Recently, the Cleveland Plain Dealer announced it had turned off comments on stories about Tamir Rice because “just about every piece we published about Tamir immediately became a cesspool of hateful, inflammatory or hostile comments.” The Montana Standard shared plans to end commenter anonymity, retroactively and going forward, due to “posters who consistently offer destructive and noxious comments.” A 2014 study found roughly seven racist tweets are sent every minute, which equals about 10,000 per day. And in recognition of just how much vitriolic racism exists on the video platform, satirical newspaper the Onion headlined an article “YouTube Reaches 1 Trillion Racist Comments.”
Now, in an effort to combat the endless racism spewed by anonymous online trolls, a Brazilian group is putting those bigoted messages on billboards and placing them near the posters’ homes. The Virtual Racism, Real Consequences campaign began after Maria Julia Coutinho, a black weather reporter on one of the country’s most popular programs, became the target of numerous racist social media messages. The hateful words came in response to the posting of Coutinho’s photo on the program’s Facebook page this past July 3—which, ironically, is Brazil’s annual National Day to Combat Racial Discrimination.
Criola, a civil rights group led by Afro-Brazilian women, began geotagging the messages to identify the locations from which the writers published their posts. Armed with an address, they began posting each racist message on a billboard near the poster’s house—though they pixelated avatars and screen names. The goal is twofold: to suggest to those hiding behind their computer screens that their anonymity isn’t as secure as they thought, and to broadcast how damaging these messages are.
“Those people [who post abuse online] think they can sit in the comfort of their homes and do whatever they want on the Internet,” Jurema Werneck, the founder of Criola, said in an interview with the BBC. “We don’t let that happen. They can’t hide from us, we will find them.”
Race is complex in Brazil, where a majority have some African lineage but many have historically been hesitant to identify as such because of the historical marginalization of black people in the country. Much of this is based almost purely on skin color; what’s considered “mulatto” or “pardo” in Brazil would be defined as black in many other countries. That’s begun to change with cultural shifts resulting from recent movements to reclaim black identities.
Only time will tell if the billboards will impact online racism. Trolls are probably very surprised—and perhaps panicked—to see that their words are writ large near their homes, but also relieved that they remain anonymous all the same. Organizers say they hope “to raise awareness and start a discussion…[b]ecause, after all, the worst enemy of racism is silence.”
Translation: “GFY dirty n*gga, I dunno u but I wash myself.”
Translation: “A black girl named Maju? You can’t complain about prejudice, GFY.”
Translation: “If she bathed properly, she wouldn’t get that grimy.”