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Diversity, Credit and Hashtag Activism: How a Nigerian Movement Got Hijacked

BY Zeynep Tufekci | Friday, May 9 2014

This is not how #BringBackOurGirls began (credit: Xavier J. Peg)

Diversity, in the newsroom, in the developer cave, on the conference circuit, or in the writers retreat, is often interpreted as a “feel good” act, or, at most, an act of justice to compensate for structural inequalities that pervade our world. At best, that is a superficial understanding of the true value of diversity, and at worst, it invites tokenism as the same three already-visible faces are sought by every event and organization seeking to “diversify.”

At its core, though, diversity is a requirement for getting it right. Again and again, major mistakes made by organizations--even those, strikingly, making an effort--demonstrate the insularity of their cultures.

For example, in the infamous Grantland story that callously treated a woman’s desire not to be outed as a person with trans origins as just a piece of storyline that could not be omitted even though it had nothing to the with the original topic of the story, golf club design, and which ended with her committing suicide, the truth was not that this was an oversight. On the contrary, the editor-in-chief of Grantland, Bill Simmons, wrote afterwards that more than a dozen high-level editorial staff looked at the story, again and again, because they wanted to be sure they were handling it correctly. As Simmons said, “somewhere between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN.com’s editor-in-chief.” More telling is who they did not run it by, or have among their own group: “someone familiar with the transgender community” who could have pointed out the many, many obvious problems with the piece.

What is striking here isn’t that Grantland bungled a difficult story, but it had such a huge blind spot that could have been so easily corrected.

We see the same problem in the tech community, which is led, mostly, by youngish, white, fairly privileged men with computer science backgrounds, and little else in the way of experience in the world. Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously questioned why anyone would behave differently to different audiences--the answer to which is obvious to anyone who is not a young white billionaire who everyone sucks up to, as a short primer on sociology of social roles would show: of course we don’t behave the same way in a classroom as we do with our peers or as we do when with our parents. In the meantime, Facebook’s design pushed everyone to interact with each other, as if in the same room, and pushed posts to be more and more public--which I once described as the world’s longest Thanksgiving dinner with everyone you knew, with all the attendant stresses. Facebook is still attempting to maneuver around the unease its design problems have created--a point I hear over and over again by people I interview who say they use Facebook because their network is on it but despise this aspect, and would flee at first chance--by spending $16 billion to purchase an app whose design is the exact opposite. Of course, as these companies grow, and as their founders and developers get older, have kids and face other life transitions, we have seen them finally make “about-face” statements on anonymity, use of pseudonyms, and other questions related to the reality of social roles--but not before almost a decade of resistance.

Google Buzz failed and resulted in an FTC privacy penalty because the obvious point that showing people each others’ email contacts was a bad idea somehow could not be countenanced by the company. Recently, “anonymous sharing” app Whisper’s CEO gave an interview in which he envisioned a future in which children don’t care about their parent’s relationship, or where all people stop being jealous or upset about their partner’s infidelity, ever, or--I don’t even understand. One does not need to know that much to understand why these visions of total transparency are horrifying, while at the same time how they could make “sense” to young white male billionaires--a few classes in world literature, sociology and psychology, along with a dose of growing up, or perhaps encountering a few personal challenges along the way, would help a lot. Of course, it’s not fair to expect everyone to be everything in an organization which is why having diverse voices among decision-makers and designers is so crucial.

The latest example of the importance of real diversity comes in how #bringbackourgirls, a hashtag about Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram, was portrayed by multiple major US media outlets as the creation of a “US mom” from California, instead of its obvious, undeniable, discoverable-within-40-seconds-through-the-use-of-advanced data-mining-techniques-called-“Google”-and-“Topsy”-origins: Nigerians, both prominent and not. The hashtag spread in the US, first slowly and then with a spike, after it first circulated mostly among the large (at least million) Nigerian expat community as well as black feminist groups on Twitter.

In fact, just the story on how the so-called “US mom” (more on her in a bit) said she was the initiator is incredulous in its craziness. She tells the reported that she first heard it “on the radio.” It should be a minimum requirement to be employed as a journalist to able to figure out that by the time a story is *already* on the radio, it probably did not originate from the person “listening to it” on the radio. Yet, that was the story that ran on ABC Nightline, CNN and MSNBC among many others, crediting her as sparking the movement to which she was actually a two-bit latecomer at best (and the truth was worse).

Yet, as Wall Street Journal put it, it was “an irresistible story line: An American mom hears of terrible wrongs done to poor girls the age of her own daughter in a faraway land, then galvanizes social media, prompting the U.S. to act.” Also, as the Wall Street Journal discovered with a little bit of actual journalism, the naive “US mom” was actually director of a documentary on girls’ education, and it was the for-profit company which sponsored the documentary that realized the promotion opportunity--and supplied her with the talking points and the push. The documentary had been sold to CNN for $500,000, before #bringbackourgirls had even begun, and is set to air this weekend. Worse, the for-profit documentary company has now also started soliciting donations, even though nobody in Nigeria had asked for any, and the connection between the donated money and the campaign has not been made clear.

