, willfully ignorant posturing that damages the reputation of vitally important campaigns.