People of color need to speak up on social media, say tech execs

Photo by Simon Abrams.
Photo by Simon Abrams.

At AdColor, officials from Facebook, YouTube, Google and Twitter explored the many ways technology can help drive empathy

The news that police in Tulsa, OK, had shot and killed an unarmed black man, Terrence Crutcher, on Monday naturally cast a long shadow over the 10th annual AdColor Conference & Awards in Boca Raton, FL., on Tuesday. But the audience sounded nonetheless surprised when Earnest Pettie, YouTube’s brand and diversity curation lead, revealed that Crutcher had grown up in his hometown, gone to his high school and was ultimately gunned down a block from his parents’ house.

Yet even with that connection, Pettie, speaking during a session titled "Technology: The Ubiquitous Social Activist," said he hesitated to share his feelings about the shooting on social media.

"When I saw all that stuff going through my Facebook feed, I had a decision," he said. "Do I just acknowledge that this is happening and just deal with it internally, or do I re-share these videos and add my thoughts?"

It’s a feeling that anyone with a Facebook page (which is pretty much everyone) knows well. What do I have to add to this conversation besides noise? Ultimately, Pettie decided to weigh in, and urged other members of underrepresented communities to do the same, regardless of how closely connected they may be to a situation.

"It’s easy to feel like your thoughts are not required as part of the conversation," he continued, "that you aren’t in a position to speak on a subject. But I think that everyone has the responsibility to add their voices to these conversations, and I think it’s something that doesn’t happen enough."

It’s rare to hear complaints that everyday people are sharing too little of themselves on social media. But it was a common refrain during the panel discussion, which also featured Nuria Santamaria Wolfe, head of multicultural strategy at Twitter; Kiva Wilson, Facebook’s diversity business partner for global marketing solutions; and moderator Chanelle Hardy, a manager of strategic outreach and public policy partnerships at Google.

The goal of all that sharing is not, of course, simply to raise the volume on Twitter, said the panelists, but rather to amplify social media’s capacity to help outsiders experience, in a small way, the struggles of disadvantaged and underrepresented communities.

"You can’t have a movement now without leveraging social media," said Wolfe. "It helps raise awareness, create consciousness, create a community. For those on the outside, it helps build empathy to a narrative they’re not experiencing themselves."

Specifically regarding the spate of unarmed black men shot dead by police over the past year that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, she said, "you can no longer dismiss these incidents as isolated. When you’re seeing it and experiencing it from people who are living it everyday, you can’t ignore it."

Ignoring such experiences is becoming even harder thanks to new tools like streaming video and, in particular, virtual reality, they said. As an example, Wilson cited the Guardian’s "6X9: A Virtual Experience of Solitary Confinement," which puts viewers in the body of a prisoner placed in isolation. "I sat in that experience for 5 minutes," she said, "and it felt like a year."

She then cited the potential for VR to help civic leaders better understand the people they represent. "I would love for there to be a basic VR experience of any of us walking into the average CVS, not looking like we do today, but like we do on a Saturday morning, in your sweats, and being followed," she said to laughter.

"It happens on a day-to-day basis, but until you walk, and you see those folks looking at you, you don’t act differently."

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