How To Find Good Information (and Humanity) In A Time of Social Upheaval

Wherever you are in the world, you’ve probably seen the images on your screens by now: bonfires, flashbang grenades, screams, masked looters and beefy cops chasing hooded protesters down litter-strewn city streets. 

And, at the beginning of it all, a man named George Floyd pleading for his life under the weight of an indifferent police officer and the gaze of horrified onlookers. 

I don’t have much to say on the murder itself — just another vivid example of how the colour of an American’s skin often has major influence over their interactions with society in general and the criminal justice system in particular. In terms of how to move forward, I think former President Obama made a pretty decent case for action in a recent blog post

So instead, I want to talk about where and how many of us are interacting with these protests: through our screens.

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The media’s coverage of these demonstrations has followed a predictable pattern. After initially covering the murder and its fallout, the cameras have now turned to pockets of rioting, looting and violence on the streets of many large U.S. cities. The debate you’re probably seeing play out on the TV or your social media feed will often boil down to the ethics of rioting, and debates over whether or not looters’ actions cheapen protesters’ legitimate demands for justice. In typical form, this country’s president has jumped on the bandwagon, using concerns about looting to justify a potential deployment of the military to forcibly subdue protesters across the country. 

This preoccupation on property damage is a symptom of how social media and news organizations work: cameras are always drawn to fires over faces, and images of broken glass will always get shared more than images of peaceful demonstrators. In a previous post, I outlined the basic theory behind how social media works. In short, it boils down to this: 

  1. Social media companies want your attention. The more time you spend on their platforms, the more money they can make selling your attention to advertisers. 
  2. Social media grabs and holds your attention by showing you content — posts, videos, stories, photos — that will keep you on their platform. The algorithm has learned that feelings of fear, anger, jealousy and outrage are the best ways to hold human attention and provoke engagement in the form of likes, shares and comments.
  3. By monitoring your individual online activity, the algorithm knows what kinds of posts will provoke those feelings in you. Here’s a great explainer video on how web trackers learn your personality. 
  4. Therefore, the more emotion a post is likely to provoke, the more likely an algorithm is to show you that post. 
  5. Because news media are also trying to sell your attention to advertisers, they are similarly incentivized to show you content that will provoke similar emotions. 

Images of property damage and looting are likely to provoke an outraged response in skeptical and supportive onlookers alike. After all, many of those businesses are already struggling under COVID-19 lockdowns! And that is why the news and (especially) social media are showing you a lot of images like this: 

From the Seattle Times.

For small businesses, the impact of looting is real. But by focusing on that property damage, social media and news organizations distract us from the reason protesters are there in the first place. It’s obvious to any observer that the United States needs urgent social, political and judicial reform at many different levels. History is littered with governments who reaped the consequences of ignoring their citizens’ demands for justice and equality for too long, and the United States is not immune. If we’re going to make any progress, we as a society must listen to the protesters when they speak, debate solutions to these underlying problems and demand that our leaders enact them. “We’re all in this together” has been the catchphrase of the COVID-19 pandemic, but it applies equally to issues of systemic racism and inequality.

So while coverage and discussion about looting and rioting is important, it also distracts us from the main ball game. And while some organizations have done a great job depicting the overwhelmingly peaceful and human side of these protests and the cause they represent (here’s a great example from Seattle and another from New York City), it’s still the images of burning police cars and balaclava-wearing looters who make the front page and the lead bulletin. It’s always important to remember that those looters you’re seeing in your feeds represent a very small fringe of the protest actions currently underway. 

On social media, you’ve got to look a lot harder for the larger, more human side of these demonstrations. But you will find it: in impromptu dance parties, poignant demonstrations, music, eerie moments of silence, protesters protecting businesses from looters and more dance parties. It’s about as stirring and heartwarming as it gets:

Meanwhile, compelling evidence is emerging to suggest that police are often the main instigators of violence at many protests —  this incident in Seattle is a pretty vivid example. Here’s a birds-eye view of the same incident.

There is a lot of bad information flying around cyberspace right now. There are allegations that organised right- and left-wing extremists are behind some of the violence and property damage, and disinformation experts believe foreign governments are using the passions stirred by George Floyd’s murder to exacerbate existing social divisions

We must always cultivate a healthy dose of skepticism toward the information we find on social media. It’s important to understand that almost everyone on there — including political activists, disinformation operatives, some politicians, news organizations, social media companies themselves and even well-meaning relatives — have a vested interest in showing you the most controversial and divisive content possible.

As ever, professional journalists working for established news outlets remain an imperfect best source of information on these rapidly evolving events. Just remember that even though they (at least) generally strive for truth in their reporting, their coverage will also be drawn to the most violent or divisive images. 

At the end of the day, we should be asking “Why are they protesting?” It is a much more important question than “How are they protesting?”

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