The story of two Richmonders who each sent a tweet that gave them national exposure…and NOT the good kind.
Jonathan Becker recently had a rough few days.
“It started with me being my typically goofy, silly self and not thinking much of it,” said the associate professor and Interim Director of Online Academic Programs at VCU. It ended with a seemingly innocuous tweet plastered on a Huffington Post article and Becker receiving hateful messages on Twitter.
It began during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which Becker watched on television at home with his children, aged eight and four. Featured in the parade was Kinky Boots, a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about a floundering shoe factory that turns its fortunes around by making fetish footwear. The Macy’s Day Parade featured cast members from the play–several of them men in drag–performing songs from the show.
Here’s the clip:
Becker responded to the performance by tweeting this:
“I posted to Twitter basically being silly and maybe being 90 percent sarcastic,” he said.
“I didn’t make the connection to issues around sexuality,” Becker said. “I was more concerned…with the name.”
His thought entered the Twitterverse on Thanksgiving without fanfare. But the next day, a writer at The Huffington Post’s Gay Voices channel, included it in a post titled “‘Kinky Boots’ Performance at Macy’s Day Parade Provokes Outrage.”
“Then things took on a life of their own,” Becker said.
In the post, Becker’s comment was embedded with tweets, ones truly critical of the gay and transvestite subject matter of Kinky Boots, which Becker wasn’t. “The post went up on Huffington Post and the tweets started coming in,” Becker said.
Tweets like this:
“I’ve been a social justice advocate my whole life, a huge supporter of those who aren’t represented in the democratic process,” Becker said. Chief among them are gay people. “It’s not easy reading through a stream of messages that use language that is hurtful, especially [considering] who I am and what I believe.”
After learning his tweet was used in the Huffington Post article from a colleague, Becker contacted the online newspaper and asked that his tweet be removed. Several hours later it was, and Becker said he received an email apology from a Huffington Post editor.
“For the most part, I was able to blow it off,” he said about the barrage of negative comments directed toward him, but “to be constantly called a homophobe…was hard to see.”
“It’s really interesting to me that there are people out there…[who] saw my tweet as containing hateful language and chose to respond with hateful language,” Becker said. “The experience was certainly traumatizing.”
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If anyone can related to Becker’s story, it’s Taber Andrew Bain.
“It pretty much is a carbon copy deal,” said Bain, librarian at VCU’s Tompkins-McCaw Library. “There’s something happening, there’s some live event going on, and I make a remark that gets collated into something that Deadspin does.”
Bain’s story began a year ago while at a bar with friends to watch Sunday football. During the Sunday night game, NBC interrupted its broadcast to feature a President Obama press conference about the school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut.
“There was no where you could watch the football game,” Bain said. The volume on the bar TV was off, so all Bain saw was the president’s mouth moving. Bain tweeted:
Why is Barack Obama breaking Sunday Night Football?!?!?!— Taber Andrew Bain (@taber) December 17, 2012
“Most people that follow me know that…the things I say are sort of silly,” Bain said. “Little bit of a sarcastic tone, and that’s just how my personality works there.”
Within an hour after the Sandy Hook press conference, Deadspin published a post that pulled tweets of mostly racist comments directed at the President for interrupting the football game. The title: “‘Take That Nigger Off The TV, We Wanna Watch Football!'”: Idiots Respond To NBC Pre-Empting Sunday Night Football. Unknown to Bain, as he continued watching Sunday night football, was that his tweet was in the post.
“As I’m sitting at the bar, my phone starts blowing up with Twitter notifications,” Bain said. At first he paid little mind to them. Soon he couldn’t escape them. “They just kept coming.” He realized the following morning what had happened.
“My first, very silly, reaction was, ‘My thing wasn’t as bad as all of these other things,'” Bain said. His tweet, he said, merely expressed a “normal frustration” of a football game being preempted. “I don’t think what I said at the time was ungentle or inflammatory. It got perceived that way.”
Bain’s thoughts then moved to the motivations of Deadspin for publishing the post. “What does [the post] even say other than to just be shocking?” Bain said. “It’s just there to be inflammatory, and that’s all it’s there for.”
The vitriol directed at Bain wasn’t limited to Twitter responses. He received nasty voicemail messages, and one person sent an email to his work address. “That was actually really spooky for me,” he said.
The biggest issue Bain has over the incident is that Deadspin took Bain’s comment out of the context of his often silly, sarcastic Twitter feed. He said that when you follow people on Twitter, you learn their personality. “You get a sense of this person’s voice.” But by plucking a single tweet out of that context, that voice is lost in translation.
Bain wrote an email to the editorial staff at Deadspin expressing his belief he was mischaracterized. No one from the editorial staff responded. Within a week, most detractors relented and Bain resumed his normal digital life, although with takeaways.
“It made me kind of think about the way we that we curate information on Twitter,” Bain said. It also made him reconsider new tweets that could, once again, be scrutinized without context. “It’s made me not say, or say [things] in a gentler way,” he said.
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Jonathan Becker said he’s reflecting on his recent Twitter dust-up from a journalistic and educational perspective. Journalistic in the sense that no one from The Huffington Post contacted Becker about his tweet–for either clarification or elaboration–before listing it among those that clearly were discriminatory. “What are the ethical considerations for a site like the Huffington Post?” Becker asked rhetorically. “Did they neglect some kind of responsibility?”
That question leads to a more educational reflection, Becker’s line of work at VCU. Namely how to teach students “critical information literacy skills,” Becker said, so they can recognize stories that might not be as factual as they seem.
photo by Maryland GovPics