Actually, Charlottesville, Virginia is more like a large town. But over two days in August 2017, that community became the focal point for tens of millions of viewers. What happened over that 48-hour period showed social platforms at their best and at their very worst. It remains an informative case study.
For a number of months prior to that August period, racist supremacist groups had used Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to quietly organize and recruit supporters for an important event that became the Charlottesville riots. Jason Kessler, a white supremacist leader, had been using a Facebook page as a rallying call for months. To be sure, the leaders of the movement attempted to put the best face forward on social media, while they worked away behind the scenes at preparing the evil they were about to inflict. For that dirty work, they chatted on social media platforms like 4Chan, Reddit and a chat application called Discord.
It was a leak from the Discord that revealed what eventually became perhaps Charlottesville’s great tragedy that August. The leaks revealed that white supremacists “fantasized” about the violence they would resort to, including using automobiles to “drive over” those protesting against them. As we now know, that’s exactly what happened. On August 12th, a racist driver plowed into a crowd of anti-racist protestors, seriously injuring many while killing 32-year old Heather Heyer.
All this we already know and is a part of recent history. And we understand that the main organizational forces that turned the racists in a violent mob were digital platforms like Facebook and Twitter. They weren’t the cause of what transpired, but they permitted themselves to be used for such purposes and must bear some of the responsibility.
And then there was the other story of social media in Charlottesville, acting almost in parallel with its more sinister use. Local citizens had been clueing in to the troubling signs that had been emerging in the months prior to August and sought to take action. They met in churches, community rooms, the University of Virginia, in coffee shops and parks and developed plans for opposing the white supremacists and alt-right groups they worried were bent on tearing their community apart. And what online tools did they incorporate for their purpose? Facebook, Twitter and YouTube – the very forces the supremacists were using to inflict their collective damage.
Such is the infuriating power of social media platforms. They can lead to killing and healing, information and fake news, collaborative communities or divisive ones, compassion or hatred, citizen heaven or hell. But the key question we need to ask is this: Did these platforms know their resources were being used to plan for hatred? Of course, they did. Why did they permit it? For years they have talked about fighting against censorship, but that is now beginning to wear thin as the list of such instances mounts with each passing year. Twitter especially relentless turns a deaf ear to true reforms, but in the case of Facebook, it might well be that it is just too big, so mighty and vast, that there is no way to control or limit it. The moves made by both platforms to make changes following Charlottesville were merely cosmetic – life goes on as usual.
So, let’s be clear of what is happening here. In countries that respect the rule of law, have elected governments, respect civil society, claim to be tolerant and progressive, and the filters that were established to deal with hate and racism failed, and miserably so. Facebook could be one of those filters and claims that it main purpose is to bring the world together. But how can that happen when it permits its own platform to espouse and expand hate. There are over ten nations in the world today who totalitarian leaders reach their position of power through the use of Facebook, just as Donald Trump.
Charlottesville is actually a remarkable community and has repeatedly struggled to become more tolerant, even using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to help with that building process. This is what Facebook says it’s good at. Unfortunately, it’s now proven just as practical at combining the forces of hate.
We are in an absurd situation. We demand free speech at the same time as we target and eliminate other voices seeking release from oppression or poverty. We demand equality but tolerate revival meetings of the Ku Klux Clan or hate rallies in a Virginia town.
Ultimately, this isn’t sustainable. The haters or those of compassion are locked in a death struggle and both are using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube as tools in the struggle. Facebook has said it sides with the tolerant and inclusive and then undermines those efforts by permitting their platform to become tainted with vestiges of hate.
Charlottesville is a community with two tales to tell and in each story, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube play background characters who actually set the scene for what happens. They possess the ability to change the plot and affect the outcome towards the good, but they refuse, despite all their professions to reform.
Journalist David Love asked himself recently: “I was going to post something on Facebook until I asked myself why.” It turns out millions of users are in the process of asking the same question. We want a better world – one in which digital tools prove indispensable in that quest. But if those same tools can just as easily permit themselves to be used as agents of evil, then perhaps it’s time we said no thanks. We’ll work with others to build something better, something more like our dreams.