Social Media Used to Identify Charlottesville Protesters

17 August, 2017

People are turning to social media to identify white supremacists who attended last weekend's violent protest in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The white supremacists, including neo-Nazis, skinheads and Ku Klux Klan members, came to protest planned removal of a Confederate statue.

Heather Heyer was killed when a man drove his car into a group of counter protesters. Police said the driver was James Alex Fields Jr., described by a former teacher as a Nazi supporter. He is being held in jail on murder and other criminal charges.

The Twitter account @YesyoureRacist ran photos of people attending the protest organized under a "Unite the Right" banner. It asks people to identify the people pictured in the photos.

At least 10 people have been identified, as of Thursday. @YesyoureRacist's followers increased from about 60,000 before the Charlottesville protests to over 400,000.

Logan Smith of North Carolina is the man behind the @YesyoureRacist Twitter account. Smith started the account five years ago to report on racist comments about former President Barack Obama. As a white man, Smith said he believes people should be held responsible for racist and anti-Semitic speech.

Smith works for a liberal group in North Carolina. Smith said he is receiving threats of violence against him and his family.

"The threats are disturbing, but it's nothing that I consider credible," he said. "So right now, I'm just trying to get past this. And hold people responsible."

What happened to identified protestors

Among the people identified as joining in the violent Charlottesville protests on the @YesyoureRacist Twitter account are Cole White and Peter Cvjetanovic.

Soon after the report appeared on Smith's Twitter page, White gave up his job at Top Dog, a California restaurant.

Cvjetanovic told Channel 2 News in Nevada that he did not expect the photo of him marching with a burning stick in Charlottesville to be seen by so many people. He also said he is "not the angry racist they see in the photo."

The University of Nevada, Reno, said Cvjetanovic is a student at the school. Marc Johnson is president of the college. He said America's guarantee of freedom of speech means Cvjetanovic cannot be dismissed from the school.

"It requires us to support the right of people to express views which we sometimes vehemently disagree," Johnson said.

Some reports on social media are false

But not everything reported on social media about the Charlottesville violence is true. Smith had to apologize for identifying a person shown in a photo wearing a Nazi armband. The man said the picture was not taken in Charlottesville, but at an earlier event.

Other social media sites got it wrong when they identified a man wearing a University of Arkansas College of Engineering shirt as a teacher at the school. The teacher told the New York Times that he was attending an art exhibit in Arkansas and was not in Charlottesville last weekend.

This is not the first time social media got things wrong.

In 2013, people used social media site Reddit to name a missing student as a suspect in the Boston Marathon bombing that killed three and injured nearly 300 people.

It was not true. Two brothers, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were charged and convicted in the bombing. Reddit later apologized.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is pictured in this handout photo presented as evidence by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston, Massachusetts in 2015.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is pictured in this handout photo presented as evidence by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Boston, Massachusetts in 2015.

"The internet doesn't always get it right"

"I think the danger is that the internet doesn't always get it right," said Elizabeth Behm-Morawitz. She is an associate professor at the Department of Communications at the University of Missouri.

Social media can hold people accountable for racist and anti-Semitic opinions and even identify people who attacked people, Behm-Morawitz said. But for people accused wrongly, it is difficult to correct false reports once they reach thousands, even millions of people, on the internet.

The burning sticks carried on the University of Virginia campus Friday night were photographed and shown widely on social media and in television and newspaper news reports. It reminded some people of Nazi Party rallies in Germany before and during World War II.

The sticks are made by TIKI Brand. The company put out this statement on Facebook:

"TIKI Brand is not associated in any way with the events that took place," the company said.

I'm Jill Robins. And I'm Bruce Alpert.

Bruce Alpert reported on this story for VOA Learning English based on reports by the Associated Press, Reuters and other sources. Hai Do was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section and share your views on 51VOA.COM.


Words in This Story

white supremacist - n. person who believes whites are better than blacks and other races

counter protesters - n. people protesting a protest by a group with different opinions

disturbing - adj. very troubling

credible - adj. believable

accountable - adj. required to be responsible for something

uncomfortable - adj. making a person feel bad or uneasy

vehemently - adv. very strongly

associate - v. connected to someone or something