Wish I could track #SanBernardino on Instagram today, but am tied up conferencing. Here are quick observations as of 0724hrs GMT+11:
Instagrams are 90% screen grabs of Internet and television news reports. Much regramming of bloodied victims, police in action, headlines.
Unlike #PorteOuverte in which users were quick to repost romantic images of Paris from their travels – As if to say “I’ve been there, I know you, I feel you, I share your sorrow.”
Unlike #CharlieHedbo in which pencil and French memes were quick to surface – As if to say “French liberties must be protected, the paper was an institution, we must unite as a profession and as a country.”
Unlike yellow umbrellas and teargas masks quick to surface on #OccupyCentral – As if to say “The reactionary violence is overstated, we are non-violent, we are everyday, we unite in solidarity under a shared vision.”
No iconic landscape, meme, face of victims/attackers, one-liner adage for #SanBernardino yet. Some possible speculations why.
1) Too many shootings annually in the US. Attention fatigue. Compassion fatigue. Unable to mark event as distinct from others.
2) No widely held American icon of romanticism. Maybe the Statue of Liberty? But unsure if this was about freedoms. Any localized landmark in California?
3) Early discourse of events being shaped and disseminated by press. Few vernacular accounts or live citizen-journalism style social media posts.
4) People are going past mourning over loss but rather reacting more towards big picture, systemic issues like gun laws.
When the Paris attacks took place last week, I spent the early hours after the attack archiving the ways in which Instagram was guiding/leading me to (mis)read information. There, I alluded to how platform algorithms were fueling stereotypic sentiment and adding to moral panics.
In his ReTweet of my post, communications and Internet scholar, Tama Leaver, eloquently worded this as how “automated algorithms amplify speculation and accusation on social media”.
Since then, I have been reading article after article in mainstream/popular/social media about how people are reacting to Muslims, how Muslims are reacting to stereotypes, and how media outlets are framing these reactions.
Some of these address stereotypes, some (attempt to) present (themselves as) allies, while others are plainly (ignorant?) microaggressions. Here are some of my thoughts. Screenshots taken from public websites and public/viral posts on Facebook on 20 November 2015, 1000hrs, GMT+10.
Buzzfeed also produced this video of young Muslim people in a talking head video style, finishing the sentence “I”m Muslim, but I’m not ______”. It’s honest, it’s humourous, and also very relatable; I suppose the idea was to push back against the stigma of being (perceived as) a Muslim, fostered by misinformation and fear-mongering.
Post-Paris attacks, some everyday Muslims began sharing their sentiment towards populist discourses on stereotypes. See also the #MuslimsAreNotTerrorists stream on Twitter, as covered by Huffington Post.
A Facebook user from Singapore, Sulaiman Daud, addressed one such “well-meaning” populist discourse, that the attacks/attackers have nothing to do with Islam. In his Facebook post now accumulating over 43,000 shares, he stresses that Muslims will have to confront this “cancer at the heart of Islam”.
A blogger from Singapore, Jeraldine Phneah, catalogued some responses in the comments thread.
A bar manager from Cardiff, UK, posted the following call to not “lay blame at the doors of the innocent just because of what they believe”. His viral post has been picked up by Mirror, Metro, and Daily Mail among others.
On his publicly-accessible Facebook Timeline, Leigh Matthews shares that he has since been facing backlash and receiving death threats, although support has also poured in.
We move from non-Muslim allies to prolific Muslim personalities. Does this non-Muslim/Muslim distinction matter when prolific public personalities lend their support? I think so, although I cannot really articulate this difference right now.
Some prolific Muslim personalities leveraged on their exposure to share messages. In this article, Buzzfeed reports host Waleed Aly giving his two cents.
On his Australian TV programme, The Project, Aly reminds Muslims and non-Muslims to “come together” because he is “pretty sure that right now none of us wants to help these bastards [the attackers]”.
However, some posts confused me. I could not longer differentiate allies from microaggression.
“Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities.”
The headline reads “19 Muslim Australians Who Are Owning It Right Now”, but the text after was perplexing:
“These guys and girls are breaking down barriers one stereotype at a time.”
What “barriers” are these Muslims breaking? What “stereotype” are we imagining? Who is the audience being addressed?
There seems to be an implicit/implied normative “stereotype” that Buzzfeed’s wide readership is assumed to not only understand, but share.
The article featured (semi-)prolific Muslims in Australia, such as:
But all of the people profiled were just ordinary people, doing ordinary things well enough to be exceptional in their field, and who happen to be Muslim.
Reactions from Buzzfeed users on the comments thread pointed out that the article was celebrating Muslims for being “integrated into society”, for “being decent human beings”, for “not killing people”.
And I find this very different from the earlier “I”m Muslim, but I’m not ______” Buzzfeed video.
