September 22, 2020

How an overload of riot porn is driving conflict in the streets

When Kyle Rittenhouse shot and murdered protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it wasn’t just the act...

When Kyle Rittenhouse shot and murdered protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, it wasn’t just the act of a lone vigilante; it was a direct consequence of white militia groups’ organizing on social media. 

Since June, right-wing media makers have recorded and circulated videos of violent altercations at protests in cities including New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Portland, Oregon. Fed into a media ecosystem with an established bias toward highlighting violence and rioting, the videos have mobilized white militia and vigilante groups to take up arms against Black Lives Matter and “antifa” protesters. This feedback circuit has created a self-fulfilling cycle where white vigilantes feel justified in menacing and physically attacking racial justice protesters—and inspire others to do the same. 

The role of video

Research on social movements has long focused on the ways that media mobilizes people to take direct action. Audio and video clips from protests can evoke an emotional and visceral reaction in those who see them. Over the last decade, we’ve seen this emerge most often with calls for racial and economic justice.

This past summer, the recorded murder of George Floyd—just one in a seemingly endless line of merciless and vicious events perpetrated by police against Black people, from Selma to Mike Brown, from Rodney King to Sandra Bland and Jacob Blake—motivated millions of people worldwide to protest against police brutality.

It isn’t just racial justice protests that benefit from the outrage caused by video. In September 2011, very few people cared about Occupy Wall Street—a bunch of hippies, anarchists, and freaks were sleeping in a park in Manhattan. But after a video of young white women being “kettled” and pepper-sprayed by NYPD officer Anthony Bologna ricocheted across social media, thousands of people set up Occupy encampments across the globe. 

Until that moment, the movement was not being widely covered in the mainstream press, but the video’s circulation compelled larger media organizations to pay attention. We don’t know what would have happened in the absence of that video, but over the course of four years I spent interviewing Occupy protesters about their experience, many recalled it as the motivating factor in them getting into the streets. 

And visuals can be just as motivating for the right wing—recently, perhaps even more so. 

Because right-wing reactionaries do not have the same kind of experience in organizing street protests as the left, they instead rely heavily on social media—particularly Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter—to mobilize crowds. Their efforts to counter the wave of public support for Black Lives Matter protests have made extensive use of this tactic.

As a scholar of social movements and media studies, I see an alarming split between the types of content consumed by right-wing reactionaries and left-wing social justice advocates. Given the way media accounts shape public perceptions about protest and define who has recourse to the “legitimate use of violence,” the kinds of content shared within these hyperpartisan media systems play a powerful yet often invisible role in mobilizing white vigilante groups. If social-media companies do not act swiftly to stop calls for violence against protesters, the situation can only get worse.

The rise of riot porn

Since the George Floyd protests, conservative media outlets including Fox News (particularly Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity), One America News, Glenn Beck’s BlazeTV, and right-wing YouTubers have been covering Black Lives Matter and other left-wing protests daily, specifically highlighting instances of violence, fighting, and property damage. This coverage has come to dominate the right-wing narrative in a new way, flipping the script to suggest that Black protesters—demonstrating because they fear police violence—are themselves a threat to white people. 

Mainstream media bias toward covering violence in protests is well studied, best encapsulated by the saying “If it bleeds, it leads.” Most protests are largely peaceful, but “Citizens gather, grieve, and leave” is no story at all. This directs a disproportionate amount of attention across the entire media ecosystem to violent protesters. Now, with social media as a broadcast system, the right-wing media has upped the ante.

According to analysis I conducted using MediaCloud, a research tool from MIT and Harvard, right-wing media outlets wrote five to six times more articles about Seattle’s “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone” than did center or left media. What has been a minor storyline among left-wing audiences has been dramatically overemphasized by right-wing media because these protests provided plenty of visceral content for online content creators. In one case, Fox News manipulated photos to make protesters appear more ominous and threatening, while other right-wing outlets falsely reported that the occupying protesters were extorting local businesses.

These narratives have been intensified and supplemented by the work of right-wing adversarial media-makers like Elijah Schaffer and Andy Ngo, who collect videos of conflict at public protests and recirculate them to their online audiences. Both have even gone “undercover” by posing as protesters to capture footage for their channels, seeking to name and shame those marching. Their videos are edited, decontextualized, and shared among audiences hungry for a new fix of “riot porn,” which instantly goes viral across the right-wing media ecosystem with the aid of influential pundits and politicians, including President Donald Trump. The footage has a hypnotic, almost balletic quality, designed to influence and overwhelm the sense-making capacity of watchers consuming it from a safe distance online. 

