The Internet’s latest viral stunt, tailor-made for the outrage age, doesn’t involve snorting cinnamon or pouring ice over your head.
Instead, in the wake of the slaying of nine people at a Charleston church, thousands of social media users are urging each other to document themselves burning the Confederate flag.
More than 4,000 people have tweeted on the hashtag #burnthatflag in the past three days; on YouTube, a series of users posted shaky, handheld videos of actual flags or paper print-outs burning. A photo from an anti-KKK protest held in Florida earlier this year has begun making the Twitter and Instagram rounds.
And on Facebook, a two-year-old left-wing site called The Everlasting GOP Stoppers has declared this Saturday, June 27, “National Burn the Confederate Flag Day.” Since the event was created shortly before midnight on June 19, more than 9,000 people have RSVPed that they’d “attend,” promising to burn flags and tweet the evidence in cities from Savannah, Ga., to Omaha. (In D.C., organizers are promising their protest on July 4, when flag-burners “dressed in all black” will converge on a city park — and on the hashtag #BurntheConfederate.)
The Confederate flag, needless to say, has become something of a flash point in recent days: Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old accused of killing nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, posed with the flag in pictures posted to his Web site — and by all accounts, he’s not the only person to see the flag as a symbol of black oppression and white supremacy. On Monday, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley called for the flag to come down from a Confederate memorial on the state Capitol’s grounds — perhaps in response to a widely circulated online petition, which, as of this writing, has racked up more than than half a million signatures.
We expect petitions, though. We expect hashtags and memes — like this Photoshopped Chihuahua, defecating on a flag — as par for the course these days.
But the push to get offline, to attempt something bold and arguably dangerous, and to then upload evidence of the feat, is distinctly different from much of the “hashtag activism” we’ve become accustomed to seeing. In fact, it would appear to have far more in common with viral “challenges,” like last summer’s ice bucket meme, than with the usual methods and mechanisms of online protest speech.
That evolution is natural: Viral challenges, whether they involve dousing yourself in water or eating a package of Saltines, allow challengers to say something about themselves; they are, at their core, a public declaration of the poster’s braveness or coolness or love of charity. It’s almost surprising that viral challenges didn’t creep into protest and politics sooner. These are identity issues, after all, that everyone wants to declare publicly — even if (or perhaps especially when) it won’t accomplish anything.
Critics of the flag-burning meme have complained, on Facebook, Reddit and elsewhere, that the protest is too symbolic, too ineffectual, too narcissistic — a complaint that often dogs Internet activism. They point out that buying Confederate flags to burn them kind of defeats the purpose. And while burning Confederate flags is legal, stealing them from yards or public spaces — which many prospective “challengers” have promised to do — is obviously not.
But James, the “Everlasting GOP Stopper” who created National Flag Burning Day, is not concerned.
“Enough is enough with that hateful banner and all it stands for,” he told the Post by e-mail. (We’re not using his last name, as he’s received threatening messages.) “As it relates to the event being symbolic, of course it is. That’s the whole point. My goal is to try to increase the stigma associated with flying that flag.”
Will it work? We’ll see how many people actually #burnit on June 27.
In the meantime, we know the social Web is really good at two things: doling out stigma, and fanning the (literal) flames of viral challenges like these.
Liked that? Try these: