I first heard about the murder of George Floyd when my sister forwarded a news article via our family group chat. Over the next few days, I read as much as I could about the many acts of social activism taking place around the world in response to Mr. Floyd’s death.
But I also saw people making jokes about his death on social media. On TikTok, the comment sections were filled with anonymous people defending the actions of the police officers or even joking about the killing.
This infuriated me. I wanted to erase racism, and became motivated to do something to help change the way people thought.
Soon after, I received an email saying that student government elections were coming up. The revelation hit me: I can enact change by educating the staff and students in my school about racism and police brutality through an elected position of power! I decided to run for sophomore governor.
Before the election, I saw other candidates using social media, especially Instagram, as a main campaign strategy. Students made posters and others shared posts about candidates they supported. I had an Instagram page, but I had zero followers and only followed a celebrity or two.
So it wasn’t that surprising when I didn’t win. But I was offered a spot as an appointee. My role was to participate in meetings and aid in any student government projects. I didn’t have a major role but I thought I could still help facilitate discussions among the student body around incidents like Mr. Floyd’s death.
The Dark Side of Instagram
At my first meeting with the team, as I awaited the chance to bring up how the school might approach talking about police brutality, our advisor talked about the “Instagram situation.” I didn’t even know our school had an Instagram page.
Our student government page mostly posted updates about in-person and remote learning. Then, I found my high school’s “tea page.” A tea page is an unofficial account where anonymous users often slander, gossip, or verbally attack others. Ours had a photo of our school’s logo with an X over it. I was intrigued.
It was run by an anonymous person who often promoted posts about other students acting ignorantly, usually saying something offensive. The most recent post consisted of eight slides of one White student’s actions, such as saying the n-word on Instagram live and laughing, and screenshots of him using homophobic slurs towards others in online comments. The third slide featured a direct message conversation someone had with the White student trying to justify the White student’s actions.
“It’s just a word,” the supporter said, ignoring the obvious connotation and history behind the racial and homophobic slurs.
I was even more surprised that there were comments on this post also supporting the student. “He’s literally just saying words and y’all are trying to cancel him lmfao,” said one commenter.
I clicked on that commenter’s page and to my surprise, it was a White male. Someone else had commented under his comment saying he was an idiot. The commenter responded, “she/they moment,” mocking the use of pronouns.
I became more disgusted and upset when I scrolled further through tea page comments; hundreds of people liked the comments, agreeing that the slurs made by various commenters are “just words,” and if we’re offended, “we are the problem.”
More Than Just a Local Problem
The next morning, I told my mother about the post. She sent an email to our school but we never got a response. We attended a virtual PTA meeting last April hoping to address this issue there. But we didn’t have the ability to unmute or turn on our camera and had to submit questions prior; they never got to ours.
In student government, we found it impossible to take down the anonymously run account. It became a daily routine to check Instagram to find any new information that would help identify the owner. But the page didn’t follow any accounts, nor did it interact with any of the comments or responses. When we tried to interact with the page, we were blocked.
Our school’s principal and head of security had no leads, either. They joined our meetings, seeking our help as much as we sought theirs.
The posts did not break Instagram’s rules, so we couldn’t get them taken down that way. Instagram has vague rules like no spam, illegal content, or bullying and abuse, but applied to content that, for example, praises terrorism or mentions specific hate groups, or includes “credible threats of violence.”
I recently learned that tea pages are not unique to my school: From high schools in Salt Lake City to Hoover City, Al., administrators have encountered anonymous, often untraceable tea pages. Sometimes the districts send out letters to parents, and they’ve acknowledged that the accounts often engage in behavior that can be harmful to students’ mental health, which my school has not done.
Today, the account is still up, but isn’t as active. I continue to have a role in student government and am pushing for letters from leaders in our school district that directly address the harm that tea pages can have on students’ mental health. I have also joined other extracurriculars and found small groups of students who want to spread awareness like I do. We will continue to fight to have harmful racist media stopped so we can all feel safe and accepted.