Last weekend, one of my teenage daughters showed me a TikTok post from a young white male “influencer” she adores called Hyram.
Normally, his videos tell his millions of followers how to handle skincare issues, such as choosing a cleanser or fighting acne.
Not now. This week, his top tips were focused on tear gas — and how American teens should deal with the likelihood that it will be fired at them during a protest of the kind that have erupted all over the US after a white police officer killed George Floyd, a black man, in Minneapolis.
“Make sure you prepare beforehand,” Hyram told his fans, instructing them not to wear the make-up he usually champions in his videos, since “the oils present in make-up will cling to the tear gas or the Mace and make it even worse for your eyes, your mouth or anywhere else on your face”.
If they were tear-gassed, he added, his fans should use chilled milk to ease the pain, followed by a weak mix of soapy water. “Whatever you do, do not rub, touch any part of your face,” he explained in the soothing tones he normally deploys to discuss facial serums.
It’s a surreal moment in teenage cyberspace. Like many parents, until quite recently I tended to yell at my daughters if they watched too many TikTok videos. The platform seemed like junk food for the brain — a stream of silly dances, celebrity posts, teenage gossip and displays of flashy consumerism.
Now, though, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram are turning into forums for civic activism — even for privileged, middle-class children like my own. There are posts telling teenagers to put their mobile phones into airplane mode if they go near a demonstration to avoid being tracked. My daughter’s feed has been overwhelmed with videos showing both distressing images of police assaulting peaceful demonstrators — and of police officers kneeling in protest against racism. Acquaintances of hers have posted videos of police attacks they have filmed on their own phones in New York.
There are impassioned calls from black teenagers for racial justice — and calls for white teens to demonstrate their cyber solidarity as well. “Don’t wait for your black friends to chime in or to get called out on Twitter,” says one typical post. “It isn’t on them, it’s on you . . . don’t back away from conflict just because it makes you uncomfortable.” Indeed, as protests escalate, many teenagers have deliberately stopped talking about the topics they often obsess about on TikTok. “Read the room!” messaged Collin Brientnall, another influencer, this week.
What will future historians make of this? One obvious point is that America’s youth is becoming increasingly politicised, even in its more pampered corners. Another lesson is that the internet is changing the dynamics of protest. In the 1960s, news about police brutality against anti-Vietnam war protesters and civil rights groups disseminated quite slowly, and mostly through television, radio or newspapers. Protests were inspired by leaders who galvanised their followers on the street, such as Martin Luther King Jr.
Today, these leaders are increasingly found online, where their words reach people much faster than before. So does information about events, since protesters are disintermediating traditional forms of media (my daughter saw the horrific eight-minute-and-46-second video of the killing of George Floyd long before me, as it arrived in her social media feed before the mainstream news had reported it).
There is another important point about the polarised nature of cyber echo chambers. The reason my daughter’s friends are receiving pro-#BlackLivesMatter content about the protests is because algorithms have profiled them: they live in a liberal city (New York) and love watching Trevor Noah, the South African comedian and anti-racist campaigner. My children also happen to be biracial.
But there are numerous other voices on social media that my daughter is not hearing right now, since they never appear anywhere in the online universe she inhabits (unless it is to be parodied by Noah). I make a point of following diverse political views on Twitter, so I have seen tweets this week from outlets such as Breitbart, with headlines that blame violence at the protests on leftwing provocateurs (typical quote: “Black Lives Matter is a joke! You are the racists!”). This is something I personally disagree with. I am furious about endemic racism and the entrenched inequities that Covid-19 is now so cruelly exposing. But I want to listen to different views. And I think teenagers should too.
A world full of echo chambers is a place where it is difficult to create sensible policy solutions. It is also a place that is easy for provocateurs to manipulate. (There is speculation that Russian or Chinese outlets may be using social media to spark more unrest in an effort to influence American institutions, echoing what was seen in 2016, while domestic political groups may also be seeking to inflame tensions in order to influence the November election.) And that is before you throw in the additional ingredients of tear gas, rubber bullets and youthful emotion.
I fear a long, dangerously hot summer, both on the streets and in cyberspace.
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