New book tracks hate on the web

Rants & Retorts tracks bigotry and racism in online comments sections.

A new book by a nationally acclaimed journalist and critic provides stark examples of how the internet helps to fan the flames of racism in the U.S. In “Rants & Retorts: How bigots got a monopoly on commenting about news online,” journalist Anita M. Samuels explores the ways in which the reader comment sections of news sites and social media are commonly used to spread racism and bigotry.

“I wanted to give a first-person view of how this affects people and how it affected me. Because if you read enough of it, it will affect you, even if you don’t want it to,” said Samuels, who was at the Bronx Documentary Center in Melrose last Saturday, for a discussion and book-signing.

The author compiled comments from various news sites over seven years, along with commentary and analysis by reporters and other authors, to document her findings.

Samuels, who is African-American, said she became a journalist during the 1980s because she wanted to help ensure that people of all races read more positive stories about black people. She began writing for The New York Times style section in 1988, and three years later won an award from the National Association of Black Journalists for several of her feature stories, including one on Afrocentric fashions and another about natural hairstyles for black women.

She decided to delve deeper into the world of racism on the net after reading demeaning online comments about African-Americans in 2008. Her interest in the problem grew, and she later realized it was time to begin documenting the trend.

She immersed herself in those dark comments for seven years, becoming familiar with trends in the comments section as her work progressed. She even got to know specific user names of “trolls” who frequently posted antagonistic comments, especially racist comments connected with stories in which minorities and black communities were the topic.

The posts, she found, were replete with age-old racist stereotypes: calling African Americans lazy and ignorant, accusing them of abusing government assistance, loving watermelon, among myriad other insults.

As harshly as black men were treated, the hostility directed toward black women was worse. Whenever sex was the topic, for example, black women were portrayed as sex-crazed, she found. In the book, Samuels refers to a commenter with the user name VERITAS, from the Miami Herald’s website: “Stop spreading your legs for every news stud and give yourself a chance to make it in this society! Be responsible for your actions! Society is tired of footing the bill for your indiscretions!”

After a while, it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing that there is validity to the barrage of criticism, warned the author, adding that she sank into depression after spending so much time and effort logging the hatred.

A Harlem resident who attended the discussion said he has changed his views on the angry internet vitriol he once thought of as mere ranting. Burroughs Lamar, 58, a social work administrator, said that he has come around to thinking of the behavior as a by-product of posters’ lack of social engagement.

“This is another light on an ongoing issue of racism; what we don’t know about each other, and how that ignorance becomes problematic,” Lamar said.

The relatively recent practice some major news sites have adopted, of filtering out some extreme comments by allowing readers to flag and report them as abusive, is a start, she said, but added that sites don’t have enough staff to monitor the deluge of offensive postings, leaving readers to wonder who gets to decide what gets filtered and what doesn’t.

One attendee suggested news organizations charge users a fee to post on their sites, to force them to think twice before before posting content intended to offend others.

“It’s important to make people aware that this is a complex trend that’s taking place all over the country,” said Olivia Adechi, program coordinator at the Bronx Documentary Center. “Being able to discern conversations is especially important for middle school and high school students,” who should “learn to identify these differences and not participate in things like cyber bullying.”

Though Samuels has noticed that there is somewhat less unfiltered vitriol in recent years, online “trolling” is still prevalent—enough so for her to continue spreading her message and fighting the trend.

“If you’re going to be involved, be responsible,” she said. “How about writing something to help, instead of adding to the hatred that’s out there?”