Why social-justice oriented digital citizenship matters: Viola Desmond, my tweet and its use by an alt-righter

Things got real for me on Twitter today. The Minister of Finance, Bill Morneau, announced that Viola Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to appear on a banknote. After a lengthy process of consultation and consideration of contenders for this honour, Desmond’s selection lifted my heart. This choice calls on all Canadians to consider the systemic injustices that people have suffered in Canada because of their appearance, culture, and ethnicity. As a white woman, and as a Canadian citizen, I see this nomination as an important call to all Canadians to take responsibility for gender-based and racialized injustices, and to recognize that we have a long way to go before we live in a country where everyone is treated with respect, dignity and fairness.

So, feeling all of these things, I retweeted Minister Morneau’s announcement and then tweeted at him directly.

And a few minutes ago, I received a notification that an account called @dacian_draco had quoted my tweet. This gave me pause. I don’t know this person. My tweets are usually for my students and colleagues. I don’t actively try to cultivate a massive Twitter following. I think about what my community of students and colleagues might find useful, helpful or of value, and I usually keep my communications focused on those goals. Today, though, was different. The Viola Desmond decision matters and I wanted to express my support for the choice publicly. So, I did. And then, it was used by someone else in way, that after careful scrunity, seems completely contrary to my position or reason for expressing my support for the banknote decision. The words Every.Single.Time. were used with my tweet quoted below. What did this suggest or mean? I really cannot know for sure, but other Tweets on this account’s feed express racialized hate. Tweets on this account seem to align with the alt-right movement, and with ideologies that promote white power and privilege.

I have helped many students to cultivate professional digital presences, and have helped many colleagues and students to create social media accounts, including Twitter accounts. During these conversations we have always talked about controlling our own messaging and engaging in respectful conversations that add value to our professional networks. And yet, here one of my tweets has been co-opted by someone whose interests seem antithetical to my own; whose ideas are offensive to me.

So I really had to consider, what should I do?

Doing nothing was a non-option. However, aware that a response on Twitter might lead to a ball of stress that I’m not interested in inviting, I decided a blog post would be my response. Public, but measured, and not limited by the constraints of the microblog.

Fundamentally, I cannot control how others use my tweets, but I can disagree with their uses by others. As a participant in social media spaces, I understand the risks. I may find the ideas expressed at this account offensive, but I recognize this person’s (or these persons’) right to express ideas on this platform. I will not condemn the use of my Tweet, but I will also not let it pass unrecognized. In sharing my thoughts on the Viola Desmond decision, I added my voice to the national discussion of the choice and its importance. And the response to my Tweet by an alt-right Twitter account tells me a great deal about where my priorities need to be. It tells me that in schools, we must help all children to feel a deep sense of community, to feel valued, to have agency and to have experiences that enable them to know and understand why diversity makes us stronger. This tweet inspires my own resolve to help students and teachers in Canada to become active, engaged, social-justice oriented participatory digital citizens.

If we are to realize the vision that Viola Desmond had for a more just Canada, I’m saying it here — I’m ready to do this work. My sleeves are rolled up.

Postscript: Twenty-six years ago today, I was injured in an automobile accident that claimed the life of a friend. I dedicate this post to her memory.