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Meet the Mind Behind Barack Obama’s Online Persona

You’ve most definitely seen it by now. Michelle Obama, wearing a red-and-white checkered dress, stands with her back to the camera. Her arms are wrapped around her husband, the hints of a smile lingering on the edges of his lips. “Four more years,” reads the text, which was posted on the Obama campaign’s social media accounts around 11:15pm on election night‚ just as it became clear the president had won a second term. 

The photo, taken by campaign photographer Scout Tufankjian just a few days into the job, pretty much won the internet: 816,000 retweets, the most likes ever on Facebook; thousands of reblogs on Tumblr. And yet it wasn’t chosen by the president’s press secretary, or even a senior-level operative, but by 31-year-old Laura Olin, a social media strategist who’d been up since 4am. For the first time since the campaign ended, she talked to Tumblr, in partnership with The Daily Beast, about what it’s like being the voice of the President — where millions of people, and a ravenous press, await your every grammatical error.

So how does it actually work, being the voice of the President? Who makes the decisions about what to post?

All of our decisions were made in-house — in Chicago, mostly — so we weren’t getting direct directives from the White House or anything. But we tried as much as possible to have voices for each account, so depending on the message — because we had all these channels — we had an appropriate place to put it. Obviously some stuff was sufficiently huge so that it went everywhere, but as much as possible we tried to tailor the message for the channel and the audience.

It must be daunting.

It was kind of terrifying, actually. My team ran the Barack Obama Twitter handle, which I think was probably most susceptible to really embarrassing and silly mistakes. We didn’t ever really have one, which I still can’t believe I pulled off.

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…while one can dismiss these comments as outliers, as representative of trolls or extremists, or even link these comments to the whiteness of hockey, it is crucial to reflect on the larger context. These comments reflect broader trends online, within contemporary racial discourse, and within American sports culture.

From recent tweets from model/actress Jessica Leandra Dos Santos to those directed at webseries showrunner Issa Rae and those following the release of The Hunger Games, Twitter has become rife with racial epithets, sexism, and other forms of hate speech. The level of vitriol and the ubiquity of epithets and violence language have been well-documented: therefore, the tweets directed at Ward reflect a larger pattern of racism online, as opposed to a hockey-specific manifestation. At one level, racism online reflects the technology and aesthetics that define an online environment.

Whether emboldened by anonymity, or the fact that millions of people now have a platform to disseminate their views, ideologies, and world view, the nature of online racism merely reflects the available technology. A 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker captured the appeal of virtual reality for people to voice and show the worst in themselves and society at large.

As Northwestern University professor Pablo Boczkowski told NewsOne, “We always had people shouting on the street. It was a handful of people, and the sender of the message could be clearly identified. Now the audience is much bigger, it’s more unknown, it’s more diverse potentially, and this has changed the dynamics of the game.”

The existence of avatars, online handles, and twitter accounts that can be deleted in a moment notice fosters a culture where epithets and racist pronouncements are seemingly detached from the real-body giving voice to them. The author is unclear, yet the consequences are daily evident. Brendesha Tines, professor African-American studies and psychology at the University of Illinois, describes an online world rampant with racism. In her study of high school youth, she found that 29 percent of African Americans and 42 percent of those identifying as “other” or mixed race experienced racial epithets or other forms of racism online; some 71% of African Americans and 67% of whites and mixed-race youth “witnessed discrimination experienced by same-race and cross-race peers.” It would be a mistake to look at the tweets directed at Joel Ward as an aberration but rather a visible manifestation of the daily realities of online racism.

It would also be a mistake to particularize these tweets as evidence of the sordid debauchery of online spaces. While reflecting online culture, and the presence of “trolls,” the racism directed at Joel Ward, as with other examples, reveals the nature of racism within contemporary society.

BOOM! David Leonard does an incredible analysis on the linkages between sports, casting, and other aspects of pop culture on the R today. (via racialicious)


Congressman Keith Ellison responded to our story about Reince Priebus, and started quite the discussion on Twitter.