Videos, Blackouts, and the Times: A Roundtable Discussion on a Chaotic Week in Social Media

How many New York Times staffers responded to the publication of Tom Cotton’s op-ed. Photo: Twitter

In another week of protests against police brutality, social media has become a prism of the anger, activism, and allyship being expressed nationwide: there was the now-infamous blackout on Tuesday, performative displays of support from corporations, and the ongoing video documentation of police violence against protesters. On Twitter, we’ve also already begun to see the deeper cultural effects, as people of color publicly call out their employers and colleagues in ways that were once expressed through frustrated subtweets. As new rules emerge and people test the bounds of what’s acceptable online, Vulture’s Craig Jenkins, E. Alex Jung, and Dee Lockett gathered for a virtual roundtable to digest it all.

Gazelle Emami: To start us off, I’m curious how you all use social media as a source for news as opposed to mainstream broadcast outlets. Do you look to Twitter to find out what is actually happening on the streets? How much do you trust what you see?

Craig Jenkins: Twitter’s like a river. There’s good stuff in there as long as you’re willing to get a little muddy and wade in and sift. I don’t trust everything, which is why it’s important to have places that filter, although that takes time. There’s different approaches to filtering, too. Sometimes you get Dasani, you know?

GE: How do you filter?

CJ: Filtering for me means cherry-picking the right news publications and stations, or else double and triple checking information that comes in hot online. The night this week when people were saying a 13-year-old had been shot sticks out as an example of the value of waiting for official word. (The gentleman was 34.) That matters in a climate of political theater because you can go from caring to being accused of disinformation. Twitter is a place where you can get good information and also a place where a lot of people are working very hard for the other thing — for propaganda or for keeping up appearances.

Dee Lockett : The most broadcast news I get these days comes courtesy of my mother randomly flipping her screen when we’re on FaceTime, insisting I have to watch whatever she’s watching play out on CNN in real time. But the thing is, I’ve already seen this movie. I had dozens of sleepless nights during the protests after Trayvon Martin’s death, then dozens more during the Ferguson riots. Lather, rinse, repeat. Anchors are doing a lot of heavy lifting of connecting the dots, that’s for damn sure. (Looking at you, Don Lemon. You’re still not invited to the cookout though.)

What I’m wondering now is how many people glued to their screens (be it TV or their phones) are turning it to the horror show because they give an actual shit about the stakes … or because horror shows are addicting. Maybe it’s both.

E. Alex Jung: In general, social media is the most effective at capturing the texture and minutiae of what’s going on. It’s less about “facts” — I do think it’s important to take a beat before reporting “news” in that sense — and more getting a feel for what’s going on. This can be chaotic, but it’s about pulling back and looking at the aggregate as well.  Because the protests I’ve attended have been incredibly peaceful and generous with broad support, and yet obviously there are certain interests that are trying to push very specific agendas.

GE: Have you noticed a lot of misinformation spreading? There are some ridiculous theories floating around, but the hotly debated one recently was the “outside agitator” narrative, this idea that people who were being violent are not a part of the movement, with a lot of liberal types supporting that narrative. What did you think when you saw that going around?

EAJ: That’s part of what I mean where I think you can fixate too much on a dot in a Monet. Like, that’s not what’s going on. I do think there are violent agitators, and the unreliability of news and social media has made that infiltration easier than ever to do. But I don’t think we should lose sight of the very basic facts that these protests are rooted in populism.

DL: Propaganda is being easily spread on both sides because it’s so easy to manipulate the narrative on social media. #TheShowMustBeStopped turned into #BlackoutTuesday before its black creators could even get the mission statement clear. Activist DeRay McKesson’s initiative to reform the police is spreading like wildfire unchecked by people who should know better, but it’s hard what to know right now with so much clogging the feeds. It’s a cesspool of agendas.

CJ: There is a tendency, as people have begun to burrow into their individual internet crawlspaces of thought, to look for a deeper meaning in places where a simpler one will suffice. So, say people are being arrested with out of state identification in cities like New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles. The conspiratorial mind says, “See, people are being shuttled in to cause chaos.” The rational thinker considers the fact that a large percentage of the young people in such cities are transplants.

