The names and faces of individuals who were part of last weekend’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., are being plastered all over the Internet by civil rights advocates. It’s part of an effort to shame the people who participated. But, it’s a tactic that can also snare some innocent people in its net.
“Yes, You’re Racist” is the name of a Twitter account that’s been very active in posting pictures of white supremacists at the Charlottesville rally. Logan Smith, who runs the account, thinks other people should see the faces of white supremacists.
“They’re not wearing hoods anymore — they’re out in the open,” Smith says. “And if they’re proud to stand with KKK members and neo-Nazis and anti-government militias, then I think the community should know who they are.”
Smith says he didn’t attend the rally, but he’s been getting pictures from activists who were there. They share them through social media. He re-posts them on his Twitter account. And on Twitter people are happy to help him make these individuals even more public.
“Immediately, as soon as I posted those photos people (were) saying ‘Oh! I went to high school with this person. I had a class in college with that person. I recognize this person as a prominent white supremacist in my area.’ ”
After getting more information, Smith would add names and places to the photos and that has had some consequences in the real world.
Cole White, who used to work at a hot dog restaurant in Berkeley, Calif., “voluntarily resigned” on Saturday after his employer confronted him to discuss his participation in the rally.
The father of participant Jeff Tefft felt he needed to post a letter in a local newspaper disavowing his son. Although Pearce Tefft says he and his family are not racists, once his son’s face and name were posted on social media they became the targets of people upset with his son.
David Clinton Wills, a visiting professor at NYU who follows social media, says he’s troubled by the way that anti-racist activists are using Twitter. “Never in my lifetime did I remotely think I would vaguely defend the rights of a possibly very hateful person,” says Wills, who is black and Jewish.
Nonetheless, he says “it scares me to call that activism because it seems more like a certain condemnation and a certain judgement that ironically flies in the face of democracy itself.”
Wills sees a lynch mob mentality on both the left and the right when they try to use social media to shame people.
Just last week, Google was at the center of another social media storm when a memo by a company employee critical of diversity efforts at the company went viral. When Google fired the employee, websites on the right, critical of the company’s actions, released names of Google employees. Those employees were then harassed online.
For Wills the historical parallel is Nazi Germany, in which the Third Reich encouraged citizens to name people they thought were enemies of the state. “When that became a power that your neighbor could execute or your neighbor could use against other people, the power became unchecked,” he says.
Wills says all kinds of people began to get caught up in the dragnet of laws and declarations of enemies. He says social media activists are still very far from the evil that was the Third Reich. But he says people should take a deep breath and think before they press the send button with someone else’s name in the message.
And it’s also important to remember that a picture doesn’t tell the whole story; it can be photoshopped. Someone could have an ax to grind and try to make it look like an individual is a racist.
Smith who runs the “Yes, You’re Racist” Twitter account says he’s willing to risk a mistake to speak out. “Ever since the days of the KKK burning crosses in people’s yards, they depend on people remaining silent,” Smith says. “And no matter the risk, I’m not going away.”
And neither are the people who disagree with Smith. One thing is certain — in the age of social media anyone who wants a soapbox can have one.