Online ‘trolls’ revel in racist comments
“Troll,” a word once used only in folk tales, now refers to a person or persons practicing “unfettered hate…under the cover of anonymity” in online news site comments sections.
Since the early 1990s, online racist comments by “internet trolls” about Black people have been helping create “a cesspool of negativity and naked racism,” said award-winning journalist Anita Samuels.
Samuels told MSR in a recent phone interview that she began examining online racist comments as early as 2008. “These were not mere differences of opinion when stories had to do with African Americans,” she pointed out. “Those writings often attacked the entire Black race.”
Her new book, Rants & Retorts: How Bigots Got a Monopoly on Commenting about News Online (Greenlight Books), exposes dozens of anonymous comments on topics that include former President Barack Obama, crime, education and parenting.
Here are a few of the comments she found:
“I used to think Blacks were just stupid, now I’m convinced that they’re mentally unfit.” (NYDailynews.com)
“All Black people need to be killed, forget about sending them to Africa.” (news.aol.com)
“What else would you call these animal monkeys?” (nytimes.com)
“[As] I started reading more and more [comments], I got so offended,” said Samuels. She knew the comments were a big problem. Encouraged by friends and colleagues to write about this, Samuels contacted over 30 experts for analysis and comments for her book, which includes a foreword by hip-hop artist and activist Chuck D of Public Enemy.
Racist comments about Blacks seemingly aren’t filtered by the news sites even though “it is easy to do. That’s why so many people like doing this. You can make up a fake account for Google or Yahoo using a fake name. They love being anonymous,” said Samuels.
When asked if the election of America’s first Black president in 2008 was directly correlated to the increase of anonymous racist on-line comments, she couldn’t confirm this conclusively.
However, she did believe Obama’s election galvanized many people’s racist behavior. They couldn’t believe a Black man would become president of the United States.
“It brought out the worst in people,” she said. “It was fear. They called [Obama] the anti-Christ and all that.”
Samuels stated that online hate speech should not be confused with free speech. “There is a difference in freedom of speech, which mainly applies to government, and freedom of expression, which is what they actually are doing.”
She argues that such hate speech is “muddying the discourse online” on any meaningful discussion, and it fuels the existing divisiveness in this country.
“How far can you go with this? How far should you go?” She said that many people want to say anything they please without risk of retribution. “That’s why so many people like doing this.”
Online letters to the editor section are essentially “a 21st Century tool for the high-speed spread of racism by lay people,” she said. “That’s the whole point of my book. That’s the reality. People wouldn’t walk up to you and say things to your face as they would online.”
To read more of our interview with journalist Anita Samuels, see this week’s MSR entertainment section.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.