Shree Paradkar: Did Twitter take sides after the Colten Boushie verdict?

The aftermath of Gerald Stanley's acquittal in the death of Colten Boushie played out on social media, holding up a mirror to the best and worst of society, with some of the racist results we have come to expect. Solidarity behind victims of online attacks is more surprising.

People take part in a vigil in support of Colten Boushie's family, following the acquittal of Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley on charges in connection with Boushie's death, Tuesday, February 13, 2018 in Montreal.


People take part in a vigil in support of Colten Boushie's family, following the acquittal of Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley on charges in connection with Boushie's death, Tuesday, February 13, 2018 in Montreal.

It’s the response to tragedies that often serves as a mirror to the character of a society and, as with individuals, societal dispositions carry inherent contradictions.

The aftermath of the shocking acquittal 10 days ago of the white farmer Gerald Stanley in the shooting death of First Nations man Colten Boushie ignited a national discussion on Twitter. That it brought out the raging racists and supremacists who said it was OK to shoot “Indians” who trespassed, is an uncomfortable but expected truth. But the platform also saw the emergence of an allyship in #settlecollector, a hashtag to help Indigenous people redirect racist attacks to allies who jump in and deal with them.

With very fine people — on both sides, of course — duking it out on its platform, which side does a supposedly race-neutral new tech such as Twitter police?

Anishinaabe scholar Veldon Coburn has written thoughtfully about the injustice not just in Indigenous deaths but in Indigenous lives. “If the courts are reformed and procedural methods are altered … such reorganization and improvement does nothing to address the unjust conditions of lived Indigenous existence,” he wrote in Policy Options.

Last weekend, Twitter’s actions offered a peek into the injustice of that existence for all non-dominant groups. On Feb. 18, Coburn tweeted a criticism of a federal early childhood development program.

“The colonial government is a deadbeat parent,” he wrote. “It’s guaranteeing Indigenous disadvantage from cradle to early grave. And their internal documents confirm their own knowledge of this injustice. They’re creating #ColtenBoushie’s.”

A person with the handle @iverson_theron popped up in Coburn’s mentions soon after. After a few rounds of back and forth came the threat of gun violence, “F---, I want to pop you in the lips.”

So Coburn took a screenshot and tweeted: “Delightful threat of violence from @iverson_theron of Battleford, Saskatchewan. I wonder how the @RCMPSK would react when a white settler threatens an Indigenous person?” A couple of days prior, a Mountie had reportedly written on a private Facebook page that Boushie “got what he deserved.” So Cobourn also added tongue-in-cheek, “Or do we have to wonder at all?”

Racist who threatens versus scholar who reports the threat. Quick, who wins?

Within hours of his tweet on Monday, Coburn got a notice from Twitter that he had violated its terms of service. Other than letting him browse tweets and send direct messages, it had locked his account. No tweets or retweets or likes allowed, for seven days.

“Twitter is fine with literal Nazis with swastikas and Hitler flags and letting them go free and say the most violent things,” Coburn told me.

“But when someone from minority communities raises it, they take it out on the victim of it and let the perpetrator walk free.”

Nobody knows who complained to Twitter. Was it the person who made the threats but faced no consequences? (He appeared to have deleted his account Tuesday.) Was it the RCMP? If the action wasn’t human-enforced, what words in Coburn’s tweets triggered Twitter’s elaborate algorithms?

On Tuesday, less than 24 hours after locking him out, Twitter apologized to Coburn for “any inconvenience this may have caused.”

“After viewing your account it looks like we made an error,” it said.

That suggests Twitter had not viewed Coburn’s account before it took action. It did so after pressure brought on by journalists, writers, academics and activists who demanded his reinstatement.

Coburn found hope in that solidarity. “We should continue to stay strong,” he said. “And continue to do it fearlessly.”

What if Coburn was not a scholar, a PhD candidate at Queen’s University and a professor at McGill? What if Coburn had not been the person who outted an Ottawa police officer for racist online comments, a story that made national headlines after the cop underwent profound change after meeting with and working with Indigenous communities?

What about ordinary Indigenous people, Black people and other people of colour who have to fight for their humanity on digital media, whether it’s by voicing their frustration, offering opinions or spreading the news on issues of discrimination? The abuse they face is public, out there for anyone to see. And in existing unfettered, it becomes legitimized.

Twitter has (as has Facebook) struggled to address racism and other hate speech spread on its site. “We see voices being silenced on Twitter every day. We’ve been working to counteract this for the past two years,” CEO Jack Dorsey wrote in October, soon after the #MeToo movement began. He promised changes would come within weeks.

Removing blue “verification” signs from the accounts of prominent white supremacists was a start. As for the rest, we’re still waiting.

Late on Tuesday, Twitter suspended the account of fiery labour activist Terri Monture, who is Mohawk of the Wolf Clan.

And so it goes.

Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity. You can follow her @shreeparadkar

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