So far, this is an obvious and familiar pattern in which PR gets passed as news, and a self-interested party, hiding her affiliations, presents herself as a heroine. What is more interesting, and perhaps more revealing, is the reaction of the journalists who believed and promoted this story. In other words, the structure of the “credulity,” willing to believe a “US mom” with her implausible story is more revealing than who the “US mom” turned out to be.

The ABC story crediting her is quite telling. As the story claims, the “US mom” says she didn’t really know about hashtags and only has a few hundred followers on Twitter (so an unlikely candidate to start off a firestorm); she says she “heard the news on the radio” so it’s obvious even within the story that she didn’t start it all. Of course, the fact that the hashtag was started in Nigeria, by Nigerians, was easily discoverable, and, finally, and most importantly, of course the obvious explanation for the hashtag is it was started in Nigeria, a country of more than one hundred and fifty million people, at least fifty million of whom have some level of Internet access, as well as a large expat community in the United States.

So, here, I repeat a point that bears repeating: it is mind-numbingly obvious that the first US leg of the story would be among communities either connected to Nigeria (expats) or concerned about the plight of these young women (black feminist networks on Twitter). That I knew from the initial moments, as I could see it happen, but I hadn’t been following the spread of the false story crediting the “US mom” too closely. I learned most of the facts about that part from @taraconley who had previously done great archeology work on other stories of online campaigns and national media attention. She wasn’t the only one doing this correction, and I don’t mean to say it was her, and only her, whose presence in the newsroom would have made an obvious difference but, on the other hand, this much seems obvious: people connected to communities outside the insular structures of media or technology don’t just bring some color to the table. They bring the expertise, skills and sensibility that is currently lacking.

I don’t doubt that part of the story is the utter tech-illiteracy that still dominates newsrooms, along with deadline pressures, but the culturally important moment is this: erasing the obvious, actual, easily discoverable origins of the hashtag, Nigerians, requires a level of ingrained structural racism (and a US-centric worldview) that operates at an insidious level. This structural racism isn’t the externalized racism that makes you wish black people drank from a separate water fountain, or that non-US, non-Western populations would be enslaved and bombed. This is a structural, quiet racism that believes some stories over others, credits some people over others, and then resists attempts to correct. For a glimpse of the effort to correct the story, just check the Twitter feed of Alyssa Litoff, the ABC News Nightline producer, announcing the story (here) or the story itself (here), both littered with immediate, obvious corrections.

After the ABC story ran, after many harangued the producer to correct her story, all Litoff could muster was how the story was “updated to reflect that #BringBackOurGirls appeared on Twitter prior to Ramaa Mosley’s first tweet” even though the story pretty-much stayed as is: instead of an abject apology for such a gross misconstrual of facts, and eternal gratitude for people who corrected her immediately, we get a minor “update” that isn’t even an update that truly corrects the record. In many ways, the apology is worse than the initial act.

Which brings me to why diversity in the newsroom is important. If the person doing this story had any international awareness or roots, any connection to the communities involved in this story, any of the normal reactions of a person who is not thoroughly insular (why wouldn’t a hashtag about a Nigerian tragedy start in Nigeria?) and an impulse to check her story, even for an extra minute, she would not have chosen this path.

And, last, why does credit matter? It is true that the urge to seek the “first” person to tweet an hashtag is part of the (micro)celebrity culture, and misses the point: it is never the person, but the network, anyway, that makes hashtags matter. But, that said, erasing the person (and persons) and the network from whom the story and the struggle originated, and replacing it with one that is convenient in our imaginary, and wrapped up in structural racism and US-centric, worldview does matter, in many ways. Besides being simply wrong and incorrect, the politics of attention are sharp and with real and deep consequences: a global movement sparked by a “US mom” versus Nigerians itself has gravely different consequences on how the rest of this story plays, and may even have consequences for the lives of the girls themselves if the effort can be tainted as an external, US maneuver, instead of what it actually is: “a vital moment for Nigeria’s democracy.”

Once again, just like the Grantland fiasco, just like Google Buzz, just like Whisper and Facebook’s problems understanding privacy needs of large communities outside male developers in Silicon Valley, the real story is not that a journalist or a tech company got a difficult, intractable problem wrong, but that they got wrong something so very easy and so obvious. That happens not because of the insurmountable challenges they face, but the insular cultures--inside newsrooms, inside developer caves-- are coupled with other dysfunctions: news as infotainment, the venture capital cycle, the deadline churn and a lack of respect for the people who are affected by the stories they cover or the tools they build. And changing this requires many things, but first and easiest among them, is diversifying the people who tell stories in mass media and who build tools, but not in a tokenist way where people are valued for the color they bring to pale pictures but for the valuable perspective and life-experience they bring to the table.

Zeynep Tufekci is an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, a fellow at Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University, and a faculty associate at Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She blogs at TechnoSociology, writes for a variety of outlets, and can be found on Twitter at @zeynep.