EAJ: Yes, De Blasio and the NYPD really love this narrative, which is just willfully unaware of just how a city works?

DL: There’s a real common sense divide that DeBlasio and the NYPD are preying on, especially with their tweets.

GE: How so? They can take advantage by creating whatever narrative they want?

DL: Absolutely. If DeBlasio and his cronies tweet that they took a walk through certain neighborhoods and everything’s peachy, that’s the reality they can create. If CNN shows a video of looters in the slightest vicinity of Meghan McCain’s NYC apartment, that’s her reality, whether she was home or not. They’re exploiting these self-created crawlspaces Craig mentioned. And it’s working beautifully.

EAJ: I do hope it makes journalists pause and think about just how propagandistic police narratives are in general, especially because mainstream media relies so heavily on police reports for the “official narrative.” Social media — particularly citizen journalism — can be useful in complicating that narrative and exposing it for what it is.

GE: Comedian Jaboukie Young-White talked about how the social-media blackout on Tuesday was particularly baffling because it betrayed an ignorance of how social media works. (“I don’t know where you’ve been for the past seven years but social media is the mobilizing factor for protest and political resistance,” he said.) What do you think social media has been most effective for right now, unlike moments like #BlackoutTuesday that get a lot of media attention? How do you see its role as a platform for activism in 2020?

DL: It’s been most effective as a collective public display of pointing the finger at a problem. It’s a massive signal boost, but that doesn’t mean it’s valueless. It’s performative as all hell to post these screenshots of our donation receipts, swipe ups to anti-black reading lists, and lying en masse on the grass for eight-plus minutes as George Floyd’s last words are recited over a mic. It’s also the language and currency of this era. Purses are opening. Cops (in one case) have been charged.

There’s also a lot of value in seeing your faves turn into grassroots activists overnight. Halsey is a war nurse out of nowhere?! John Boyega is an anointed civil-rights leader. Kehlani is mobilizing on the ground. I’ve never seen anything like it. What it’s all lacking is focus and organization.

EAJ: Right, it’s kind of this slowly moving mass of energy. I do think there’s a basic shift in that everyone has cameras. If the cops are doing something, people are filming it. The videos are so important. So much of the footage from Thursday night — the Bronx protest, the elderly man in Buffalo getting shoved and cracking his head on the pavement — highlights how violence we can see with our very eyes is consistently masked by official police statements. Initially they said that the old guy tripped and fell. It’s not dissimilar to how the official medical examiner’s autopsy report for George Floyd said he died of “cardiopulmonary arrest complicating law enforcement subdual, restraint, and neck compression” whereas the independent autopsy report notes that he dies of “asphyxiation.” I think white people in particular have an implicit faith that the police are good and trustworthy even as black and brown communities have been saying otherwise for years.

CJ: It’s been tiresome watching people say very loudly that this wave of protests goes against the ideas of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. since the core intent of his commitment to nonviolence was to create a political theater on the television sets of sheltered white moderates unaware of the full extent of the brutality black citizens suffered across town. The last two weeks of distressful footage of police beating and shooting and mowing down protesters who don’t have weapons and who aren’t destroying property in very different cities achieves the same goal as King, even if it goes against his method.

EAJ: I’m not sure if any of this is causing actual change in behavior yet, but I do think there is more scrutiny on things like the NYPD’s budget and just how much money goes to them as opposed to social services. The question of permanence will be really interesting to see, because historically white supremacy is quite flexible at absorbing critique. Or liberal measures are inevitably adopted without a real reckoning with the structural part of structural racism. It’s why de Blasio talking about “structural racism” seems like a comedy sketch. It’s a flimsy rhetorical cover designed to appease all of us who are on social media. Unfortunately he isn’t very good at it.

DL: It’s also worth mentioning TikTok, which has proven invaluable as an educational resource. On the one hand, it’s doing its job of educational satire, spelling out the obvious as plainly as possible, because that’s where we’re at now — like this viral TikTok of the “house on fire” analogy.

