Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds changed our perception of media last week with her shocking and heartbreaking real-time web video of the last minutes of Philando Castile’s life. The couple, with her daughter riding in the back seat of their sedan, had been pulled over by local police in a Minneapolis suburb, and Reynolds had the astonishing presence of mind to send the aftermath of Castile’s shooting by a police officer — which included her arrest by cops who didn’t even try to save his life — to the world via Facebook’s “Live” video platform.
Countless articles, analyses, commentaries, and other posts have chronicled a media shift in those moments. The implications are real, and important. We are only beginning to confront the issues they raise. Among them:
- Is this a revolutionary, or evolutionary, change in media creation, distribution, and access?
- Does it represent a turning point for citizen journalism?
- What responsibilities do you and I have in situations where we can witness important events and behavior, and where might that lead?
- What can we trust, and what should we share?
- Facebook seems to have been caught almost unaware of the likely consequences of offering a real-time video platform. Do Facebook and other centralized distribution platforms have editorial duties to perform?
- More broadly, who will control what we can create and see in coming years? Facebook? Government? Or you and me?
Reynolds’ video prompted me to revisit something I wrote more than a decade ago, in my book, We the Media, which discussed the then-nascent idea of radically democratized media and one of its important offshoots, citizen journalism. I asked my readers to recall the media environment on Sept. 11, 2001, and then peer into an easily predictable future.
Our memories of that awful day stem largely from television: videos of airplanes slamming into the World Trade Center, the fireballs that erupted, people falling and jumping from the towers, the crumbling to earth of the structures. Individuals with video cameras captured parts of this story, and their work ended up on network TV as well. The big networks stopped showing most graphic videos fairly quickly. But those pictures are still on the Net for anyone who wants to see them.
We also learned, second-hand, that people in the airplanes and Trade Center towers phoned loved ones and colleagues that awful day. What would we remember if the people on the airplanes and in those buildings all had camera-phones? What if they’d been sending images and audio from the epicenter of the terrorists’ airborne arsenal, and from inside the towers that became coffins for so many? I don’t mean to be ghoulish, but I do suggest that our memories would be considerably different had images and sounds of that kind ricocheted around the globe.
Since then, a number of technologies (and uses of those tools) have become much more common. One of them is live-streaming, now so routine that we take it for granted as an offshoot of traditional broadcasting. Live-streaming from mobile phones has been around for some years, too.
In that context, Reynolds’ live video was anything but revolutionary. It was a logical extension of what came before. But the velocity of change is accelerating, and what she did had big implications.
Her video was a three-faceted act: witnessing, activism, and journalism*. Even though few people saw it in real time, she was saving it to the data cloud in real time, creating and — one hopes — preserving a record of what may or may not be judged eventually to have been a crime by a police officer. What Reynolds did was brave, and important for all kinds of reasons.
She also taught the rest of us something vital: We all have an obligation to witness and record some things even if we are not directly part of what’s happening. That’s what two people did as they captured videos of the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last week. They understood their duty when it comes to holding accountable the people we rely on to protect the public in honorable ways. (I still believe that the vast majority of police officers are honorable and trying to do their jobs right. But there’s also no question in my mind that the majority of officers at least tolerate the bad cops who are doing such harm to the reputation of law enforcement, and helping poison public trust.)
At this point I’m convinced, as Ethan Zuckerman says, that we have an obligation to use our cameras in these situations, among many others. These are times when a video record of what happened may not provide absolute clarity, but at least it can provide data.. It may also deter the worst kinds of behavior by public officials in the line of duty — especially as governments that adopted body cameras for police then pass laws designed to prevent the videos from reaching the public.
I also worry, as I did in my book (and long before) about Big and Little Brother becoming the default. So we’re going to have to draw lines, individually and (hopefully) as societal norms: Some things we see, we get the video and post it. At other times, we may get the video, but we’ll just delete it. And we have to make it second nature to realize that some — most — things shouldn’t be captured at all. Pervasive surveillance by law enforcement and/or the rest of us chills free speech and assembly, ultimately deadens us.
We’ll also have to learn, individually and collectively, what we can trust. This takes practice, because the online world is awash with deceit and lies along with honor and truth. It takes practice by news organizations not to be faked out, but even more so by the rest of us, because we, not journalists, have to learn to be the final arbiters — and we have to do this collectively, because like it or not, our news organizations are demonstrating in general that they’re not up to the job. I hate saying that, but there it is.
This is why I spend so much time lately teaching “media literacy,” which asks the former audience — still consumers but also creators — to be active users of media, not passive readers/watchers/etc. This is, in the “consuming media” process, about being skeptical and using judgment; understanding our own biases and working to challenge them; listening to others who may disagree with us; asking questions; waiting before trusting what we see; and so much more. It’s also about recognizing our role as media creators. As we wield our cameras we are obliged, if we want to be trusted, to be honorable.
