The Era of Exposure: How the Internet Has Awoken Social Justice

In the digital era, you have two choices: unplug your modem or bear witness to the world. Virginia Heffernan explains how the internet is more than an entertainment arena, it's also a courtroom floor.

Virginia Heffernan: Let's take the video of Philando Castile’s death. So that was shot by his fiancée and her readiness with her phone and her quick instinct to use Facebook Live was very potent in that video. People may remember that she is watching her fiancé bleed to death and at the same time calling out to two entities to witness her. The first is God and the second is Facebook. So she wants our witness. The purpose that we as users, as responsible users, as humane users of the Internet have, our responsibility is to bear witness in that way. Not to experience it ourselves so much as to testify to the fact that it happened, to serve as a massive jury of peers who give credence to the experience of other people.

And in that way I think that was an extremely profound moment crystallizing the way that we all use Facebook when we use it right or use Twitter when we use it right. You have Newt Gingrich now even saying white Americans don't understand the experience of black Americans. And that chasm, that gap in understanding has been one that the Internet is in large part responsible for, that there's a huge vocabulary, there's a set of symbols, that's what I think of it as an idiom set but also a testimony about experience of each of us, of each of us in different dialects that we weren't allowed or we didn't have access to communally share. Now we are, as some people say, in this adolescence with digital culture and we're trying to determine what to do with this infinitely polyglot culture, it speaks so many different languages.

I was reading - because why not - I was reading Henry James' account of being at Ellis Island at the beginning of the last century and his horror at what he calls the teaming and squirming massive flooding into New York, which now we would see as politically appalling as a level of disgust that goes hand-in-hand with certain antiseptic right wing nativist thinking, especially coming from a waspy Henry James figure, mirrors almost exactly the vocabulary that people use when they describe Twitter, when they describe YouTube comments. These people are illiterate, they're angry, they're squirming and teaming. That is a natural reaction to people who feel like they belong here and their space is being seized by peoples whose language they don't speak, who are in many, many ways alien to them. But the Internet shows us over and over again and the billions of us who use Facebook know that that exposure is not necessary but good for us. But good for us. It's exposing our immune system to test over and over to different memes that confront our bodies the way microbes do and raise our immune system, ask us to be more robust citizens.

Black Lives Matter is a movement that swept across the United States after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. The movement is massive enough to have its own Twitter, Tumblr, and URL. In two years it has unfortunately amassed a library o of articles on Wikipedia, with links to many pages about shootings of young black American citizens and other deaths.


Black Lives Matter is a social justice movement that campaigns for better treatment of African American citizens in the hands of the law, and an end to the systematic violence and racism that black people in America have to deal with every day. While many chant in retort ‘all lives matter,’ it is people of color, not white people, who deal with the everyday racism and heightened risks that being of color entails. Opposition to Black Lives Matter gets us nowhere, and allows close-mindedness and hate to persevere. George Zimmerman is reportedly still walking around bragging about killing Trayvon Martin.

Virginia Heffernan, author of Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet and journalist for the New York Times, believes the power and success (in awareness, at least) of the Black Lives Matter movement is due to the internet, and the ability to capture long-running injustice or even live-stream it in the digital age. Most famously and most disturbing was Philando Castile’s fiancée's quick instinct in streaming his death on Facebook Live, calling on the users of the internet as witnesses, to "serve as a massive jury of peers who give credence to the experience of other people," as Heffernan says.

The internet has created a public testimony that reaches across social divides and stirs consciousness into those who are normally untouched by the issues of minorities. Where previously our experiences of life have been so different our stories may as well be in different languages, the internet is the great translator.

We may not always like what we see or read there. It may cause us pain, disgust, and discomfort, but Heffernan argues that exposure to other people’s stories will ultimately make us better, just as being exposed to germs makes our bodies stronger. Kids raised in antiseptic environments have the weakest immune systems, so to be strong as a society we need to be confronted by truths and experiences. The internet can be a powerful vaccination against apathy and willful ignorance.

Virginia Heffernan is the author of Magic and Loss: The Pleasures of the Internet.

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