Social media is good for a lot of things, mob rule and destroying reputations chief among them writes Michael Brull.
A few days ago, a video of a crying boy in the United States went viral. The 11-year-old boy, Keaton Jones, had been bullied at school, and his mother recorded his tearful reaction. “Why do they bully? What’s the point of it,” he wondered. They poured milk on him, put ham down his clothes, and threw bread at him. He was deeply upset, and the video took off on the internet.
The first reactions on Twitter were of people saying how their hearts went out to Keaton. Then an endless series of GIFs, as people discussed rolling up to the school to confront the bullies. These included GIFs of women smiling and brandishing knives, and GIFs of Negan from Walking Dead walking around with his notorious baseball bat.
Soon celebrities got in on the action. An endless array of big names publicly offered their sympathy and affection to Keaton, and offered various types of meet-ups. Professional footballers said they’d meet up, and their agents announced Keaton’s new bodyguards. A superhero actor invited him to the premiere of his movie, a celebrity actress invited him to be her date to the premiere of the new Pitch Perfect movie. Justin Bieber called Keaton a hero to his over 90 million followers on Instagram. Dana White, the owner of Ultimate Fighting Championship, invited Keaton to UFC headquarters to hang out.
Aside from all the celebrities reaching out, a person who didn’t know the family started a crowd funder to support Keaton. It raised almost $60 000 in a few days.
The mother who filmed her son crying couldn’t have anticipated the enormous reaction to her video. No-one can really predict what will go viral, and the fact that so many things do shouldn’t obscure the fact that the vast majority of things never get any real traction. At the time of writing, her video has been viewed an estimated 20 million times. Tweets and Instagram posts in support of Keaton have been viewed, liked and retweeted millions of times.
The internet is increasingly driven by social media. Anyone who uses it knows that there is an endless stream of things that people mostly ignore. Things that get traction tend to resonate deeply with a wide variety of people. They generally tend to be short and accessible, so that they can reach beyond the obsessives who follow everything on the internet, so that they can be spread by a broader and more discriminating audience.
Momentum is often helped once celebrities start promoting the latest thing to their vast audiences.
Suppose that the mother hadn’t shared a video of her boy crying. Instead, she posted a long peer-reviewed study of bullying, with complex findings. It wouldn’t have found a wide audience. People who watched a 75-second video would not necessarily read a long report.
The video of Keaton didn’t tell anyone anything new about bullying. It didn’t expose any particular new problem, and it’s unclear that any of the public support would have addressed Keaton’s personal issues. Other kids may still have bullied him, regardless of brief shows of affection by celebrities.
His mother may have been able to put the money raised to good use, but it didn’t necessarily have any connection to his happiness. And no-one really knew much about him, why the bullying happened, and what kind of issues were at play in his life and that of his bullies.
People felt emotionally connected to Keaton, because bullying is a common experience in the US, and probably everywhere else on the planet. They saw his pain, and as adults, remembered what it was like. The idea of comforting him, or confronting the bullies, was emotionally cathartic. Yet none of it amounted to any kind of meaningful action.
On social media, the greatest validation is in posts being popular. Controversy works just as well – if someone is beloved, exposing them as bad in some way draws enormous attention.
And so, someone duly trawled through Keaton’s mother’s Facebook, and found images of her with the Confederate flag.
In one photo, Keaton holds the flag of the USA, whilst another child holds the Confederate flag. Mixed Martial Artist Joe Schilling had an exchange with a Kimberly Jones on Instagram. The person who ran the account made a racist comment, and was primarily interested in promoting the crowd-funding campaign, rather than Schilling meeting her son.
Schilling acknowledged the account might be fake, and Kimberly denied Schilling’s account too. Keaton’s sister also denied that the account was her mother’s. It is not clear if Schilling has spoken to her at all. As mentioned, the crowdfunding campaign has no connection to the Jones family.
Keaton himself has come in for internet criticism. A person alleged that Keaton had used racial slurs against his purported bullies. The allegation came in this form: a person, who didn’t know anyone in the family, alleged that another person, who had browsed Kimberly’s social media (but didn’t necessarily know them either) claimed that Keaton repeatedly used racial slurs in school. His bullies had attacked him to make him stop.
It is not clear if this is consistent with Keaton’s account (milk being poured on him, making fun of his nose, incomprehension at why they picked on him). Yet the tweet went viral, with over 30 thousand retweets, and now the internet has turned not just on Kimberly, but also on Keaton himself.
Being bullied in school was one thing. Now Keaton has the experience of tens of thousands of people publicly trashing him on the internet as a racist unworthy of public sympathy. His family’s name has been dragged through the mud. They’re now known as racists who ran a scam fundraiser (which, again, they had and have no connection to). The people who once posted their sympathy for Keaton now post that he and his mother are racists, public support is being withdrawn, and the public will soon move on to the next internet trend.
There are a few points this illustrates. Obviously, nothing was achieved in relation to bullying. It may be that bullying can never be eradicated. If bullying was going to be addressed in Keaton’s case, it would have required addressing the issues of Keaton’s bullies.
It is possible that they were provoked in some way by Keaton. It’s possible that they had their own traumas, and this is how that trauma manifested itself. It’s possible it was just a matter of ugly group dynamics.
Ultimately, sympathy on the internet and celebrity favour wasn’t going to address this, because social media storms aren’t really suited to dealing with complex issues. Social media is primarily suited to destroying a person’s reputation.
If someone is temporarily valorised, there are strong incentives on social media for that person to be exposed. The person who does so will reap social media rewards, and soon the story will be forgotten, other than by the person originally at the centre of the story.
Dragging a person’s name through the mud may sometimes be warranted, and even be valuable. But it mostly doesn’t achieve anything. It provides temporary emotional validation, or catharsis. It doesn’t address systemic issues.
A lot of what we do as ordinary consumers of social media is awful. If we were at a dinner table, and three people were aggressively criticising a person’s opinions, we would instantly recognise the ugly social dynamic, and feel sympathy and want to offer some support to the person being criticised.
When it’s on the internet, we miss the social context and dynamic. We don’t think of ourselves as the 50,000th person criticising a child or his mother. We regard ourselves as passive consumers of the news, like we were reading the newspaper.
We don’t think of ourselves as part of the social context that can ruin people’s lives.
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