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Whitesplaining on Facebook: PhD Student Donte Newman Looks at Race and Social Media

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Memorial for where Minnesota African-American Philando Castile was shot by police. Balloons and a sign below that reads
The site where Philando Castile, a black Minnesota motorist, was shot by police. Doctoral student Donte Newman is examining white Facebook users' reactions to the Castile incident.

When your aunt or ex-roommate writes a long sociopolitical treatise on Facebook, there’s a good chance you ignore it. You might get frustrated and “unfollow” the person, or possibly become outraged enough to “unfriend” them.

Yet as American University doctoral student Donte Newman is discovering, there are insights to be gleaned from this Facebook commentary. We can read the views of millions of Americans every day. It’s the body politic, laid bare.

Newman is writing his dissertation on race and social media, specifically examining white people’s Facebook responses to police violence. He’s not just probing racial attitudes, but how people’s interactions with technology shape and reinforce societal power structures.

“In light of a string of recent shootings, police brutality against black people has emerged as a contentious topic in national dialogue. And many of these conversations are taking place within Facebook,” says Newman. “However, the technological architecture of Facebook may influence how users have conversations about racially motivated police shootings.”

Newman is in the three-year communication PhD program, focusing on media, technology, and democracy.

Case Study: Philando Castile

Newman analyzed white Facebook users’ responses to news stories related to Philando Castile, a black Minnesota motorist whose death at the hands of police was captured on video by Castile’s girlfriend. He studied Facebook comments about the shooting of Castile, the indictment of police officer Jeronimo Yanez, and the acquittal of Yanez. Certain patterns emerged, and a typical comment usually went something like this:

  • Sad news about the man in Minnesota, Philando Castile. Thoughts and prayers to his family.
  • But I do think we need to acknowledge that police have a difficult and dangerous job. They’re on the front lines trying to keep us safe, and I think we need to support law enforcement. Their actions in this situation may have been lawful, and I really don’t think racism was a factor.
  • It’s just a terrible tragedy for everyone involved.

In what Newman calls “ambivalent discourse,” people straddle the fence. That enables them to simultaneously appeal to different social groups with different expectations. And on Facebook, those groups with diverging views are collapsed into a single network.

“It’s usually, ‘I support Philando Castile’ or ‘I support Michael Brown’ or ‘I support Tamir Rice, but I also support the law enforcement officers who were involved in those cases,’” he says.

He explains that the initial comment—condolences for Castile and family—is a moral argument. Yet when people start talking about law enforcement, they are making a “normative” statement expressing a value judgment.

“With the moral claim, you begin the comment by conveying that, ‘I’m going to present a nonracist identity’ or ‘I’m going to circumvent all accusations of racism by expressing sympathy for the victim of police violence. I’m engaging in impression management, and this is one way I can meet the expectations of a social group—by expressing support for the black victims,’” he says.

Then, in making a normative statement supporting police, people are trying to appeal to a different audience within their Facebook readership. Yet, he notes, the “moral” and “normative” arguments are by no means equal.

“With the moral claim, you get a single sentence. It’s, ‘I feel sorry for Philando Castile.’ And then with the normative claim, it’s ‘The police officer was just doing his job. The shooting had absolutely nothing to do with race.’ And people use all these different tactics and arguments, which are meant to legitimize the police shooting,” he says.

Facebook and Self-Presentation

Facebook has utility for this type of study. Unlike Twitter—where we follow celebrities, athletes, and other public figures—our Facebook community is our social circle. With new friends and old friends, family, and work colleagues, it’s a representative cross-section of people’s personal contacts. What fascinates Newman is how people tailor their conversations to multiple audiences.

“These collapsing social networks on Facebook problematize how white Facebook users construct and manage their identities,” he explains. “You have all of these different friends and groups, and they may hold divergent ideologies and different political and party affiliations. Facebook puts you in this position to self-present yourself to these multiple groups who have conflicting expectations of you.”

In a sense, the Facebook medium itself provokes the “ambivalent discourse” he’s observed.

Newman’s data is drawn from readers of left-leaning, moderate, and right-leaning news sources. He gives the users pseudonyms to protect their identities. Generally speaking, he’s found that white Facebook commenters of all ideological stripes use this same ambivalent discourse.

“You may expect the conservative news readers to say, ‘Blue Lives Matter! Blue Lives Matter!’ But on Facebook, it’s not that way. My research is telling me that they’ll say, ‘Blue Lives Matter, and we care about black lives. We’re sorry that person was shot,’” he says. Again, he attributes that to appeasing different Facebook friends. Maybe a conservative-leaning father is aware that his liberal daughter is reading his social media posts.

More Than Just Talk

These Facebook conversations are more than just talk, Newman says. If you’re characterizing these tragedies as unavoidable—something akin to a snowstorm—not much will change. Elected officials take their cues from their constituents, and the voices of those constituents are increasingly found on social media.

“If we’re ambivalent about something, then our politicians will do nothing. If we’re ambivalent about police brutality, then Donald Trump is not going to put it on his platform. Hillary Clinton had it on her platform, because Black Lives Matter activists forced her to do that,” he opines. “So, when you write on Facebook, ‘Well, I feel sorry for the victim of police violence.’ And then also say, ‘But the police officer shouldn’t be held accountable,’ what you’re really saying is, ‘No one should be held accountable.’”

Making a Name for Himself

A Houston native, Newman earned a bachelor’s degree from Texas Southern University and a master’s from University at Albany. He taught English in China before coming to AU.

School of Communication associate professor Aram Sinnreich helped Newman sharpen his dissertation strategy. They had to figure out some not-insignificant research challenges. You need a rigorous way to determine if a person is Caucasian on Facebook, for instance. That points to how Facebook technology flattens and sidesteps questions about racial identity.

“Facebook asks you about your gender identity. It asks you about your address, place of employment, and schools you attended. It asks you everything under the sun, except race,” Newman notes.

Newman is already generating interest in his innovative research. He recently presented at the College English Association-Middle Atlantic Group conference at University of the District of Columbia and the Virginia Association of Communication Arts and Sciences at George Mason University. He’s scheduled to appear at two more conferences later this year.

He’s considering research into male reactions to the #MeToo movement, which he thinks might show a similar pattern of caution and ambivalence. With gender or race, those subtle signals tell us a lot.

“I’m not explicitly studying racist discourse. But I’m studying how people are able to protect structural racism in an ambivalent way, and I think that’s just as powerful.”