In Racial Conflicts, Video Becomes A Megaphone

By Wendy Lee San Francisco Chronicle

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) As columnist Wendy Lee reports, "The flow of video online is staggering. YouTube says more than 400 hours of video are posted every minute. And when conflicts are captured -- racial and otherwise -- the scenes are splashed on screens large and small around the world. But some wonder whether the internet-powered naming and shaming has gone overboard."

San Francisco Chronicle

After Paula Nuguid was called a racial slur during a heated exchange, she sought social justice on the internet.

Nuguid was bicycling in Sunnyvale in June with her 9-year-old daughter when a man in a car behind her honked and yelled at her, so she whipped out her iPhone and started recording.

She said he called her a "bitch" and accused her of trying to make an illegal right turn, which she denies.

She called him an "entitled white prick" and suggested he leave the state. He replied, "Cambodian n--, get outta here."

She shared the video in a private Facebook group, and soon it went viral. Strangers online quickly identified the man and his employer -- Apple -- and called for his resignation. A hashtag of his name appeared on social media, and a website posted updates for weeks afterward.

"Growing up as an immigrant, you are used to being ignored and your problems being ignored," said Nuguid, who is Filipina American. "It made me feel like I finally mattered and I was visible."

The flow of video online is staggering. YouTube says more than 400 hours of video are posted every minute. And when conflicts are captured -- racial and otherwise -- the scenes are splashed on screens large and small around the world. But some wonder whether the internet-powered naming and shaming has gone overboard.

"We are entering a new type of data era, and we don't have the right rules of the road yet," said Pam Dixon, executive director with the World Privacy Forum.

Internet sleuths can relentlessly pursue those caught on film. This month, a New York attorney was shamed for berating people who were speaking Spanish and calling them undocumented immigrants. He apologized after days of stakeouts by television and smartphone cameras; a landlord kicked him out of his office.

A white woman in Oakland was ridiculed for telling two black men they were not allowed to barbecue with charcoal at an area around Lake Merritt.

A follow-up video appeared to show her at the airport leaving town; soon, she would be depicted on "Saturday Night Live" and in countless memes. In both of those cases, some viewers combed through web pages and social media to identify the offenders. Others called on them to lose their jobs.

Viral online videos were enabled by two technology trends -- the popularity of smartphones that put a camera in billions of pockets, and the rush by Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to let users instantly upload videos online.

In a classic Silicon Valley pattern, little thought went into how society would put these tools to use.

"There are people who have had their entire careers and potentially the trajectory of their lives changed by a bad day," Dixon said.

Video has helped hold law enforcement accountable for police shootings and other abuses; it has also helped authorities catch criminals.

But videos can lack context, said Karen North, who teaches at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Video watchers don't know what happened before or after filming and are quick to make a judgment, she said.

"You are broadcasting information about them to a broad public ... and putting them in a compromising position where they have to defend themselves," North said. "You have turned them into a public figure for the purpose of that situation without their permission."

Capt. Shawn Ahearn with Sunnyvale's Department of Public Safety said a video is only one component of an investigation. A video can be manipulated, and officers must also consider whether the person filming the video has an agenda, he said.

Nuguid says she reported the incident to the Sunnyvale police. Ahearn said police investigated and determined no criminal act occurred.

Police also decided not to pursue criminal charges against a female driver who called Fremont resident James Ahn an "ugly Chinese." He shared a video of the May incident on Facebook.

Nuguid said she had no desire to see the man who cursed at her lose his job. It is unclear whether he still works at Apple; the company did not return a request for comment. The Chronicle was not able to reach the man.

"I wish he would have an open dialogue with me," Nuguid said. "I would like an explanation: Why did he feel entitled to start calling me abusive names?"

The motivation to film other people comes from the need to connect with people online by showing them what we are seeing, North said. There's also social recognition to be gained by capturing wrongdoing.

"You can assume that virtually everybody you see on the street is packing a phone with camera and video capability," said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. "It now takes absolutely no time to see something going on that might arouse your moral indignation and grab your phone still in your palm and put it into camera mode and start taping it."

Online videos have become their own form of entertainment, Thompson said.

"With these kinds of things, you create these instant, really compelling characters that populate the week of social media news," Thompson said.

Facebook and Google, which owns YouTube, say that they are hiring thousands of staff to monitor postings to fight against hate speech, terrorism and bullying.

But industry observers say not enough attention is being placed on the people, often anonymous, who work to identify those in the videos and incite others against them.

"It's uneven at this point," said Marc Weber, curatorial director at the Computer History Museum's Internet history program. "It's easy to insult, but there's no accountability for those people."

It could get even worse as facial recognition technology enables people to be identified across multiple videos, he said.

Weber said he believes that society is "returning to both the good and bad side of village life," where there is little privacy and everybody knows everybody else's business. "Electronically, we're kind of returning to that in a much larger community."

Wendy Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer

Related News

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *