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Mary McNamara: Kicking racists off social media doesn't threaten free speech. It protects it

Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

And he is not the only one being re-evaluated through the lens of current events. David Dobrik, Liza Koshy and other YouTubers have also recently apologized for racist humor or insensitivity.

Increasingly, problematic old posts are being resurfaced, with new or rekindled outrage. Controversy and "authenticity" drive the influencer marketplace, particularly on YouTube, where feuds result in a reconciliation, mistakes in public apologies, with dizzying regularity and are often naked bids for attention and more followers, which, as in all media, can translate into profit.

Dawson's multimillion-dollar success was based, in part, on his ability to rebound from each controversy with "authenticity," which often involved a long video or social media post from him about the "toxic" atmosphere that hangs over social platforms that are fueled by gossip (or "tea"), judgment and cancel culture. In fact, Dawson's racist past was revisited as he tried to extricate himself from another drama. (This one involved YouTube beauty mavens Jeffree Star and James Charles, so complicated and yet banal that I cannot bear to explain, even if I were able; Jezebel had a go, however.)

This time, however, an apology video proved to be the opposite of enough. A video in which Dawson mimed masturbating to a photo of then-11-year-old Willow Smith shocked many, and prompted angry reactions from mother Jada Pinkett Smith and brother Jaden Smith.

Dawson's use of blackface and racist humor also was, by his own admission, too frequent to be considered "a mistake," especially to a world grown weary of similar apologies.

Social media has, for many, become a replacement for traditional media, news and entertainment, in part because platforms like Twitter were seen as democratic; accessible by all and gate-kept by none, they were the ultimate expression of free speech.

 

Indeed, the protests over George Floyd's death might not have expanded so widely if not for social media, which allowed the video of his terrible final minutes to circulate to millions. Social media has become a very effective tool of social policing, especially of the police. It's our smartphones that give citizens the capability of documenting everything from Costco Karen to police firing tear gas at clearly peaceful protesters. It's social media that allows those videos to go viral.

But as the Mueller report revealed, the lack of even basic gate-keeping can backfire and cause serious personal and societal damage. Whatever you believe about the president's involvement, there is incontrovertible evidence that Russian operatives used Facebook and Twitter in an attempt to manipulate the 2016 election.

Last month, Twitter, bowing to pressure over the spread of misinformation and hate speech, began adding labels to tweets it considered inaccurate or particularly incendiary, including several issued by the president. In response, many Trump supporters are turning to a new platform, Parler, which has no such labels.

Facebook has refused to initiate any similar labels, though it does have a 27-page "community standards" guideline that prohibits the use of hate speech, incitement to violence and the spread of misinformation (although staff members recently protested CEO Mark Zuckerberg's seeming refusal to apply these to President Trump).

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