In that example, Muslims were themselves sharing snippets of the everyday and mundane in a bid to inject ‘normative’ narratives into a populist discourse in which Islamophobia was on the rise.
In this example, prolific Muslims are highlighted for their achievements and juxtaposed against others across the “barrier” or “stereotyped” – however the author intended for us to interpret these.
In it, he shares his and his family’s experience of being Indigenous Australian in Australia.
These paragraphs really spoke to me:
Having grown up in Singapore as a mixed-race person, I identify with this in the ways
1) an honours year classmate found out I was half-Chinese, and exclaimed “no wonder you’re so clever”;
2) I have been poster child for “pseudo-minority student who does well in school”;
3) peers have asked if some of my achievements were attributed to affirmative action.
I’m still trying to work out what distinguishes allies from microaggressions. I’ll sit on it and read a little more. If you have resources and suggestions, can we please chat?
In the mean time, I quite enjoy relating to anecdotes users are sharing on the This Is Everyday Racism Tumblr. It also encourages me to re-think my everyday, subconscious practices when I relate to people.
Unlike these earlier case studies, there has not yet been an iconic symbol, an iconic scene, tributes to the dead, or live images of happenings on the ground.
However, Instagram’s interface update that now offers related hashtags, “Top Posts”, and “Most Recent” posts has changed the ways in which I received information. Screenshots taken from public Instagram hashtag streams on 14 November 2015, 1100hrs, GMT+10.
#ParisShooting was the first hashtag I saw on Twitter. This is what Instagram suggested when I searched the tag.
#ParisShooting and #ParisShootings seemed to present tributes to the victims, with the Effiel Tower emerging as a generic symbol of sentiment (unlike the more specific pencil, rifle, or black ribbon from #CharlieHedbo)
However, #ShootingParis and #ShootingInParis seemed to present photo shoots in Paris.
#ParisAttack was the second hashtag I saw on Twitter. This is what Instagram suggested when I searched the tag.
Here, we begin to see
1) vaguely related selfies + sentiment expressed in the captions
2) Screenshots of world leaders issuing press statements
3) Art of the French flag and French colours
4) And the emergence of a new meme – the peace sign modified to resemble the Effiel Tower.
#ParisMassacre was one of the “Related” hashtags Instagram suggested to me.
However, clicking on these images revealed that the posts were published in January during the #CharlieHedbo shootings.
Also curious is that I have not come across a mainstream news publication/news report that has used the term “massacre” in their coverage.
Here are other hashtags suggested to me by Instagram.
The Top Posts for #Paris and #PrayForParis presented more tribute art and collages.
The Top Posts for #Bataclan (one of the sites of the shootings) and #EaglesOfDeathMetal (the band that was playing in the Bataclan, concert venue at which the shootings occurred) presented some images of tribute and others of concert-goers and the venue pre-shooting.
I cannot decipher the Top Posts for #ParisInFlames or how this is related to the incidents. #ParisOuverte is the least used, and is probably a misnomer for the primary hashtag, #PorteOuverte.
Now, the thing that really annoyed me is that #ISIS was one of the “Related” hashtags Instagram suggested. Well, according to mainstream news reports and chatter on Twitter and Facebook right now (1240hrs GMT+10), we don’t yet know who the attackers are or what their motivations may be. However, anti-Islamic and Islamophobic sentiment is already beginning to emerge by uninformed users on various social media. Instagram’s algorithms are obviously not helping with the situation here.
The primary hashtag for this incident, #PorteOuverte, presents tribute posts. Here we see
1) The Eiffel Tower peace sign emerging as the main meme
2) Pray for Paris, with the Effiel Tower substituting the letter ‘A’
3) The French flag and French colours
4) Images of the Eiffel Tower and Paris city pre-incident
Text posts on #PorteOuverte were mostly screenshots from Twitter, presenting
On 23 March 2015, I published this post cataloging very early social media reactions to the passing of a prominent political figure in Singapore. In my usual fashion, I posted the link to the post on my personal and work Facebook accounts (both private but with the post marked visible to all), and my public Twitter account, where hashtags were omitted.
Then the post went viral in Singapore.
And viral hate started streaming in.
Less than twelve hours later, I decided to get up in the middle of the night to add a lengthy preamble to signpost some things to readers.
In my thesis, I study a group of actors on social media known as ‘commercial bloggers’ in the vernacular, ‘influencer markerters’ in the industry, or ‘social media microcelebrities’ in academia. For this reason, I am no stranger to viral hate, having observed, catalogued, and analyzed developments in real time whenever a spat/controversy/saga/war breaks out. I have also spent time with many of these social media actors in interviews and as a participant observer to learn about their experiences and reflections on being caught up in viral hate.
Being on the other side, however, was a new thing altogether.
I mused to a fellow PhD colleague that I felt like I was acquiring more ethnographic authority to redraft my thesis chapter on blog wars, Tweet wars, and Internet hate. At least I could find productive humour in all of this, right?
