Q&A: Online dialogue on race can help, harm police-community relations

(Photo courtesy of Jessie Daniels.)

By Selena Makrides

Jessie Daniels is a professor of sociology at the City University of New York and a leader of the burgeoning digital sociology movement. Digital sociology is the study of patterned human behavior in the digital realm. Areas of study include almost all digital platforms, like Facebook, Twitter, Google and even online shopping. Unlike other communications studies, digital sociology is primarily concerned with society and human behavior, rather than the tools themselves. Since 2007, Daniels has also contributed to the blog Racism Review, where she discusses the impact of scholarship on racial injustice.

What is the need for digital sociology? Do people behave differently in different spheres?
It’s actually really important to have digital sociology for a couple of reasons. One, I really do believe that society is changing because of these technologies in profound sorts of ways — and really quickly. It used to be sort of a comic question when you’d meet a couple as a conversation starter to say, ‘How’d you meet?’ And that would be a story, right? But I no longer ask that of people because the answer is always, ‘We met online.’ Online dating has really transformed the way people are meeting and coupling and dating and marrying. Coupling and dating and marrying are classic sociological areas of investigation. The fact that we have this really profound shift in the way people are making these choices merits investigation. I guess the other question that goes along with that is, ‘Haven’t people already been doing this?’ Again, there’s been a lack of sociological analysis on these issues. It tends to be more focused on the tool themselves rather than the social behavior.

In the wake of recent violence, like the shooting of Philando Castile and the ambush of police in Dallas, I was wondering if the digital dialogues on race help or hurt the situation?
Rhetoric that used to be mostly available in printed publications is now widely available online. And what does that mean? It means that the ways that people who are the targets of racism, the way they experience racism is changing. And the way that people are perpetrating racism, the tools have changed for them to be able to do that.

This is where it’s really important to talk about standpoints; basically the idea that how you view things depends on where you stand. I think that for some people who before the kind of recent attention on extrajudicial killing of black people, before this attention, they led a pretty comfortable life and never thought about race. I think for them it feels like it’s making things worse.

I think for people who are the subject of this kind of ongoing, routine, systematic abuse, the online dialogue is an opening for the possibility of change. I don’t know that it’s a direct relationship, like we’re going to have more discussion about this online and therefore things will change or be better. I think it opens up the possibility of change. That makes me hopeful.

On the other hand, I was just reading that the person who filmed the murder of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge has been arrested by the police. Digital technology has also come to the attention of those in power and can be used to further oppression. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I think that in the short term it certainly opens the possibility for change but it’s not a certainty that change will go in a liberatory sort of direction.

For me, there’s a misperception. It’s not simply that people are recruited. People go and search for this racist language online or they create it themselves. It’s not like there is a net that catches unsuspecting people. But there are new and really pernicious forms of racism online, which includes things that I call “cloaked” sites. Like martinlutherking(dot)org, which appears to be a tribute site to Dr. King, but is in fact owned by white supremacists. Those things take us into a new area with racist speech because it calls into question all sorts of things, like who are heroes are, what we mean by civil rights and really how we establish knowledge about these things. As more and more of our ancestors who led the fight for civil rights, as they pass away and that lived experience goes into stories online, then there’s a kind of question that arises about, how do you know what you know, how do you know what’s true?

I think the white supremacists online, to all of our detriment, have been very prescient in their thinking about how to undermine civil rights through the web. I think there is this other thing going on, which is maybe even more disturbing, which is the erosion of agreed upon values that we were won in the civil rights movement that are now being called into question through online discussions.

As journalists, what role should we play in these discussions online?
I think there are some really important roles for journalists to play. The kind of journalism that’s been, for example, taking Donald Trump to task is really just crucial to a democratic society. There’s this kind of moment we’re living in where the notion of fair and balanced is kind of what leads journalism, that it’s this view from nowhere. It’s important for journalists to stand on the side of fact-based reality. Which may seem silly or a funny thing to say, but I think it’s really important in a political landscape in which truth and fact are kind of up for debate. That’s a huge and important role for journalists to play.

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