The legion of websites, bloggers, talk show jocks and the occasional GOP official that has teed off on President Obama — and at times Michelle Obama — with assorted borderline racist digs, taunts and depictions have been relentless.
The offensive remarks quickly evoke a storm of outrage, and the offender gets rebuked. This happens because they are public figures, and their comments are publicly aired. They fly high on the public’s radar.
But that’s not the case with the growing barrage of racist assaults on Obama and other minorities on social media sites. For instance, Baylor University researchers recently tracked more than 20 Facebook page groups and users and found the profiles packed with racist venom aimed at the president, blacks and other minorities. The growing number of groups, each spewing hate on social media sites, are secure in the knowledge that they won’t be caught or called out.
The announcement in February 2007 that Obama would seek the presidency triggered a titanic wave of race baiting and stereotyping in cyberspace. He had the dubious distinction of being the earliest presidential contender to be assigned Secret Service protection on the campaign trail.
As the showdown with Republican presidential rival John McCain heated up in the general election in 2008, the flood of crank, crackpot and screwball threats that promised murder and mayhem toward Obama continued to pour in. This prompted the Secret Service to tighten security and take even more elaborate measures to ensure his safety. As president, the threats against Obama have been non-stop.
But the first real indication that hate could find a safe haven on social media sites was the infamous Facebook assassination poll in September 2009. The target was Obama. Hundreds of respondents dignified the question that asked, “Should Obama be killed?” by answering. If the poll hadn’t been quickly yanked, thousands more might have answered the bizarre and murderous question.
In the nearly three years since then, dozens of hate groups have popped up on Facebook. They have several things in common: their prime target is Obama; they let fly with the most grotesque, offensive and rabid hate depictions of the president, blacks and other minorities; and thousands of respondents chime in with their own racial haranguing broadsides.
They have de facto protection from Facebook, but not because Facebook condones racism on its site or by its users. Facebook has a strict policy to snatch any group from the site that makes racial, gender, religious or sexual orientation attacks against individuals or groups.
But Facebook bases its existence and success on being a virtually free and open social media platform.
Facebook permits — even takes pride — in letting individuals and groups poke fun, level ridicule and toss jibes at any and everything under the guise of humor or satire. It’s the old free speech canard. Facebook’s extreme reluctance to inhibit the free expression of ideas and opinions no matter how many persons may be offended provides open license for groups and individuals to spew racial hate.
In one posting, for example, Obama is depicted in hip hop garb with a bucket of chicken. In another, a grinning Obama has a bandana on his head and a mouth full of gold teeth with the caption “Going for the African American vote.”
The hate groups outwit the Facebook policy enforcers by avoiding the use of the more blatant racial slurs and epithets. They use such neutral language as “Obama is a lousy president.” They know this will stir an avalanche of comments, many of which will be laced with racial slurs and propagate racial stereotypes.
The social media hate groups are also adept at using innocuous key words and race neutral titles to give the façade that their criticism of the White House has no hidden racial animus. Many innocent social media networkers stumble on hate group pages and are appalled at what they see and read. Even so, they are still exposed to the hate-mongering and that ensures a wider audience.
Hate groups have honed in on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms to influence and even recruit others to their ranks. As the closely contested 2012 presidential election further heats up, more groups will skirt the social media censors and ratchet up their hate-filled vitriol on their sites. They’ll pawn it off as poking fun and satire at Obama and minorities. And for the most part they’ll get away with it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.