Karen Celestino-Horseman: Context is everything on social media

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Karen Celestino-HorsemanBREAKING: White House unveils “Save the Negroes” initiative which will ban the sale of pork, Hennessey, and Swisher Sweets to decrease health disparities. “Menthols were just the beginning. We’re [sic] gotta save the blacks from themselves,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

When I first read this tweet, I drew in an audible gasp. I could not believe what I was reading, so I went to the Twitter account to learn more about the author, Jeff Charles. It turns out that he is a conservative libertarian who happens to be Black and who later claimed he had posted this tweet as “satire” in an effort to promote his YouTube channel featuring “conservative and libertarian commentary.”

When another Twitter user—who is also Black—asked the author of the tweet why he was “giving” permission to denigrate Black culture, the author responded: “Something tells me you’re only mad about me making fun of Democrats and how they view us. If I’d done this tweet the same way but switched the parties, you wouldn’t be pretending to be mad about it.”

This response gave me pause. As a Democrat reading the tweet, I very well could see it as satire playing upon the last administration by giving the tweet my own context.

Many responded to the tweet by asking if it was true. One young man asked if it was true and then stated that he had searched for but could not find a video clip of Jen Psaki stating “we’re [sic] gotta save the blacks from themselves”. At least the young man was trying to give the tweet context by trying to evaluate whether the tweet was fact or fiction.

Lack of context is the problem with Twitter and any other social media platform that limits the number of characters that can be used, particularly when there is no ability to read the situation or physical nuances. For example, if the words of the tweet were uttered during the stand-up performance of a Black comedian, the words would have context. If you saw and heard the same words being spoken by a member of the KKK, the words would have context—an ugly context, but context nonetheless. But when the words appear simply as black-and-white text, everyone is left to paint their own context.

If you dislike President Biden, when you work to place the tweet in a context, you want to believe it might be true. If you like Biden, your context is that you do not want it to be true and so you try to resolve whether it is false. If you are a racist and read the tweet, you might initially think it is a funny comment. If you are offended by the words, you might assume the words were uttered by a racist person.

Context is important. If the author of the tweet does not provide context, then the reader, before doing anything with the statement, must research and determine the context. This is where the problem arises. People share all kinds of things they find on the internet and believe that, because they are not the author of the words or the creator of the meme, it is OK to share it without determining the context in which it was offered.

Context is everything. Fighting words might not be fighting words, depending upon the context. So, when reading social media, determine the context.•


Celestino-Horseman is an Indianapolis attorney. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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