And on the other, it’s a public record of an entire generation’s perspective. These aren’t voices you’re going to hear anywhere else, because they haven’t made their way onto Twitter or Instagram yet.

We haven’t even discussed the K-pop stans yet.

CJ: TikTok is a valuable tool, but it can also flatten the issue, and the stuff that seems to go the furthest is the stuff that makes people feel the warmest. K-pop stans are doing the work!

EAJ: That’s true, they’re actually disrupting apps created by police departments to snitch on protesters, which is a sight to behold.

DL: And infiltrating cop zoom calls.

GE: That’s an interesting example compared to the “solidarity” we’re seeing from many brands, celebrities, and politicians — like de Blasio talking about “structural racism.” There have been a lot of public statements about how things “need to change” that ring hollow, especially from companies and people where that sentiment reads as hypocritical. A lot of people didn’t realize what they’d stepped into because that sort of thing had been accepted before, and they didn’t realize the ground had shifted under them. Did you find this surprising? Or did it make sense for this particular, black radical moment that hollow gestures weren’t going to fly anymore?

EAJ: I’m not really surprised by people getting called out, but I have been struck by just how many corporations, celebrities, politicians, etc. felt the need to “make a statement” to begin with.

DL: I, for one, did not expect “show me the receipts” culture to be so crucial to the revolution.

EAJ: Or quite so literal.

CJ: Thank you, Whitney.

EAJ: Her impact is everlasting.

DL: Finally, accountability culture is replacing cancel culture. I think? I hope. Maybe.

CJ: The “cancel culture” moment was just a redrawing of the balance of power between brands and consumers — a necessary one, I think. I’m thrilled the brands are scared to death of saying the wrong thing for once, even if the way it plays out sometimes is Garfield Eats repping Black Lives Matter.

EAJ: Accountability is a really good way to frame it. It’s actually asking, well, if Amazon is suddenly going to uproot systemic racism (lol), what does that actually mean in terms of their labor practices? Or Twitter trying to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter even though as a company they haven’t taken racism and misogyny that affected their users seriously for years. The question is how deep this reckoning goes. At the very least people are calling bullshit.

DL: To me, none of this is sustainable. At some point, the performance has to call curtain. My feed was full of black squares two days ago, now it’s back to walking on eggshells and some people throwing in the towel and going back to business as usual, which … at least is genuine.

GE: One thing we’ve been seeing on Twitter are the deeper cultural effects of the protests. A lot more exhaustion from people of color who haven’t been able to say how they’ve really felt for so long. Not just making fun of companies. But naming names. Like calling out former colleagues (see: Lea Michele) or the institutions they work for on racist bullshit. Most recently, we saw this when Philadelphia Inquirer employees walked out after the publication ran a story with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too.” Or when the New York Times staff revolted against the newspaper for publishing a heinous op-ed by Senator Tom Cotton with the headline “Send in the Troops.” Do you think people feel more empowered to speak up? Is this something specific to the moment, where it feels like it’s open season on racism everywhere? Or do you think this will lead to actual change in many industries, where they are held more accountable for their decisions?

EAJ: Quarantine is making everyone give no fucks. The Times revolt was really amazing to behold, because I know the employees who aren’t on the op-ed pages have very little leeway in expressing what the institution considers a “political” opinion. The black writers and editors were putting their necks out on the line in a very serious way when they called out the Tom Cotton op-ed. I also suspect this came after years of mounting frustration, and the dam just broke.

DL: In another time, that Times op-ed might’ve ruffled feathers, inspired a lot of subtweeting, and sent the group chats into a frenzy and that’s it. But this is not the time. It caught a lot more eyes because what else is there to do on a Wednesday afternoon in quarantine? And with writers and editors for Paper, Refinery 29, and more already in open revolt at their respective white companies, I think this systemic media fear instilled into black writers of keeping a low profile has been nuked. I’m deeply frightened of the consequences though. There’s a specific trust between employer and employees that was broken between the NYT and its black newsroom (not to mention black audience, paying or not) last night. This is sad to say, but I’m more worried about the institutional ripple effects from what happened last night than what’s going to happen to the people who spoke up.

