Hey Internet, Quit Outing Kids for Racism

What Women Really Think
Nov. 16 2012 11:35 AM

Hey Internet, Quit Outing Kids for Racism

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Kids think things through while posting to Facebook.

Photo by BAY ISMOYO/AFP/Getty Images

In this week’s bout of Internet shaming, a Tumblr called Hello There, Racists! is collecting the sentiments of bigoted Obama haters. Many are teenagers, and their tweets and Facebook posts appear with their pictures and the names of the cities they live in and the schools they go to.  Scrolling through this collection, I’m so grossed out by the tweets that it’s hard to remember why I think this Tumblr is such a bad idea. OK, right: As my colleague Laura Anderson reminded me in an email thread, “I don’t think strangers should be posting minors’ contact information on the Internet, period.” Internet vigilante-ism at the expense of kids is just a terrible idea, given their youth and the evidence that their brains aren’t fully developed, especially in the impulse-control regions.

I also doubt the public shaming will push these kids to reconsider their views—more like give them more reason for indignation. If you come under attack for something you thought you said privately, however wrong you were about that, wouldn’t you feel anger more than remorse?

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Another colleague, Farhad Manjoo, thinks that other people who read the site and “see the long-term consequences of expressing racist views in public, could be dissuaded.” I wish I thought that’s how it works. My reporting on cyberbullying has persuaded me that the reason kids (and adults) post stupid things semipublicly is that almost every time, no one notices or cares. The chances of being embarrassed are still too remote to register in that nanosecond before people push the send/post/tweet button—even though the consequences are dramatic when you end up as one of the unlucky few with your 15 minutes of Internet infamy. I guess that becomes a little less true every time someone puts up this kind of Tumblr. But the learning process should happen at the expense of the big trolls, like Michael Brutsch. As Emily Yoffe points out, “these sites are pinning kids like butterflies as permanent racists. These idiotic, repulsive remarks will follow them for years and have potential effects on their ability to go to college, to get jobs. We need to tread very lightly with the privacy of minors.”

I’m also not persuaded that Hello There, Racists! is less guilty than Jezebel, which also collected racists tweets after the election, took the step of contacting the principals and superintendents of the kids who wrote them, and then let us know which kids were shamed enough to take down their Twitter accounts or get defensive or go on the attack. It’s true that this Tumblr is using information the kids made available rather than digging around to find their schools and towns. But I just don’t think most teenagers really get how exposed they are on social media sites, and companies like Facebook have made a cold calculation not to remind them—it’s better for their bottom line when kids get habituated to sharing widely. Racist teenagers don’t need the Internet police running them down. They’ve got enough problems.

Emily Bazelon is a Slate senior editor and the Truman Capote Fellow at Yale Law School. She is the author of Sticks and Stones.