Charlottesville demonstrations, summer 2017 (link)
I’ve been thinking about this picture a lot recently. My research explores how extremist groups can develop using modern computer-mediated communication, particularly recommender systems. This picture lays the main parts like a set of nested puzzle pieces.
This is a picture of a physical event. In August 2017, various “Alt-Right” online communities came to Charlottesville Virginia to ostensibly protest the removal of confederate statues, which in turn was a response to the Charleston South Carolina church shooting of 2015. From August 11th through 12th, sanctioned and unsanctioned protests and counter protests happened in and around Emancipation Park.
Although this is not a runway in Paris, London or New York, this photo contains what I can best call “fashion statements”, in the most serious use of the term. They are mechanisms for signifying and conveying identity, immediately visible. What are they trying to say to each other and to us, the public behind the camera?
Standing on the right hand of the image is a middle-aged white man, wearing a type of uniform: On his cap and shirt are images of the confederate “battle flag”. He is wearing a military-style camouflage vest and is carrying an AR-15 rifle and a 9mm handgun. These are archetypal components of the Alt-right identity.
He is yelling at a young black man moving in from the left side of the photo, who is also wearing a uniform of a sort. In addition to the black t-shirt and the dreadlocks, he is carrying multiple cameras – the sine qua non of credibility for young black men in modern America. Lastly, he is wearing literal chains and shackles, ensuring that no one will forget the slave heritage behind these protests.
Let’s consider these carried items, the cameras and the guns. The fashion accessories, if you will.
Cameras exist to record a selected instant of reality. It may be framed, with parts left out and others enhanced, but photographs and videos are a compelling document that something in the world happened. Further, these are internet-connected cameras, capable of sharing their content widely and quickly. These two elements, photographic evidence and distribution are a foundation of the #blacklivesmatter movement, which is a response to the wide distribution of videos where American police killed unarmed black men. These videos changed the greater social understanding of a reality encountered by a minority that was incomprehensible by the majority before these videos emerged.
Now to the other accessory, the guns. They are mechanisms “of violence to compel our opponent to fulfil our will”. Unlike cameras, which are used to provide a perspective of reality , these weapons are used to create a reality through their display and their threatened use. They also reflect a perception of those that wield them that the world has become so threatening that battlefield weapons make sense at a public event.
Oddly, this is may also be a picture of an introduction of sorts. Alt-right and #blacklivesmatter groups almost certainly interact significantly. In fact, it is doubtful that, even though they speak in a common language , one group can comprehend the other. The trajectories of their defining stories are so different, so misaligned, that the concepts of one slide off the brain of the other.
Within each group, it is a different story. Each group shares a common narrative, that is expressed in words, appearance, and belief. And within each group, there is discussion and consensus. These are the most extreme examples of the people that we see in the photo. I don’t see anyone else in the image wearing chains or openly carrying guns. The presence of these individuals within their respective groups exerts a pull on the overall orientation and position of the group in the things that they will accept. Additionally, the individuals in one group can cluster in opposition to a different group, which is a pressure that drives each group further apart.
Lastly, we come to the third actor in the image, the viewer. The photo is taken by Shelby Lum, an award-winning staff photographer for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Through framing, focus and timing, she captures this frame that tells this story. Looking at this photo, we the audience feel that we understand the situation. But photographs are inherently simplifying. The audience fills in the gaps – what’s happened before, the backstory of the people in the image. This image can mean many things to many people. And as such, it’s what we do with that photo – what we say about it and what we connect with it that makes the image as much about us as it is about the characters within the frame.
It is those interactions that I focus on, the ways that we as populations interact with information that supports, expands, or undermines our beliefs. My theory is that humans move through belief space like animals move on the planes of the Serengeti. And just as the status of the ecosystem can be inferred through the behaviors of its animal population, the health and status of our belief spaces can be determined by our digital behaviors.
Using this approach, I believe that we may be able look at populations at scale to determine the “health” of the underlying information. Wildebeest behave differently in risky environments. Their patterns of congregation are different. They can stampede, particularly when the terrain is against them, such as a narrow water crossing. Humans can behave in similar ways for example when their core beliefs about their identity is challenged, such as when Galileo was tried by the church for essentially moving man from the literal center of the universe..
I think that this sort of approach can be used to identify at-risk (stampeding) groups and provide avenues for intervention that can “nudge” groups off of dangerous trajectories. It may also be possible to recognize the presence of deliberate actors attempting to drive groups into dangerous terrain, like native Americans driving buffalo off of pishkun cliffs, or more recently the Russian Internet Research Agency instigating and coordinating a #bluelivesmatter and a #blacklivesmatter demonstration to occur at the same time and place in Texas.
This theory is based on simulations that are based on the assumption that people coordinate in high-dimensional belief spaces based on orientation, velocity and social influence. Rather than coming to a static consensus, these interactions are dynamic and follow intuitions of belief movement across information terrain. That dynamic process is what I’ll be discussing over the next several posts.