CJ: It’s a balance — being loud about anything when your name and place of work are matters of public record, and with the dialogue getting feisty because the stakes are higher than ever now, there is the potential for the bag to blow away, so to speak. There is loud resistance to resistance, and the specific force animating brands getting their act together is public pressure.

GE: On Thursday, the Times put out a statement saying the op-ed was not up to their standards. In a reported piece on how it came together and the aftermath, Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger said “the opinion section would ‘rethink Op-Eds, generally’ for the social media age.” Which struck me as such a weird thing to say. It seems they’re equating social media with people of color and general outrage without knowing what it means. How does one rethink op-eds around “social media”?

EAJ: Part of this has to do with how most people in legacy media institutions like the Times have no real sense of stakes, so everything can become a matter of “speech” where you can entertain these really provocative ideas and think it’s creating “debate.” They don’t think about how this could affect their own co-workers who have a different life experience.

DL: They don’t understand there’s levels to violence.

EAJ: No, it can all be rhetorical. Everything’s a flourish.

CJ: The worship of objectivity, and the belief that it is to give everyone the same amount of time to speak, is a misunderstanding of public thought and the power of the press. It’s the old fairness doctrine logic. The Cotton article (doesn’t “the Cotton article” sound like some terrible piece of Jim Crow legislation from the 1920s?) is case-in-point of the ways it is possible to spend so much time making sure everyone gets an equal say that the truth is lost in the balance. Also, it seems pretty obvious that there are conservatives gaming this tendency of the centrist press.

EAJ: I’m not exactly reading a leftist anarchist in the Times encouraging violent protests as a strategic means to upending authoritarianism.

GE: In some ways, none of this is new. Conversations about race and inequality have played out on social media for years now. Looking back at this particular juncture, do you think it’s ultimately been a powerful platform for change? Or at least, that it has all been moving toward something?

EAJ: It’s also contributed to the radicalization of white supremacists and MRAs. We certainly need to disabuse ourselves of the idea that social media is an inherently “neutral” platform where free discourse happens. But as important as digital spaces are, I feel like we always have to remember how it exists in conjunction with our material realities. I’m less interested in “changing hearts and minds” as I am in how it might be used to affect the levers of power.

CJ: When I think about where we all were as internet citizens a decade ago and where we got from there, I feel like our lives are better in a lot of ways. But social media has also been a breeding ground for people with sinister ideas and tendencies. It’s a tug of war. As promising as all of the action of the last two weeks has been, and as much as it feels like the culmination of ten years of figuring things out in public, I don’t really know where everyone stands. My internet experience in the last four years has involved a lot of finding out who all I thought was on message that isn’t. (Good afternoon to my ex-legends Krist Novoselic and John Dolmayan of Nirvana and System of a Down.) Everyone is on their own planet in a way, as much as many of us share common experiences. How that shakes out is anyone’s guess.

DL: I think social media has been a useful megaphone for POC voices, but if that’s as far as it ever goes, then what was the point? I’m seeing plenty of black voices amplified and then drowned out by the white voices that will always have access to the louder mic. Social media’s not going to be worth a damn to the people who need to matter unless there’s a platform we own. I’d like to see that next. Fuck Al Gore’s internet.

CJ: Public noise is very costly when the economy is shrinking. There’s always the question of what to do once you’ve made a noise, whether you’re going to use that momentum to infiltrate industry, or try and create your own alternative, or stalk the edges of the discourse as a corrective force, like Batman or whatever. I don’t know what the answer is. Wish I did.

EAJ: That’s where a lot of old-school organizing work is really going to become crucial. How do we mobilize? How do we change the institution not only for ourselves but everyone who comes after us? (Or is the answer creating separate ones?) These are obviously really old questions, but I think will ultimately be what determines whether the public criticism has long-lasting change or is just a headline for a day.

A Roundtable Discussion on a Chaotic Week in Social Media