Like prison, the overrepresentation of African-Americans among Twitter users is well documented, uncontested. The Washington Post‘s Soraya Nadia McDonald describes “Black Twitter” as a cultural force “replete with inside jokes, slang and rules, centered on the interests of young Blacks online – almost a quarter of all Black Internet users are on Twitter.”
This cyber-cluster of melanin has attracted increasing examination, regular adulation and even fear.
Time magazine, The New York Times, The Root and a cacophony of other publications have spotlighted this corner of the Web. The Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California has a “Black Twitter Project.” And earlier this summer, the Los Angeles Times hired Dexter Thomas, a Black male and California native, to exclusively investigate the happenings of “Black Twitter” and other online communities.
Bestselling author Ta-Nehisi Coates recently lauded the Black Lives Matter movement, which has strategically employed social media to disseminate information and coordinate protests, as a rapid-response infrastructure capable of immediate deployment to address Black priorities.
The 140-character bursts of Black rage prompted some to compare this contingent to a “modern-day lynch mob.” One Twitter user, “Afro Pickin’ Patriot,” tweeted, “Someone mentioned at the [Blogging While Brown Conference] that major brands are afraid of #BlackTwitter… #TheyDontWantToFaceTheWrath.”
White supremacy provides a wealth of opportunities for justified anger.
For many, “Black Twitter” represents a digital congregation to share frustrations and gather sustenance and strategies to combat perpetual anti-Black hostility. The medium facilitates networking around Black interests, and the critical mass of Black users can exponentially amplify issues that would have previously been muted. The names of Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Ferguson, Missouri, are recognized globally, in part, because unrelenting digital activists weaponized hashtags to counter racism.
And their effort has not been confined to the keyboard. “Black Twitter” has a list of achievements that include real world impact.
In the spring of 2015, white MSNBC personalities Mika Brzezinski and Bill Kristol probed the University of Oklahoma kerfuffle, where a busload of white fraternity students sang carols about lynching n*ggers. Barbara Herman, of International Business Times, observed that Brzezinski and Kristol, “Saw it as an opportunity to blame rappers and their use of the N-word in their lyrics for encouraging impressionable white college students to use the same language.” The immediate and global distribution of the Internet allowed the vengeance of “Black Twitter” to retort in live time. The hashtag #RapalbumsThatCausedSlavery drew national attention as it mocked the trope of faulting Black people – rappers specifically – for all wrongs.
The rebuke was so stinging, the re-tweets so numerous, Brzezinski was forced to recalibrate her commentary and assure viewers that the blame rested squarely with the racist fraternity members – not Black rappers.
In her 2014 dissertation on “Black Twitter,” Meredith Clark, an assistant professor at the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, deconstructs Brzezinski’s culturally sensitive revision as a vindication of digital agency, evidence of “Black Twitter’s ability to create discourse that tips the [white dominated] mass media’s agenda-setting function.”
“Black Twitter” was the vanguard of a campaign that successfully thwarted a book deal for one of the jurors who acquitted Trayvon Martin’s killer. The hashtag #TakeItDown was an early and significant component of the zeitgeist that dropped South Carolina’s Confederate battle flag in the aftermath of the Charleston A.M.E. massacre.
In addition to these and other successful offensives, the twittersphere inspired a fresh generation of Black activists whose debut efforts often began with now iconic hashtags like: #ICantBreathe, #BringBackOurGirls, #IfIDieInPoliceCustody.
But there isn’t merely acknowledgement of and interest in “Black Twitter.” Outsiders tiptoe into fetishization.
Barrett Holmes Pitner unpacked this obsession: “The fascination with Black Twitter is a troubling revelation because Black Americans openly engaging in normal conversations within and not apart from a larger community should not be a groundbreaking reality.”
Clark too noted an ostracism of Black tweeters as though our use of 140 characters is categorically different from non-Black tweets. She chronicles how the phrase “Black Twitter” was derived from a 2010 Slate report titled, “How Black People Use Twitter,” and underscores that, “These stories perpetuate the process of framing [Black] Internet users as outcasts.”
Or as Dexter Thomas muses: “zoo animals to be poked and prodded.”
Before joining the L.A. Times, Thomas wrote extensively – and skeptically – about the crosshairs of the white gaze being locked on “Black Twitter.” “Black people are interesting and fun, and writing about them doesn’t really require any knowledge, because people will believe pretty much anything you say about them,” was his undiluted 2014 proclamation. He wryly pondered what course of action would repel white researchers and interlopers.
And enforcement agencies.
Just last week, Freedom of Information documents confirmed the Department of Homeland Security “repeatedly used social media to gather information and watch demonstrations in places like New York City, Philadelphia and Ferguson.” This is a predictable, seamless continuation of former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO surveillance operation, which spied on and obliterated Black freedom fighters for years.
Many of Hoover’s Black victims opposed symptoms of white power, like police terrorism and chronic Black unemployment, which persist today.
Which brings us back to Janet Van Huysee.
Last summer, Twitter’s vice president of diversity and inclusion insisted that the tech titan was “committed to making inclusiveness a cornerstone of our culture.” Just before the 2015 July Fourth festivities, the N.Y. Daily News reported that Twitter’s devotion to “diversity” produced a work environment where “whites and Asians comprise 93.8 percent of Twitter’s workforce, with all other ethnicities represented by only a few dozen employees, if that.”
Yahoo Finance recently estimated Twitter’s value as being a smidgeon under $24 billion, and its 2014 Equal Employment Opportunity report indicates it employs nearly 3,000 people in the States. Fewer than 50 are Black. That’s not even 2 percent of its U.S. workforce.
COINTELPRO victim and former presidential candidate the Rev. Jesse Jackson shared his disappointment over Twitter’s hiring practices with the Guardian earlier this month.
“Some people call it ‘Black Twitter’ because we over-index so much, but they still don’t hire more black people. We are becoming intolerant with these numbers, there’s a big gap between their talk and their implementation.”
Jackson went on to say that Twitter “should set a timetable to make their workforce look like the marketplace.”
Huysee has produced no such timeline, and these disgraceful employment figures have been largely ignored. Thomas has not addressed the matter in his first three columns for the Times, even though his hiring was publicized just days after the release of Twitter’s abysmal employment figures. There was a media blitzkrieg about Thomas’ new role and a rash of interviews. But I’ve yet to find one where Twitter’s lack of Black employees was broached.
The Black Lives Matter collective hosted a conference in Cleveland this past weekend. The goal was to ensure that the groundswell of online and real world energy and participation continues to evolve. Most of these activists understand that the cleverest hashtag is insufficient to vanquish white power.
Probably won’t even get you an interview for employment with Twitter. But it may get you an interview with Homeland Security — though not for a job.
Gus T. Renegade is the host of The C.O.W.S. Talk Radio – a platform designed to dissect and counter racism. He has interviewed and researched authors, filmmakers and scholars from around the globe.