Some Are Troubled By Online Shaming Of Charlottesville Rally Participants

Aug 15, 2017
Originally published on August 15, 2017 4:11 pm

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 has been very active in posting pictures of white supremacists at the Charlottesville march and 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 has been getting pictures from activists who were there. They share them through social media. He reposts 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, leading to 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 about 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. Pearce Tefft says that although 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 New York University who follows social media, says he is 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 judgment 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 altered or 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 is 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.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The photos that have emerged from the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va. are powerful - I mean, sometimes frightening - bodies flying as a car hits a crowd, torch-lit faces twisted with anger. Over the past couple of days, identities are getting attached to those images as social media digests the photos.

And some participants in the march and the violence have lost their jobs as a result of that. NPR's Laura Sydell reports on the ethically murky practice of naming and shaming.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: 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 runs the account.

LOGAN SMITH: They're not wearing hoods anymore. They're out in the open. 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.

SYDELL: Smith says he did not attend the rally. But he's getting pictures from activists who were on the ground through other social media. He reposts them on his Twitter account.

SMITH: Immediately, as soon as I posted those photos, people 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.

SYDELL: Then 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 hotdog 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 had to post a letter in a local newspaper disavowing his son.

Although Pearce Tefft says he and his family are not racists, they've been harassed by people upset with his son. David Clinton Wills is a visiting professor at NYU who follows social media. He's actually a little upset by the way that anti-racist activists are using Twitter.

DAVID CLINTON WILLS: Never in my lifetime did I remotely think I would vaguely defend the rights of a possibly very hateful person.

SYDELL: Wills happens to be black and Jewish.

WILLS: It scares me to call that activism because it seems more like a certain condemnation and a certain judgment that ironically flies in the face of democracy itself.

SYDELL: In fact, Wills sees a lynch mob mentality on both the left and the right when they try to use social media to shame people. Last week, Google was at the center of another social media storm when a memo by a company employee critical of diversity efforts at Google went viral. When Google fired the employee, websites on the right critical of the company's actions released names of Google employees, and they were then harassed online.

For Wills, the historical parallel is Nazi Germany. Wills says the Third Reich encouraged citizens to name people they thought were enemies of the state.

WILLS: When that became a power that your neighbor could execute or your neighbor could use against other people, the power became unchecked.

SYDELL: 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. Still, he feels maybe people should take a moment to think before they press the send button with someone else's name in the message. For example, it's possible that the pictures don't tell the whole story.

They can be Photoshopped. Perhaps someone has an axe to grind and wants to make it look like someone is a racist. Smith, who runs the Yes, You're Racist Twitter account says he's willing to risk a mistake to speak out.

SMITH: Ever since the days of the KKK burning crosses in people's yard, they depend on people remaining silent. And no matter the risk, I'm not going away.

SYDELL: 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. Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.