The legion of websites, bloggers, talk show jocks, and the occasional GOP official that has teed off on President Obama and at times Michelle Obama with assorted borderline racist digs, taunts, and depictions have been relentless. The offensive remarks quickly evoke a storm of outrage, and the offender gets rebuked. This happens because they are public figures, and their comments are publicly aired. They fly high on the public's radar scope.
But that's not the case with the growing barrage of racist assaults on Obama, and other minorities on social media sites. Baylor University researchers, for instance, recently tracked more than 20 Facebook page groups and users and found them jam-packed with racist venom aimed at Obama, blacks and other minorities. The growing number of groups that churn hate on social media sites are secure in the knowledge that they won't be caught or called out on it.
The signal that Obama would trigger a titanic wave of race baiting and stereotyping danger in cyberspace came the moment that he announced he would seek the presidency in February 2007. He had the dubious distinction of being the earliest presidential contender to be assigned Secret Service protection on the campaign trail. As the showdown with Republican presidential rival John McCain heated up in the general election in 2008, the flood of crank, crackpot, and screwball threats that promised murder and mayhem toward Obama continued to pour in. This prompted the Secret Service to tighten security and take even more elaborate measures to ensure his safety. As president, the threats against Obama have been non-stop.
But the first real tip that hate could also find a safe haven on social media sites was the infamous Facebook assassination poll in September 2009. The target was Obama. Hundreds of respondents dignified the question that asked: "Should Obama be killed?" by answering. If the poll hadn't been quickly yanked, thousands more might have answered the bizarre and murderous question with an answer.
In the nearly three years since then, dozens of hate groups have popped up on Facebook. They have several things in common. Their prime target is Obama. They let fly with the most grotesque, offensive, and rabid hate depictions of the president, blacks and other minorities. Thousands of respondents chime in with their own racial haranguing broadsides. They have de facto protection from Facebook, not because Facebook condones or even turns a blind eye to racism on its site and by its users. It has a very strict policy to snatch any group from the site that makes racial, gender, religious, sexual orientation attacks against individuals or groups. But Facebook bases its existence and success on being a virtually, free and open social media platform.
Facebook permits, even takes pride, in letting individuals and groups to poke fun, level ridicule, and toss jibes at any and everything under the guise of humor or satire at others. It's the old free speech canard. Facebook's extreme reluctance to inhibit the free expression of ideas and opinions no matter how many persons may be offended at the humor or satire provides virtual open license for groups and individuals to spew racial hate. For example, in one posting Obama is depicted in hip hop garb with a bucket of chicken. In another, a grinning Obama has a bandanna on his head and a mouth full of gold teeth with the caption "Going for the African-American vote." The hate groups outwit the Facebook policy enforcers by avoiding use of the more blatant racial slurs and epithets. They use such neutral language as "Obama is a lousy president." They know that this will stir an avalanche of comments, many of which will be laced with racial slurs and propagate racial stereotypes.
The social media hate groups also are adept at using innocuous key words and race neutral titles to give the façade that their criticism of the White House has no hidden racial animus. Many innocent social media networkers stumble on the hate group pages and are appalled at what they see and read. But they are still exposed to the hate-mongering and that insures a wider audience.
Hate groups have honed in on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media platforms to influence and even recruit others to their ranks. As the closely contested 2012 presidential election further heats up, more groups will skirt the social media censors and ratchet up their hate filled vitriol on their sites. They'll pawn it off as poking fun and satire at Obama, and minorities. And for the most part they'll get away with it.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is a frequent political commentator on MSNBC and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of How Obama Governed: The Year of Crisis and Challenge. He is an associate editor of New America Media. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK-Radio and the Pacifica Network.