Among the many Pulitzer Prizes awarded in 2021 was a quotation for a young person who modified historical past along with her mobile phone. The Pulitzer committee acknowledged Darnella Frazier “for courageously recording the homicide of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests in opposition to police brutality around the globe, highlighting the essential function of residents in journalists’ quest for reality and justice.”
Frazier’s act of witness acquired unusual recognition, but it surely exists on a continuum with numerous different visible documentations of injustice leveraged by activists, journalists, and bystanders to demand change. Bearing Witness, Looking for Justice: Videography within the Arms of the Individuals, a convention held on MIT’s campus and by way of livestream Oct. 5–7, delved into the complicated points surrounding the creation and dissemination of those photos. Hosted by MIT Comparative Media Research/Writing (CMS/W) within the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), the convention examined video know-how’s histories; its function in defending our rights and civil liberties; its interplay with the press and social media platforms; and its abuses, particularly associated to surveillance and deepfakes. (A video playlist of convention classes is out there on the CMS/W YouTube web page.)
Sparked by Floyd’s loss of life and Frazier’s video, the concept for the gathering originated with Ken Manning, the Thomas Meloy Professor of Rhetoric and the Historical past of Science at MIT, and have become the primary proposal to safe assist from MIT’s new $1.2 million Racism Analysis Fund. Manning teamed up with Tracie Jones, SHASS’s assistant dean for variety, fairness, and inclusion, to place out a global name for displays. They recruited educator and DEI technologist Samantha Fletcher as challenge supervisor and assembled a steering committee of MIT group members, together with college inside and out of doors CMS/W, an undergraduate scholar, and leaders of the MIT Police.
Why maintain such conversations at MIT? In accordance with Jones: “A lot of what our college and college students do contributes to innovation that may fight racism, classism, and poverty. Highlighting to the world that MIT cares about these social points is admittedly essential.”
Fletcher noticed the occasion as a momentum-building alternative. “I used to be very excited through the summer season of 2020 when it wasn’t simply Black individuals who had been marching for Black lives. All completely different races had been popping out, white folks had been popping out — however quite a lot of that has died down,” she mirrored the week earlier than the convention. Convenings like this one, she mentioned, “preserve consciousness going about these injustices.”
Video proof, then and now
Over the course of the three-day gathering, 9 plenary audio system and greater than 20 different presenters in thematically grouped classes cracked open dialogues on the intersection of video and social justice. A number of audio system provided tip-of-the-iceberg introductions to analysis from their very own latest or forthcoming books on these matters.
Within the opening session, CMS/W professor and movie and media historian Heather Hendershot introduced materials from her e-book “When the Information Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America” (to be printed in December). When Chicago police met antiwar protestors and journalists with brutality on the streets exterior the 1968 Democratic Nationwide Conference, a big phase of the American public was infuriated by what they noticed on their screens — not the violence itself, Hendershot defined, a lot as a perceived overemphasis on that violence by trusted community information retailers.
“The fact, from my analysis findings, is that the media underreported police violence in Chicago,” Hendershot mentioned. Even so, the tumult surrounding the DNC planted the seeds for pervasive accusations of liberal media bias and “pretend information” in at this time’s political panorama.
College of Southern California at Annenberg affiliate professor of journalism Allissa Richardson additionally drew connections between historical past and present-day occasions in a chat primarily based on her 2020 e-book, “Bearing Witness Whereas Black: African Individuals, Smartphones and the New Protest #Journalism.” The journalist-activists who’ve documented the Black Lives Matter motion utilizing solely their smartphones and Twitter are constructing, in accordance with Richardson, on a strong “lineage of Black witnessing” that may be traced again by Nineteenth-century Black newspapers and 18th-century slave narratives.
Kelli Moore, an affiliate professor of media, tradition, and communication at New York College, took the rostrum with a “provocation” from her personal e-book, “Authorized Spectatorship: Slavery and the Visible Tradition of Home Violence:” “Is it doable the democratization and decentralization of the social media know-how we use to proliferate our witnessing participates within the centralization of state management by courtroom energy?” Moore research the photographic and videographic documentation of harm to battered ladies’s our bodies — which regularly stands in for ladies’s testimony throughout court docket instances — in addition to how synthetic variations of such photos in artwork and media can form public understanding of abuse.
