This article contains descriptions of racist violence.
In a culture struggling with highly visible incidents of racism — like November 2022 leaked footage of influencer Sophia Rosing using racial slurs — it’s imperative for creators to figure out how virality around a hate incident for social media Platforms like TikTok or Twitter and how the internet has changed our understanding of accountability.
On November 6, 2022, video surfaced of a white University of Kentucky student drunk entering a dorm room. In the footage, the student, who was later identified as a social media marketing student and campus “influencer” Sophia Rosing, appeared to then attack and racially abuse two black people.
One of those victims came forward and identified herself as Kylah Spring, a housing assistant, and the other is a college student who has yet to be publicly identified. During the altercation, footage appears to show Rosing attempting to run over Spring with a shopping cart and pelting Spring with punches. Within the ten minutes of the video, Rosing can be heard yelling the N-word more than 200 times, with footage suggesting the insult was aimed at Spring. Rosing was reportedly arrested around 4 a.m Daily Mail.
Rosing was charged with driving while intoxicated in a public place, assault, disorderly conduct and assaulting an officer. She pleaded not guilty, and a grand jury will next decide whether there is enough evidence to indict her. Meanwhile, Rosing was released on a $10,000 bond. She has yet to speak publicly about the incident, but her lawyer reportedly said she was “under treatment” and “will apologize in due course.”
Shortly after the altercation, local students organized a rally in Spring’s honor, at which she spoke and described her attack. After the racist incident, Spring uploaded the video to TikTok as evidence, and it quickly went viral. As of December 12, 2022, the hashtag #sophiarosing has over 43 million views on TikTok.
Rosing was a well-known social media marketing ambassador and “influencer” with her school’s Campus Collective Program in partnership with Dillard’s and her lost her ambassadorship with the program as a result of negative publicity.
For many Spring supporters, losing her influencer opportunity with Dillard’s was not enough for Rosing in terms of accountability. A TikTok user said the University of Kentucky should close its investigation and expel Rosing for her behavior.
The University of Kentucky responded to Passionfruit’s request for comment by posting its official statement on its website, which reads, “We are aware of this incident. The video is deeply offensive and we take it very seriously. An arrest was made in this incident. We are conducting an immediate review and have reached out to the student victim to offer assistance. The safety and well-being of our students is our top priority and we do not tolerate behavior that is threatening to them. As soon as we know more details, we will share more information.” According to the website, Rosing has not been a student at the school since November 9, 2022.
When asked by Passionfruit how the internet has changed the way we respond to racism and seek accountability, Professor Sarah Florini, whose research at Arizona State University examines how black people navigate social media, said: “In a way are these forms of accountability extensions of how we used to enforce norms. What is new about it is that it becomes media content. It becomes a spectacle and it explodes in a way we’ve never seen before.”
In the Internet age, it can be difficult to distinguish between a spectacle created for entertainment and a viral incident that leads to meaningful social change. Black students have a long history of struggling with racial violence, which may or may not be addressed depending on whether they have been recorded. At Ohio University, a black visiting student was brutally arrested on video in 2019 after being falsely accused by local police of using a fake ID. For students from marginalized backgrounds, online hate and disinformation can become real threats, like an Asian-American student being attacked by a COVID conspiracy theorist.
Videos from Spring describing their experiences on Facebook and YouTube have been banned for violating community guidelines, according to a now-deleted Spring TikTok post. Although video evidence can result in viewers being exposed to a traumatic second-hand event, it is fair to say that the removal of such videos means that victims like Kylah Spring or her supporters are effectively digitally censored for speaking out against racism.
A 2022 study for the journal information, communication and security shows that white content creators often receive more engagement when speaking about racism than black content creators and racial differences in the pay of white and black content creators. These issues are symptoms of a larger reality in which anti-Black violence and disinformation are hugely profitable because of their viral nature.
When asked about the profit margin for social media platforms when racist incidents go viral, Dr. Florini: “This type of incident gets a lot of clicks. They get a lot of traffic and that’s good for social media platforms. All they want is for you to stay on the platform so they can collect more data and show you more ads. The moments of outrage generate a lot of traffic, so they’re very, very profitable.”
A 2022 technology transparency report titled Facebook profits from white racist groups examines the profitability of hate online. The report notes how Facebook capitalizes on the presence of white supremacist groups on its website by monetizing search results for these groups. It was also found that Facebook searches for “Ku Klux Klan” resulted in generated ads from black churches.
For racial accountability to be a more serious consequence in the internet age, social media companies would need to change their practices to affect our current patterns of accountability. These potential changes include moving Community Guidelines to more specifically define what types of racial violence are highlighted by what types of users, choosing not to benefit from generated ads about content related to hate speech or white supremacy, and the combating disinformation.
According to a report by Journal for Democracy, a leading journal of democratic theory and practice, perceived skepticism about anti-Black violence goes hand-in-hand with how business practices on social media align it with authoritarianism and white supremacy. For this reality to be different, significant changes would need to be made to these platforms.
Soccer player Rio Ferdinand recently released the documentary series, turning point, which examines racism in football and the ways social media platforms capitalize on hateful content. Shaka Hislop from the Anti-Racism Advocacy Group, Show racism the red card, argued that social media companies should change their framework by changing their number of users, whether hateful or not, and holding users accountable for sharing or using violent content. Other TikTok users noted how social media algorithms reward engagement, whether the content is hateful or not, and how this creates a culture of creators becoming known for racist behavior.
On this subject, Dr. Florini made it clear that both individuals and social media companies should be held accountable for perpetrating or profiting from racist violence. In the case of Sophia Rosing, accountability so far has consisted of having her racist act exposed to millions of people online, losing a trademark contract, being suspended from the University of Kentucky and then withdrawing from the University of Kentucky, and facing possible criminal charges .
Speaking about the enduring trauma of people who have experienced racist violence, Dr. Florini: “As much as there is accountability for the example in Kentucky, for the white woman [Rosing] who did the damage, it is too [about] the circulation of the woman’s trauma [Spring] that was bad. Both circulate as a media spectacle.”
Passionfruit has reached out to Facebook, YouTube and Dillard’s for comments via email, Kylah Spring via social media, and Sophia Rosing via her attorney.
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