More comments started pouring in on all fronts. I took to proofing my social media, and rejected a bunch of friend and follower requests from strangers on various platforms. I am aware and conscientious of my conduct online, and so was not particularly concerned, but wanted to be careful.
I was living in GMT+1, going viral in a GMT+8 timezone. Naturally, some comments stayed in the moderation queue for longer than the commenters might have liked. There were a handful of follow-up comments from users on the same IP address taunting me about having censored them, daring me to publish their comments. When I cleared the queue and approved the backlog, I suspect some of them returned to delete these follow-up taunts.
Whatever comments were left on the post, I published in whole. Apart from one very early response to a personal friend pre-virality, I responded to no one. Watching the mutation of the public discourse in the comments section was intriguing. It was like an organic emergence of publicly-archived social commentary and sentiment in real time.
I started to receive texts, DMs, and PMs from personal friends. They were telling me where they spotted my post being shared and whom they felt the ‘crowd’ was. They told me my post was being shared by the ‘pro-lky’, ‘anti-lky’, ‘pro-govt’ and ‘anti-govt’ all at once. They told me my post was being shared asthe ‘pro-lky’, ‘anti-lky’, ‘pro-govt’ and ‘anti-govt’ all at once. I was being thanked and rebuked for being ‘pro-lky’, ‘anti-lky’, ‘pro-govt’ and ‘anti-govt’ all at once.
One friend congratulated me for being discussed on a popular local forum known for light dissidence and political humour. Another told me to celebrate for having “made it”. Many others told me to “be careful”, that the ISA “will come for you”, that “they are watching”. Media savvy friends told me to document or archive everything. I know my friends were genuinely concerned for me, but it was all very bizarre, especially at 0400hrs in the morning. I didn’t understand what it was that I was meant to be fearing.
There were other friends who were exchanging a whole different set of questions in groupchats on Whatsapp:
“I changed my profile picture. Have you?”
“I wrote my eulogy already. On Facebook. You go and see.”
“Hey when are you posting your lky tribute?”
“omg this one is so good. Mine like so lousy.”
The public policing of grief taking place on my blog was also manifesting in very real and tangible ways in my private life.
On the admin page of my site, the list of search terms leading to my blog revealed a handful of catchphrases that people were taking to mind. But the sharing of my post also began to mutate.
This, for example. The original header image that I used was swapped to an image that appeared later in the post. Decontextualized. That quote listed was also not from me, but from one of the commenters. Wrongly attributed. When put together in this fashion and widely circulated online, it seemed to suggest that I was trying to rally for a specific agenda.
And then I reached a milestone. The first expletive.
Up till then, the hate comments have been a mix bag of amusement, annoyance, frustration, and then terror to me. Reading this one, however, the first senseless, empty, expletive-laden hating, triggered an unusual response in my body. As much as I am embarrassed to admit this, I knew my heart rate was increasing and my body temperature rising. I also hate to say this, but even my hands were beginning to quiver a little.
And I cannot explain or account for this reaction.
I feel no fear. I know my work. I still stand by my work. I understand the agenda of these haters. I understand the current context of public grief policing and mob lynching against anyone who ventures out of the sanctioned hegemonic modes of grieving. But I cannot understand the disconnect between my supposed confidence, my rational thought processes, and the involuntary corporeal reactions my body was displaying.
Then I realized that this person had left his email address behind. I looked at the admin page of my blog and realized many many commenters had their email addresses linked. Some of these were commenters who left vaguely related comments, and included links to their own tributes on their blogs. Publicity on a viral post. I get it. Some were genuinely engaging in a discussion. Which I appreciate. But many email addresses were linked to hate comments as well. Did they forget to log out of some platform on the Internet?
I Googled some of these email addresses out of curiosity. It is surprising how much of a digital trail a hate comment can lead to. Professional websites. Affiliations with religious groups. LinkedIn profiles. CVs on a website seeking jobs. I am not trying to conflate achievement and status with character, or suggest that class and education precludes viral hate. But I suspect many of these haters were unaware of their digital trails, and less conscientious about the protection of their personal data. Even the one person listed as a “digital marketing specialist” at a “digital advertising firm”. The educator in me was so alarmed.
On the flip side, there was some productive discussion that provoked more nuanced thinking. I was also very happy to receive private correspondence from a handful of students and some undergraduates who shared their thoughts with me, and respectfully asked if they could use the material in their classes or dissertations. Some strangers on social media and friends of friends who were educators mentioned that they were using this post in their classes. It was all very encouraging, especially in times where I was being told I “needed healing”, to “come home”, to “try harder”, or to “get a life”.
I don’t feel bitter. But I feel for the Internet haters.
Hate on if you want to. I can’t tell you how to grieve. That is your prerogative. But realize that voices from the Other have their rightful airtime as well. And remember to check your digital trails.