Censorship on social media is a tricky issue. Platforms like Twitter and Instagram have to balance community policing with freedom of expression. When does bullying cross the line? Should hate speech be banned? And who gets to decide? It's often a grey area — except when it's black and white.
Since Kim Kardashian uploaded snippets on Sunday night of Kanye's conversation with Taylor Swift — you know, the phone call about "Famous" that Swift insisted never happened — Kimye supporters have been hard-core trolling Swift's Instagram response to the debacle. Commenters have been calling her a liar, a fake, and things much nastier than that — or simply resorting to the snake emoji, as inspired by this tweet of Kardashian's. Not nice — but nothing egregious or unusual, either.
But Swift apparently warrants special treatment. Instagram has reportedly been policing negative comments on the singer's account — and people have noticed. "Instagram spent all of yesterday deleting any 'mean' comments or snake emojis from Taylor Swift's Instagram," wrote one of many users calling out the platform. Others are reporting that Instagram is straight-up blocking anyone from commenting with the snake emoji on any of Swift's posts. Finding this hard to believe, I tested it out myself. Sure enough, seconds after I commented with the snake emoji on Swift's Instagram, it disappeared.
Obviously, Swift is getting some kind of preferential treatment. Terrible and abusive things are said on Instagram every day, and many of those comments remain. "So @instagram is protecting @taylorswift13 and not the numerous people that deal with harassment. Oh what white, blonde money buys," one user tweeted. "Why the special attention?" another asked. It's a damn good question.
Meanwhile, for the past 24 hours, racist trolls have been bludgeoning actress Leslie Jones on Twitter. Bigoted users armed with racial epithets and disgusting memes have been attacking the Ghostbusters star for reasons that have nothing to do with her and everything to do with their own shittiness as humans. It's horrifying and it's unacceptable. "I feel like I'm in a personal hell," Jones wrote on Twitter. "I didn't do anything to deserve this."
Jones tried to bring the issue to Twitter's attention by retweeting some of the horrifying attacks, which, frankly, are so offensive that I refuse to recirculate them here. While I'm happy to report that supporters are rallying behind the actress using the hashtag #LoveForLeslieJ, the company's silence is deafening. Jones directly appealed to Twitter for help. "Twitter I understand you got free speech I get it. But there has to be some guidelines when you let spread like that [sic]." Twitter may well have frozen some users' access, but clicking around her page, I discovered that nearly all of the users Jones retweeted appear to still have active accounts.
So, what the hell? Emoji spam is censurable, but racist hate-speech isn't? Twitter and Instagram are different platforms with separate community guidelines, yes. But taken together, what these two stories suggest about the role of race and privilege when it comes to hate speech and censorship on social media is truly deplorable. Taylor Swift needs protection from bullies, but Leslie Jones can fend for herself against racist harassers? A famous white woman is quickly shielded from any hurtful comments, while a famous Black woman has to beg for protection? Unfortunately, this insidious brand of racial bias is all too familiar. In the real world, Black people endure mistreatment by authorities — and the resulting fear that those charged with protecting them are not on their side. The truth is, the situation isn't all that different on Twitter and Instagram. Social media should be a safe space for Black men and women. It's not.