Riot porn is different from videos of abuse and violence carried out by police, and we should not confuse one for the other. In the recording of the George Floyd murder, the video mobilized hundreds of thousands of people outraged that Floyd’s killer had not been arrested. With riot porn, what moves someone from watching to showing up is the potential for participating in a violent altercation. The motivating factor is the hope to live out fantasies of taking justice into their own hands, à la Dirty Harry, the film series about a rogue cop who shirks protocol and murders at will.

Judging by the reactions shared by followers of right-wing influencers, riot porn further enrages and traumatizes these audiences from afar, inflaming their perceptions of risk and danger. In chat rooms, watchers actively cheer as cops and other aggressors brutalize Black Lives Matter activists. These emotional reactions help develop an unshakable trust between the partisan content creators and the content consumers.

Propaganda machine

Outrage contagion is why the McCloskeys, the husband-and-wife duo who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter marchers in St. Louis, were motivated to take their bizarre stand. It’s also why the couple were invited to address the Republican National Convention—an audience being encouraged to vote for Donald Trump’s reelection. They spoke on topics such as guns, property, and the threat posed by “Marxist liberals.” Peering into the camera from a velvet couch, they read from the teleprompter: “What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods across our country … Make no mistake: no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America … You’ve seen us on your TV screens and Twitter feeds. You know we’re not the kind of people who back down.”

They are both the product of riot porn and participants in creating the next cycle of it. First, they consumed coverage of the St. Louis protests, during which a 7-Eleven was burned. This, the McCloskeys claim, prompted them to put fire extinguishers in every room and keep a rifle ready. When Black Lives Matter activists marched on their street, they reacted as if it were a death threat. It wasn’t, and their armed display resulted in felony charges. Right-wing media and Republicans have turned them into heroes alongside Rittenhouse, affectionately known as the “Kenosha Kid.”

The problem isn’t simply that riot porn exists, or that people with divergent opinions can interpret videos differently depending on their social-media feeds. 

And it’s not just that social-media platforms don’t know what to do with white vigilante organizing. Although they clearly don’t: Facebook’s attempt to limit the spread of propaganda about Rittenhouse by blocking searches on his name is a drastic solution to a problem of its own making. Facebook took no action on 455 flags marking the Kenosha Guard’s event page as potentially dangerous. Memes in support of Rittenhouse and calls for armed MAGA rallies are on the rise. 

The real difficulty is that competing accounts circulate in parallel universes that are not even close to balanced in their reach. Kevin Roose of the New York Times pointed out that the majority of people on Facebook are witnessing a radically different narrative from the one presented to consumers of mainstream media. In August, he tweeted, CNN saw 21 million Facebook interactions; the right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro gathered 55 million. This doesn’t mean there’s a silent majority of right-wing media consumers—in fact, it means that the right-wing media ecosystem continues to be dense and insular, which makes the propaganda feedback loop much more effective at shaping audience perceptions and world views. Harvard researchers Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris, and Hal Roberts have described this effect in their study “Networked Propaganda.” 

Escalation, not reconciliation

It’s been almost three months since an independent group of United Nations experts called on the US government to conduct an independent investigation into racial terror. The reaction to the murder of George Floyd suggested for a moment that the US public was awakened to their country’s horrors and might be mobilized to do something. 

And yet, as the events of the last week have shown, wave after wave of white vigilante violence has followed. Several cities and towns have become treacherous terrain, where militias, MAGA groups, and conspiracists are carrying out their civil war fantasies by attacking Black Lives Matter protesters as police look on. The optics are reminiscent of the Freedom Rides in the 1960s, when police turned away as local white vigilantes attacked civil rights advocates. 

Last weekend in Portland, a long caravan of Trump supporters arrived with blacked-out license plates, paintball guns, actual guns, and bear mace; they drove their trucks straight at protesters. Some of these crimes were streamed live on Facebook and YouTube. Trump later justified their actions, saying that “paint is a defensive mechanism; paint is not bullets.” That same night, a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer was murdered, but no details on the shooter are available. Nevertheless, the media narrative on the right is clear: antifa must have done it. 

By using riot porn to incite fear in white people, the right-wing media ecosystem converts the real pain experienced by Black Americans into fodder for deranged, paranoid fantasies that white vigilantes must take up the functions of the police. Social-media companies need to work actively to prevent militias and vigilante groups from staging these armed standoffs. This includes shutting down event pages that are used as central organizing hubs and removing the accounts of those who are calling for physical violence. What played out in Portland and Kenosha this week is another confirmation that racial terror is real and getting worse.

—Joan Donovan is research director at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center.

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