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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  • Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada.
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LGBT groups are saying that Facebook is endangering lives by advertising misleading medical information pertaining to HIV patients.

The tech giant's laissez-faire ad policy has already been accused of threatening democracy by providing a platform for false political ads, and now policy could be fostering a major public-health concern.

LGBT groups take on Facebook’s ad policy

According to LGBT advocates, for the past six months Facebook and Instagram users have been inundated with misleading ads about medication that prevents the transmission of HIV (PrEP), such as Truvada. The ads, which The Washington Post reports appear to have been purchased by personal-injury lawyers, claim that these medications threaten patients with serious side effects. According to LGBT organizations led by GLAAD, the ads have left some patients who are potentially at risk of contracting HIV scared to take preventative drugs, even though health officials and federal regulators say the drugs are safe.

LGBT groups like GLAAD, which regularly advises Facebook on LGBT issues, reached out to the company to have the ads taken down, saying they are false. Yet, the tech titan has refused to remove the content claiming that the ads fall within the parameters of its policy. Facebook spokeswoman Devon Kearns told The Post that the ads had not been rated false by independent fact-checkers, which include the Associated Press. But others are saying that Facebook's controversial approach to ads is creating a public-health crisis.

In an open letter to Facebook sent on Monday, GLAAD joined over 50 well-known LGBTQ groups including the Human Rights Campaign, the American Academy of HIV Medicine and the National Coalition for LGBT Health to publicly condemn the company for putting "real people's lives in imminent danger" by "convincing at-risk individuals to avoid PrEP, invariably leading to avoidable HIV infections."

What Facebook’s policy risks 

Of course, this is not the first time Facebook's policy has faced scrutiny when it comes to false or ambiguous information in its ads. Social media has been both a catalyst and conduit for the rapid-fire spread of misinformation to the world wide web. As lawmakers struggle to enforce order to cyberspace and its creations, Facebook has become a symbol of the threat the internet poses to our institutions and to public safety. For example, the company has refused to take down 2020 election ads, largely funded by the Trump campaign, that spew false information. For this reason, Facebook and other social media platforms present a serious risk to a fundamental necessity of American democracy, public access to truth.

But this latest scandal underlines how the misconstrued information that plagues the web can infect other, more intimate aspects of American lives. Facebook's handling of paid-for claims about the potential health risks of taking Truvada and other HIV medications threatens lives.

"Almost immediately we started hearing reports from front-line PrEP prescribers, clinics and public health officials around the country, saying we're beginning to hear from potential clients that they're scared of trying Truvada because they're seeing all these ads on their Facebook and Instagram feeds," said Peter Staley, a long-time AIDS activist who works with the PrEP4All Collaboration, to The Post.

Unregulated Surveillance Capitalism

To be fair, the distinction between true and false information can be muddy territory. Personal injury lawyers who represent HIV patients claim that the numbers show that the potential risks of medications such as Turvada and others that contain the ingredient antiretroviral tenofovir may exist. This is particularly of note when the medication is used as a treatment for those that already have HIV rather than prevention for those that do not. But the life-saving potential of the HIV medications are unequivocally real. The problem, as some LGBT advocates are claiming, is that the ads lacked vital nuance.

It also should be pointed out that Facebook has taken action against anti-vaccine content and other ads that pose threats to users. Still, the company's dubious policies clearly pose a big problem, and it has shown no signs of adjusting. But perhaps the underlying issue is the failure to regulate what social psychologist Shoshana Zuboff calls "surveillance capitalism" by which people's experiences, personal information, and characteristics become commodities. In this case, paid-for personal-injury legal ads that target users with certain, undisclosed characteristics. It's been said that you should be wary of what you get for free, because it means you've become the product. Facebook, after all, is a business with an end goal to maximize profits.

But why does a company have this kind of power over our lives? Americans and their legislators are ensnared in an existential predicament. Figure out how to regulate Facebook and be accused with endangering free speech, or leave the cyber business alone and risk the public's health going up for sale along with its government.