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

Weak organization forced right-wing agitators to rely on video and social media. Now they have a machine to spread a narrative of lawless rioting.

Technology Review, September 3, 2020

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.

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