The following is a collaborative post between Lamia Imam and myself.
First we want to start this post off by saying that neither one of us are experts on the history of blackface. Both of us understand that it has a history deeply rooted in racism and it continues to be strongly entwined with modern day racism. Having said that, today’s blog post is not directly related to Art Green’s use of black face, but the reaction to on social media, and the established media’s use, and reporting of, that reaction. However, the “back face” stories are important to this post. So let us start there.
The New Zealand Herald and Stuff are both reporting that Art Green, of Bachelor quasi-fame, wore “black face” at Colin Mathura-Jeffree’s recent birthday party in Auckland. Both news outlets have picked this story up because social media has reacted to it. Both of the stories run along the lines of Art Green and Matilda did X at Colin’s party, Matilda posted it social media, social media reacted in Y way, passing mention racial element designed to minimise that aspect “Blackface is frowned upon by many as cultural appropriation which can be seen as racist.” or ” The practice is widely condemned as racist.”, story ends. I want to focus on the “social media reacted in Y way” element of the story. The New Zealand Herald even took the extra step of including a quote from the President of the New Zealand Indian Central Association saying they did not think it was racist, without mentioning how Colin Mathura-Jeffree’s standing in the Indian community might impact on what the President had to say. .
For a while now we have observed the media’s use of social media as a way to obtain easy to write stories that no doubt generate large amounts of traffic. Today’s story is just another example of it.
In the majority of cases when newspapers and broadcast media focus on social media’s reaction to something, it is focused on how Twitter reacts. This is related to the way that Twitter works as a platform, and how, by default, it is an open platform. So it provides fertile ground for the mass media to pick up on reaction. However, it also allows the media to cut corners.. They are able to hand pick 3-5 reactions from Twitter that fit their story, embed those, and move on. And in this case they are also able to bypass having to explain the history, and can simply report that certain people are calling it racist. By leaving out even a brief historical explanation of the racist meaning behind black face they are able to subtly suggest that those on Twitter reacting negatively to it are over reacting, and being melodramatic. This is reinforced when they carry an unscientific poll of their readers that produces the following result:
Rather than using the story as a chance to explain to readers some of the historical context behind the meaning of blackface and how it is racist, the media use it as a chance to cast those with an understanding of the historical meaning as out of touch. Instead of trying to enlighten their readers, they use it to cast those trying to change society, and be its conscience, in a light that enables those people to be discounted in the future as being out of touch with society.
Now for this particular story that may not seem that important, but if it is done subtly enough, and often enough, with comparatively low level stories such as this, it means that when it comes to important stories, such as Labour’s use of house sale data, and the way they analysed that data, those same voices, and their accusations of racism, are more likely to be discounted by readers.
This method can be seen not just in stories like this, but also Patrick Gower’s use of the term Twitterarti to describe an ill-defined collection of Twitter users, who he feels are out of touch with what he sees as the general public:
When Eleanor Catton dared to criticize the Government, One New chose to report it by saying – “Her comments have been met with mixed reactions on Twitter.” The nature of Twitter means that users are limited to 140 characters and nuance is often left at the door. Tweets can easily be taken out of context and the broader discussions that happen with multiple users on multiple threads can be easily missed. We understand that Journalists have strict deadlines but while Twitter users can enjoy discussions among each other and have an educational experience, mass media’s of depiction serves no purpose other than to get folks to click. There is no doubt that social media has been a disruptive force in the media landscape. Non-journalists are often “reporting” from the ground when there is breaking news, getting there faster than news cameras. Influencers on social media often have a symbiotic and cordial relationship with individual journalists but that can get lost in editorial decision-making.
Prime Minister John Key himself said “My view of social media is that there’s a lot of trolls and bottom feeders on that and in the end they get in people’s head.” As Prime Minister, he probably gets quite a bit of abuse from Twitter users, but discussions that run contrary to the popular narrative are not necessarily “bottom feeding”. Twitter gives regular people the unique opportunity to voice opinions, question accepted beliefs and even affect change. In the United States, for example, social media, particularly Twitter, has been seen as a driving force behind the national conversation that is happening about police brutality against the black community and media’s representation of that brutality. Over the weekend, Paul Little blamed social media’s liberal bigots for Paul Henry’s show experiencing low ratings. In an astounding paradox, social media users are to blame but simultaneously have irrelevant opinions that are used to be mocked by the established media.
Now we are not trying to suggest that those on Twitter are representative of the wider population, we know this is not true. But there are a large number of people on Twitter, some mentioned in these stories today, who are extremely smart people, who are able to call people out on their actions, or statements, and who are able to provide useful insights into issues that face New Zealand. However, the actions of the media in today’s case, and others, should be questioned in terms of the way they use social media to portray reaction to events, as well as how they portray those reacting. Is there more to the media’s actions than just click bait stories, are these stories part of a wider ploy to minismise the unique chance to exercise a voice that Twitter provides?