One element of danger for the citizen video maker — being challenged or arrested or worse by people in authority who don’t want you capturing what they do — is lessening. In fact, the “war on photography” by police and others in power could soon be moot, for several reasons. In the United States, at least, courts are increasingly recognizing a First Amendment right to capture videos of police in their public role. This won’t stop cops from breaking the law, as officers sometimes do by confiscating phones and deleting photos and videos they find objectionable. (Police departments and the politicians they report to don’t mind paying taxpayers’ money to plaintiffs who sue after abuses.)
Meanwhile, technology is reaching a point where police soon won’t realize they are being recorded. It’s been possible for years to buy cameras that become part of our clothing. Google Glass made people realize how trivial it will be to embed cameras in eyewear. Soon enough, we’ll be able to capture videos simply by looking at something; Google, Samsung and Sony (and certainly others) are working on camera/recording devices embedded in contact lenses.
Again, this technology will be used for bad purposes we can easily imagine. And that will inevitably lead to moves aimed at preventing those uses, which in turn leads to free speech and other essential liberties.
Surely the authorities are delighted to hear of Apple’s new patent that lets police (and presumably others, such as big-time musical acts and movie theater owners) block iPhone recording “in areas where picture or video capture is prohibited.” From a company as control-freakish as Apple, it’s no surprise to learn of such a thing. From the context of free expression, it’s potentially catastrophic — and your fears should grow in a world where huge, centralized companies, often working closely with governments, become the venues for expression.
We need to ask now, not tomorrow, who controls the media we create and consume. Increasingly, it’s not us.
Perhaps smart people will find ways around phone makers’ constraints. (I assume they will, actually.) But what will we have gained when we take videos of newsworthy events if the videos are then disappeared by Facebook or Google or Comcast other giant platforms and telecom carriers?
Facebook is the most immediate threat, because it has become the default venue for conversation, and for news. It is also visibly unprepared for this role. Facebook hasn’t given a plausible explanation for its initial removal of Reynolds’ video soon after she posted it. Perhaps, as some smart observers suggest, the video was flagged by other Facebook users, prompting an automatic takedown while the company decided what to do about it (it went back up). Or perhaps the police who confiscated Reynolds’ phone took it down. Or perhaps Facebook itself decided initially to remove it. Or none of the above. The point is that the video remains visible because Facebook allows it to be visible. (Of course, in this highly visible case the video surely has been saved elsewhere and would be immediately reposted online if Facebook decided to remove it.)
The company’s policies on what videos — Live or not — and other material can stay online are incoherent. So, for that matter, are the policies at Twitter, Google’s YouTube and other user-created platforms. This is understandable, though obviously not good. At some level Facebook has no alternative but to make make on-the-fly and contradictory, even hypocritical, decisions. But as Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post has observed, Facebook has to recognize that it is “in the news business.” It’s making editorial decisions. So are the other platforms. I’ve called them “the new editors of the Internet,” and and much as I wish that wasn’t true, it is.
But Facebook is the behemoth, and the one making the key decisions at this point. This is wrong in so many ways. It’s enormously dangerous that an enormously powerful enterprise can decide what free speech will be. I don’t want a few people’s whims in Menlo Park overruling the First Amendment and other free speech “guarantees” (in quotes because those assurances are worthless in many other countries). So I don’t use Facebook for my speech. I’m posting this, among other places, here on my own website.
But I’m just one person, and approximately 1.6 billion other people have made a different choice. I hope they’ll reconsider someday, but I’m not counting on it.
At the very least, as Facebook becomes what amounts to a “common carrier,” we’ll need to treat it like one under the law. The government can’t stop people from saying anything they choose on the phone. This has to apply to companies like Facebook, or they will have far, far too much power over freedom of speech and assembly. Yet asking the government to intervene brings its own risks, which are visible in many other parts of the world where governments routinely order social media companies to disallow certain speech.
The answer, or part of it, is what World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee has called re-decentralization. A few weeks ago I spent several days with technology pioneers and young activists who want to save the Web and, by extension, the wider Internet from being controlled by a few centralized entities.
While they’re working on this, we should be experimenting ourselves with tools that don’t require us to rely on Facebook et al. For example, the capabilities of Facebook Live have been available via a project called “Rhinobird”, which uses open Web standards including WebRTC. And as projects like the “Interplanetary File System” take root, we’ll be able to use URLs as names of web content, not addresses.
These projects, and many others, are inspiring. I’m going to do whatever I can to help them succeed, because the stakes are so high — for free speech and so much more.
*The Reynolds video broke somewhat new ground in citizen journalism, which came to notice a decade ago. Citizen journalism got trashed, early on, by just about everyone in the traditional media world, and the flaws in the concept were certainly clear enough after a number of small and large “false news” debacles. But it was always important for its potential, and the countless cases where it was an essential part of the news flow more than made up for the downside. If nothing else, the act of witnessing — directly and not through intermediaries who may miss the context or the meaning — grew into its own media form. The more we saw videos of police misconduct, for example, the more white Americans had to understand whey black Americans feel they’ve been living in a different country.