Your Next Racist Tweet Could Go on a Billboard Outside Your House

Using geotagged data, a Brazilian campaign exposes people who make hateful comments online.
(Photo: Emma Kim/Getty Images)
Nov 30, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Spend a little time on Twitter and you’ll quickly find out that for every empowering Black Lives Matter or Hispanic Girls United message posted, anonymous users of the social media platform also churn out plenty of hate—without any repercussions for their name-calling or threats. Back in October, author and economist Umair Haque wrote on Medium that Twitter is becoming a ghost town owing to the amount of abuse on the platform “and the fact that the average person can’t do anything about it.”

But perhaps the people who make racist comments on social media could be put on blast through the magic of geotagging. That’s the idea at the heart of “Virtual Racism, Real Consequences,” a Brazilian campaign that posts billboards with offensive online comments in the neighborhood where they were published—potentially squashing the idea that social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook are an anonymous Wild West of bigoted name-calling.

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The campaign was launched this summer by Criola, an Afro-Brazilian civil rights organization, after a black weather reporter in Brazil was the object of severe racial harassment on Facebook. The effort tracks down the geotagged locations of the authors of anonymous comments posted on social media. Criola then purchases space on billboards or on buses nearby. Although the campaign blurs out names and profile pictures, the bigoted postings are exposed for everyone to see.

(Photo: Facebook)

“Those people think they can sit in the comfort of their homes and do whatever they want on the Internet. We don’t let that happen. They can’t hide from us; we will find them,” Criola’s founder, Jurema Werneck, told BBC Trending.

(Photo: Facebook)

A 2014 analysis by the U.K.-based think tank Demos of nearly 127,000 English-language tweets written over a nine-day period found that 10,000 tweets with racial slurs are posted daily. While the report’s authors noted that “the overwhelming majority of them are not used in an obviously prejudicial or hateful way,” it’s one thing for black folks to tweet each other the lyrics of a popular rap song that contains the n-word and quite another to be on the receiving end of the hate that some people of color experience on social media (particularly if they are active in social justice work). Shaun King, an activist who is the senior justice writer at the New York Daily News, wrote earlier this month that racial abuse on Twitter is so bad that “I almost need to pray before I use it.”

King wrote that he’s blocked 20,000 people on the platform so far this year because of the bigoted hate that comes his way. “Racists now post messages on every single hashtag of interest to black folk. Almost always without their real names or faces, racists will use racial slurs in messages to or about people thousands of times per day on Twitter,” he wrote. “It’s so prevalent, so pervasive, that it’s basically impossible to use the service as a person of color and not have to face it down every single day.”

When a person’s identity is known, the consequences for posting offensive comments online can be severe. In 2013, former public relations executive Justine Sacco was axed after her tweet “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” went viral. In October, 20-year-old Erika Escalante was fired from her internship at a health and wellness company in Arizona after she posted an image on Twitter of herself in a cotton field. The caption for the photo read: “Our inner n----- came out today.”

Meanwhile, Werneck told BBC Trending that although Brazil has laws against hate speech, they are not always enforced, and some people may be afraid of speaking up. To that end, she hopes the campaign will empower people to expose the abuse they encounter online. Perhaps with their anonymity in doubt, some folks might choose to keep their prejudiced thoughts to themselves.