Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Secret Rules: A Primer on Privilege, Oppression, and Social Media

I posted earlier in the semester about NoHomophobes.com, a website that tracks the usage of homophobic and heterosexist content on Twitter. Since the election, similar websites and Tumblr accounts have gained notoriety for tracking racist responses to President Obama's reelection.

Most notably, HelloThereRacists.tumblr.com has blossomed and won several online awards for best new tumblr account. The account tracks racist reactions to the 2012 election and then (somewhat controversially) includes contact information for the authors of the racist content so that tumblr followers can respond directly to the content. Similarly, FloatingSheep.org created a geo-social map of racist tweet locations post-election--finding that Alabama and Mississippi had the greatest density of racist tweets (see map below).

Although the creation of anti-racist accounts are understandable due to the sheer volume and alarming violence
 in some election
 responses, they highlight a broader issue in the evolution of social media and social media campaigns.  Social media exists within a context of systemic privilege and oppression. As governmental and non-profit practitioners, we cannot understand social media presence and engineer meaningful public sector responses/campaigns without understanding the context that creates our social world. Oppression is the systematic (read: macro-level)  discrimination against a class of people and the simultaneous systematic privileging of another class of people (often defined in binary opposition to the oppressed class, i.e. men/women, blacks/whites). US society ignores privilege and oppression and, accordingly, so do public sector social media presence. Geo-social media campaigns offer an excellent example.

Women generally use social media more than men (here's one source but there are many with similar findings); however, men are twice as likely to use geo-social media platforms, such as FourSquare (HERE'S the Pew study).  Why the discrepancy? Oppression (and privilege).

Within a rape culture (created by sexism), the threat of sexual assault is a constant concern for women; accordingly, women are put at increased risk of abuse and assault through social media interactions that disclose their location or activities. Anti-violence against women advocates warn that men who assault women are able to stalk their victims through social media and warn survivors of abuse to closely monitor their activity online. As the Pew study demonstrates, women are much less likely to make public their location through FourSquare and Gowalla (read a good discussion of the gender disparity in geo-social media participation from The Economist here; "The Secret Sexism of Social Media").

But why does it matter? As the Economist journalist writes, social media users operate within a set of "secret rules" dictated by systemic privilege and oppression. Any public sector campaign that operates without acknowledging these secret rules will fail to gain citizen participation and may even work against the campaign's goals.

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