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Theorizing Everyday Racism in Social Media Policing

Updated: May 2, 2023

The encoding of social media communication happens when a post is written and the interpretations of said post are to be understood by members of the intended audience.

Jelani Henry, When a Facebook Like Lands You in Jail

In 2012, Jelani Henry was arrested on two counts of attempted murder in New York City. The evidence was thin at best: While he was a “tall light-skinned black male,” matching a witness description, there were contradictory statements from witnesses and one failed to pick him out of a lineup. Despite the dearth of evidence and Jelani’s lack of criminal record, he was denied bail and incarcerated for 19 months, including a 9-month stint in solitary confinement, at one of the most violent detention facilities on Rikers Island. The case was eventually dismissed.

In the case of Jelani Henry, the police used Facebook photos, YouTube videos, and Myspace threats as evidence against Jelani and his brother. Figure 1 below illustrates that theorizes the pathways through which the encoding process is interrupted through the text and talk of broader online public discourse. Central to understanding the model’s application is cognizance of the discursive relationship between broader society and law enforcement. Broader society here refers to non-hyphenated members of society whose ethnic descriptions match the ideal of belonging. This discursive relationship and the tropes and stereotypes it promulgates are fundamental to appreciating how Henry’s performance of self, encoded for his social network, would have met some type of cognitive resistance predicated on context collapse at the point of encoding (the social media site, in this instance Facebook) before entering into the broader public discourse.

The model shows the cognitive flows, the production, and comprehension of discourse/interaction, controlled by context, and based on knowledge and ideologies indicated by the solid black lines, between Henry’s post on the social media site, and it being entered into the broader public discourse through the surveillance practices of the NYPD. Both context collapse and the resistant reading of Henry’s post, implicit because of the discursive relationship between broader society and law enforcement, lead to a decoding of his behavior as criminal.

The impact of the social system of racism, acknowledged by the very existence of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and operationalized through a discrimination defined by Feagin and Eckberg as “actions or practices carried out by members of dominant racial or ethnic groups that have a differential and negative impact on members of subordinate racial and ethnic groups” (Feagin, 1991, p. 102), on the online public discourse, constructed as theorized by the model through the interactions between broader society and law enforcement, left Henry with no mechanism to refute the resistant reading of his social media performance of self by law enforcement—which in turn, led to his arrest and incarceration.

The model also illustrates how the enforcement of cognitive controls (racial attitudes and ideologies; Van Dijk, 1993, 2001) on the digital street is underpinned by the social control exerted by broader society on the everyday lived experience of persons of color in the United States. Factors such as access to work, housing, education, social security benefits, healthcare, and education are represented by the dotted line which flows from online public discourse to acceptance and then into communities of color, becoming the lenses through which this acceptance is refracted and participation allowed.

Taking up Rios’ (2011) deployment of sociologist Ann Swidler’s concept of “culture as repertoire,” “individuals deploy different, often contradicting actions in the social world based on the needs demanded by specific social situations” (p. 109). We elucidate that in response to lack of access to these social indices, some members of communities of color push back through apparently deviant performances of self that challenge authority figures who threaten their safety, autonomy, and self-determination.

In direct counterpoint to Henry, Figure 2 illustrates, in the case of Dylann Roof, how the power of prejudice affects who is surveilled online. In June 2015, Roof, a young White man, walked into the Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina, a historically Black church, and shot nine people to death. Until this act, Roof had not been on law enforcement’s radar in spite of a public social media presence including a manifesto of racial hatred and murderous intent. Roof is but the most recent domestic terrorist whose public performance of self on social media was conveniently neutralized by his race.

We argue Roof’s privilege as a White male allowed him to enter into the broader public discourse without either the benefit or hindrance of having his social media communications encoded and decoded by the police. Therefore, he begins his interface with the discursive relationship between society and law enforcement from a position of acceptance and curiosity, as represented by the solid lines. The impact of Roof’s privileged position as a young White man, indicated by the absence of dotted lines between him and deviant politics, the “political actions—the resistance—that youth labeled by society as deviant use to respond to punishment that they ubiquitously encounter” (Rios, 2011, p. 118) clearly demonstrates the inimical effects of this type of policing. Roof’s privilege, as we have seen, rendered his online public performance of deviance virtually invisible.

In contrast, the ways in which the social media behaviors of people of color are internalized and interpreted transform groups into gangs, young men into criminals, and common gestures into threats. These associations are often driven by one’s negative implicit attitudes and stereotypes toward people and communities of color.

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