Social media platforms 'benefit from the intersections of racism and capitalism'

From cultural appropriation to commodified trauma, Black creators and consumers of digital media are increasingly forced to confront a variety of unique challenges on social media platforms.

How the cultural contributions of Black people in online spaces are overlooked

'Black Twitter' has had a major impact on pop culture and politics over the past decade. Reports support claims that marketers were underpaying Black influencers on TikTok and other social media platforms, while algorithms seem to favour white creators. (Michelle Parise/CBC)

Originally published on October 1, 2021

Conversations about the trauma Black people experience on social media platforms reignite in the wake of tragedy and as images of those traumatic events start circulating online, but according to researcher Francesca Sobande, what we've seen is the normalization of these images, and how their impact on users persists long after.

"And what that means for a Black person online is oftentimes trying to anticipate what sort of traumatic material is going to pop up in the news feeds. What sort of content is going to have to be observed or engaged with, whilst trying to find ways to simply be and trying to find ways to make sense of the world with digital technology, without the heaviness," said Sobande, a lecturer in digital media studies and director of the BA program in media journalism and culture at Cardiff University.

Francesca Sobande's research focuses on the power and politics of media and the marketplace. (Palgrave Macmillan)

Sobande's most recent book, The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain, is based on research she conducted between 2015 and 2020. In the intervening years, as she interviewed Black women about their online experiences, she observed some significant changes, particularly as a result of the pandemic and the racial reckoning that began last year.

"I think one of the key challenges is trying to find ways to enjoy yourself and trying to find ways to unwind, to decompress, to make use of digital technology as an enjoyable pastime without being constantly confronted by traumatizing material. So I'm thinking, especially right now, about times when people will repost content that we feel is raising awareness of issues to do with anti-Blackness or sharing material that they think is educational in nature and might be shared from an anti-racist position," said Sobande.

When Chantal Gibson was researching and collecting stories for her first poetry book, she kept coming across similar images online. The discomfort of it all inspired her to write a second book.

Gibson's debut book of poetry How She Read explored Black womanhood and the historical representation of Black women in Canadian history and media. In her latest, with/holding, she turns her focus to the reproduction and circulation of Black identity across digital media and pop culture.

"Whether it was social media, whether it was news media, I just kept noticing the repetition in particular kinds of imagery. And a lot of it was coming from, of course, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Black Lives Matter," Gibson, an award-winning poet, told Spark host Nora Young.

Chantal Gibson's poetry examines the representation and reproduction of Blackness online. (B. Kadonoff, Caitlin Press)

Gibson's experience is part of a larger challenge that Black creators and users face on social media platforms and digital media more broadly.

She said her book was a way to process those interactions she was having with these images online.

"I like engaging with news. I like engaging with culture, but it was also a way for me to process my reaction, but I'm not interested in reliving trauma, or talking about people's pain. I want to talk about how this creative work that we can do can be liberatory." 

She points to the 1863 image of a self-emancipated slave named Gordon, also known as Whipped Peter, with his keloid scar-covered back towards the camera. His image was first used as a carte de visite, distributed throughout the United States, and offered a glimpse into the brutality of slavery. Since then the image has traveled far and wide both in the physical and digital space.

In her poem entitled 'EMT (Emancipation Modification Therapy)', Gibson explores the problems with the continual reproduction and circulation of this image online and in popular culture, including a film currently in production.

"This was a human being. And the thing I worry about is [with] the replication over and over and over again, we become desensitized, and actually that person's humanity is no longer [there]."

Gibson said there is a false sense of nostalgia at play in discussions around the necessity of sharing these sorts of images.

While documentation and archival work is important, she said, what's concerning is when the purpose of the image shifts. "So it's no longer in an academic journal, or it's no longer in a textbook and it has taken on a new life."

Gibson said one of the things she found most troubling was how accessible images of the 1788 Brookes slave ship, or of Mamie Till crying over her son Emmett Till's coffin were on the internet, specifically on a DIY merch site that allows people to easily print these onto shirts or other surfaces. Her poem 'Add To Cart' explores the circulation and commodification of these images on the web, unmoored from their original context and power.

"We can't forget the history, but I don't think you should be charging $9.95 for it either," said Gibson. 

There's such a lack of care. There's such a lack of love. There's such a lack of humanity and understanding of Black folks.​​​​​- Chantal Gibson

While recording and documenting has become a survival strategy in Black communities, like in the murder of George Floyd and the impact Darnella Frazier's video had on both the case and conversations around police brutality that followed, Sobande also sees this growing expectation of visual proof in the wake of tragedy troubling.

"To have to live your life daily, anticipating what you may need to record in order to try to survive, or in order to ensure that the truth and the narrative that reflects reality is out there, that is an incredibly heavy burden that Black people are faced with," said Sobande.

Gibson added that another consequence is just how quickly images like this become the news. "And when you have to see it day in and day out, it is traumatizing."

It's part of what Sobande refers to as the spectacularization of Black pain. 

"I wish in the future that that didn't have to happen in order for anti-Blackness to be acknowledged and addressed in any meaningful way."

In the wake of last year's protests, brands crafted statements in relation to Black Lives Matter and about anti-Blackness. Sobande said what we saw was companies sharing more images of Black faces than they normally would, "in a way that leaves you feeling uneasy."

"I think when we're dealing with commercial organizations, we're always dealing with the pursuit of profit."

This 'woke-washing' is something Gibson memorializes in a 40-page-long poem, which references the black squares that took over Instagram in June 2020, on what was dubbed 'Blackout Tuesday'.

Another form in which this behaviour presents itself, Sobande said, is 'digital blackface', where  brands and other creators co-opt language and the work of Black artists.

"We've seen a lot of brands online trying to adopt terms or tap into African-American vernacular English, to sort of humanize their voices on Twitter. And that's something that I think we've seen increasingly over these last few years," she said.

Earlier this year, Bloomberg reported that marketers were underpaying Black influencers and that it was much harder for Black creators to make a living on Tiktok and Instagram. Over the summer, Black Tiktokers went on strike to protest cultural appropriation and the lack of recognition they'd received for their work.

"We have seen moments when content shared by Black creators is much more likely to be censored or to not appear on timelines in comparison to white creators," said Sobande.

"We can't have a situation where something that so clearly originates within Black digital cultural spheres is suddenly catapulted into the mainstream media environment in a way that essentially detaches it from its roots and also erases the history of who is behind this work and what's gone into it."

While faced with these hurdles, Black creators are working to reclaim their stories and, like Gibson, process their experiences through their own work, said Sobande.

As communities, like Black Twitter, continue to grow, in recent years, Black creators on other online platforms have also rallied together. Collab Crib, which formed in 2020, is the first Black creator house.

"I'm excited about the fact that despite all of the many difficult challenges we've spoken about, Black creativity continues to thrive. Black joy continues to exist and persist, and really meaningful forms of connection and community building are always occurring at a local level, national level and on an international level," said Sobande.

Written by Samraweet Yohannes. Produced by Samraweet Yohannes and Michelle Parise.