The usage of video proof in courtrooms was a recurring theme in a number of different classes — together with one moderated by Harvard College college member and former NAACP president Cornell William Brooks. Among the many panelists had been College of Cincinnati journalism professor Jeffrey Blevins, who detailed authorized precedent for contemplating bystander filming of police encounters as a First Modification proper, and Sydney Triola, a PhD candidate in data research on the College of Maryland who’s researching the admissibility of “sousveillance” (citizen-made movies) in police misconduct trials. Of greater than 10,000 cases of police brutality in Triola’s dataset, fewer than 200 led to felony fees in opposition to officers, and solely 98 concerned video. However when video proof did exist, her findings-in-progress point out, it was typically admitted.
Moore, Triola, and others additionally questioned what hurt may end up when photos of violence, particularly in opposition to folks of shade, go viral exterior the courtroom. Social scientist R. Kelly Cameron, one other participant within the panel moderated by Brooks, mentioned the emotional influence he skilled as a Black man through the occasions surrounding Floyd’s loss of life. He shared one thing his father as soon as informed him: “No man is ever protected from recollections … Regardless of the eye sees will endlessly be ingrained on the thoughts of the person.”
Video and justice around the globe
Bearing Witness, Looking for Justice took a distinctly world perspective. Presenters reported on the function of video and social media in actions worldwide: from calls in Haiti to denounce sexual violence (#PaFèSilans) and corruption (#KotKòbPetroCaribeA); to condemnation in India of caste-based assaults (#DalitLivesMatter); to laws difficult police procedures in South Australia (#BanSpitHoods). Different audio system mentioned on-the-spot protection of protests in locations together with Brazil, Hong Kong, Turkey, and Egypt.
A inventive function for video in making social change emerged in one other worldwide panel, titled “The Place of Videography in Future Making: Constructing on Our Pasts.” That includes a number of African students and artists and arranged by MIT professor of science, know-how, and society Chakanetsa Mavhunga, the session requested how Africa’s indigenous myths and applied sciences can be utilized rather than Western vocabularies and values as the premise to think about new realities for the African continent. The panelists have produced digital artwork and movie that extrapolates from conventional crafts equivalent to grass-weaving and ritual practices equivalent to “calabashing” (gazing right into a water-filled gourd for scenes of the previous and future). In artists’ palms, video turns into a device for speculative design — as Mavhunga put it, a method of “making what didn’t occur occur, and making what occurred not occur sooner or later.”
After all, the identical digital instruments artists make use of to broaden viewers’ imaginations can be utilized to deceive. Nonprofit group WITNESS goals to remain forward of that hazard within the age of deepfakes. Faked movies don’t simply unfold misinformation — their existence undermines genuine footage as effectively, mentioned Sam Gregory, WITNESS’s director of applications, technique, and innovation. For 30 years the group has endeavored to assist folks use video and know-how to guard and defend human rights. Now one in every of its targets is “proactively fortifying the reality,” Gregory mentioned, partially by new applied sciences that observe the provenance, modifying, and sharing of content material. However Gregory additionally warned that the event of such instruments “dangers being weaponized in opposition to susceptible witnesses.”
A productive forensic impulse
“All of the instruments we’re taking a look at reduce each methods,” concluded William Uricchio within the ultimate plenary. An MIT professor of comparative media research and founding father of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, Uricchio used his session to discover how the identical “forensic itch” that prompts residents to doc, scrutinize, and name out hidden injustices can lead down a rabbit gap of conspiracy theories. “How can we take that impulse and drive it in a approach that’s productive as an alternative of going off the deep finish?” he requested.
That query is arguably most pressing for the convention’s youngest attendees — delegations of highschool college students from Boston; Hartford, Connecticut; and Washington — who’re coming of age with video cameras of their pockets. The scholars convened for a particular session, joined by PhD candidates Miles George ’22 and Malik George ’22, twin brothers whose entertaining STEM outreach movies have amassed greater than 1.5 million likes on TikTok. Guided by convention supervisor Fletcher, the highschool session challenged the scholars to look at their assumptions about id and know-how. Fletcher’s purpose for the children — certainly, for all convention attendees — was to ship them house outfitted to proceed the dialog.
“I hope they could be a a part of unpacking all of this,” she mentioned. “Hopefully that leads them to be extra intentional and cautious with videography, and to make use of it for justice and for good.”
Archived livestreams of most plenary classes will probably be posted for public viewing. For extra data, go to bearing-witness.mit.edu.