by Mary Taws Monday March 5, 2012

Two girls, a webcam, and a controversial message. 

On February 14th, two white teenagers from Gainesville, Florida posted a YouTube video in which they rant about their black peers for 14 minutes. In between their use of racial stereotypes and profanity, they make the argument that some of their black peers are abusing the food stamp system, dropping out of school, and going "nowhere in life."

The girls have been expelled from Gainesville High School, and their families face death threats. And some of the online reaction has been to combat racism with more racism. See the comment thread on the above video, if you dare. While much of the online response was filled with anger, outrage, and violence, others expressed concern. These users agreed that the video was in bad taste and the argument was poorly framed, but they worried about the state of free speech. Here's what one blogger had to say:

You may not like what they were saying, but what happened to free speech? For the most part they were simply speaking their opinion about the racial makeup and differences at their school. Maybe their assessment was entirely incorrect but maybe it was the truth. At the end of the day it's their viewpoint and they're entirely entitled to that viewpoint. We should defend all speech no matter how much it differs from our own views or offends us.

In the past six months, there have been four similar racist YouTube videos that have gone viral. Youth from high schools and universities in Arizona, Florida, and California have posted varyingly severe criticisms of their Asian, African-American, and Mexican peers. There is much to unpack in terms of what this trend says about racial tensions in a contemporary context, but these YouTube rants have also sparked conversation about the dangers of YouTube, and forums like it.  

In reaction to the Gainesville YouTube post, David McMillan of the The Huffington Post wrote a comprehensive guideline for what is permissible in online, public conversation. You can read his full analysis here, but below are the five key points he thinks social media ethics needs to address:

1) In social media, there is no difference between public and private.

2) Just because you can post something doesn't mean you should.

3) Your online and offline selves might not be identical, but they're joined at the hip.

4) Will what I post cause harm to others?

5) Finally, call it the Social Media Golden Rule: post about others as you would have them post about you.

I appreciate what McMillan has attempted to do here; he has created a guideline so that we can avoid being inundated with racist YouTube ramblings. But as the blogger I quoted above pointed out, we should create a framework with some caution. If we push out every opinion that is unpleasant, we miss the opportunity to have a conversation about it and promote tolerance. Tonight on The Agenda, we'll examine how we go about creating that framework.

Follow me on Twitter @mtaws

Internet    Ethics    Social Media    Racism    Business & Technology    Society & Culture