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The Mast-Head: Perpetuating Racism

Wed, 06/15/2022 - 12:12

I am not sure how to write about this without sounding self-promotional or whiny, but it seems important to talk about how social media distorts the digital world we see — and don’t see.

Over the past year or so, a disturbing pattern emerged in the way Facebook handled some of my content. I am not a big Facebook poster, which made the relative surfacing or sinking of my messages obvious. A photo and a few words about an uncontroversial bit of local history would engage dozens of people; one about the slavery research we do with the Plain Sight Project would sink into oblivion. Black activists have for years complained about the same thing.

There is a bitter irony in this information gap. The core goal of the project is to demonstrate, one person at a time, the ubiquity of slavery in British Colonial North America and to restore the stories of the enslaved to their deserved place in American history. My hope is that knowing their names can change the communities in which we work. But, far from being an ally, Facebook is perpetuating the societal blindness we seek to cure.

For several weeks I have posted about a panel discussion at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons in which I was taking part. Tonight, Rabbi Josh Franklin will moderate a conversation among myself, Donnamarie Barnes, who is the Plain Sight Project co-director with me, and the Rev. Dr. Walter S. Thompson of Calvary Baptist Church. The title is “The Legacy of Slavery in East Hampton,” and we plan to speak about individual enslaved people, their enslavers, and how this mostly unknown past still affects us today. It’s good stuff, important stuff, yet the posts would perform poorly, reaching very few of my 3,000-plus “friends.”

An example: A post about the Sea Spray Inn, which once stood near Main Beach, sparked responses from 125 people, had 20 comments, and one person shared it to her own page. A post about tonight’s talk drew 11 responses, two comments, and three shares. Going back online, I asked if anyone had seen it — without using any of the words I suspected prompted Facebook to sink it. Of the 55 people who have answered so far, only about three recalled seeing the original post. If we are going to change America, we are going to have to do it without Facebook’s help. The platform’s dominance of public conversation makes it among our greatest obstacles.

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