Posted on January 19, 2015

Getting Racists Sacked: #FreeSpeechStories

BBC News, January 18, 2015

Chris Rincon worked at a car wash in Houston, Texas, and he thought nothing of posting a link to a fake news article about President Obama’s daughter being pregnant to Facebook. But while exchanging comments with his friends he used a highly offensive slur against black people–and it eventually cost him his job.

Rincon’s post was shared to a Tumblr called “Racists Getting Fired (and Getting Racists Fired!)“.

Fans of the blog are encouraged to find and share incidents of racism online, expose those who’ve posted them, and then call and email the person’s employer until they are sacked. According to the blog, over a dozen people have been fired or, in their words, “Gotten”.

Rincon had been up most of the night playing video games when BBC Trending spoke to him. It’s been a couple of weeks since he lost his job and he’s still not back in work.

“I’m not going to sit here and deny that I didn’t use the word,” he said. “Because it’s clear as day that I did use it.”

“The fact that I was targeted specifically and individually really bothers me because I’m not the only person who has views in this aspect. It made me lose my job. I have a three-year-old kid that I’m trying to support . . . They’re basing (their views of) a person off of one post instead of actually knowing the person,” he said.

Rincon owned up to making the comment but one woman exposed on the blog has claimed she was wrongly targeted–her lawyers told BBC Trending that she was set up by someone she knew, and that death threats had been made against her.

The person or people behind Racists Getting Fired did not respond to our requests for comment. However the blog does set out some rules. It states that the bloggers only use already publicly available information about the person, and only target people over 18. They also urge blog readers not to harass the individuals or their family members, and to only contact the employers of the alleged racists.

But when does this idea of online justice cross the line to harassment?

“The issue comes down to motivation,” said Whitney Phillips, an expert in online behaviour at Humboldt State University in California. “What is the difference between a vigilante and a troll? The answer is what they think about what they’re doing.”

“The issue of anonymity really complicates our ability to wrap our heads around what we’re seeing.”

One vigilante who’s not remaining anonymous is Logan Smith. He’s 27, lives in North Carolina and runs the twitter handle @YesYoureRacist. The idea is pretty simple–Logan starts his day by searching on Twitter for the phrase “I’m not racist but . . .” and then retweets the comments that he deems offensive to his 55,000 followers.

He started the account to show that racism is alive online, but says it’s become popular because of the often amusing juxtaposition of the phrase and a racist comment.

But is there something underhand about taking comments that were perhaps only meant for a handful of people to see, and repeating them to tens of thousands, even millions of people, across the world?

“I’m just a guy with a keyboard,” Smith said, “but I think I’ve made some good calls and I’ll just let it be up to other people on Twitter to decide. People need to understand that what they post on social media in a public forum, really is public.”