Berkeley riots, technology, and livestreaming in the age of Trump

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about livestreaming and how disruptive its become in the media landscape.

Maybe it’s because I have spent my entire adult life working in the media and anything that’s even remotely disruptive becomes a new obsession. Case in point being the smartphone — and the Blackberry Bold 9000 that changed my life and the way I forever viewed personal technology. It’s hard to argue that livestreaming hasn’t changed the way we get and process our news more than any other platform. While Twitter has made it easier to report breaking news, livestreaming, much like television crews being in Vietnam during the war and transmitting images of what war actually looked like to American families, has changed the way news impacts us.

You don’t have to look much farther than riots in Ferguson, protests in Istanbul and, most recently, the ongoing battle between the alt-right and Donald Trump supporters with antifa (anti-fascist) groups and those who oppose his presidency in Berkeley as an example. It has never been easier to learn about and see the devastating effects of news events from around the world.

Livestreaming has allowed us to see into parts of the world and events that we never could before. Even more importantly, it has allowed anyone with a camera and a Facebook account to start reporting the minute something happens. If they see a car accident on a deserted road or a moment of social injustice, all they have to do is take out their phone and hit the start streaming button. Usually these conversations take on a certain tone when journalists discuss new technology that can either help or hinder their careers. When I was working at a newspaper, there were a number of senior reporters on staff who didn’t want to use Twitter or Facebook as a way of boosting their profiles or stories. Eventually, when they realized that Twitter and Facebook weren’t going anywhere, they got on board, but it was a difficult feat for some of my younger editors.

But that’s not the conversation I want to have. Talking about how important livestreaming has become to news isn’t a fresh topic worth discussing, but this weekend, sitting across from a man I was on a first date with, the discussion of livestreaming came up and he brought up a point I had never thought of before.

We were discussing the riots in Berkeley and I told him that when it came to catching a livestream on Facebook or Periscope, I tended to go with Buzzfeed for a couple of reasons. They’re reputable, their journalist on the ground is reliable and so is their actual ability to continue a stream without having to worry about a dying battery or someone getting bored and deciding to end the stream. Other journalists, I added, like Tim Poole were good options, too, for similar reasons.

At some point in our conversation, I made an off-handed comment about how I prefer to watch livestreams over broadcasts from CNN, Fox or MSNBC because they tended to be more objective. I suggested that it’s a little harder to find a bias with a livestream because the people holding the camera — whether that’s a reporter or someone who just happens to be streaming — are just filming what’s happening in front of them.

“I don’t think that’s right, actually,” my date interrupted.

“Oh? How come,” I asked, taking a sip of the tequila sitting in front of me.

“They’re still deciding what to focus their attention on,” he said. “They’re still in control of what you’re seeing.”

He’s right. He’s absolutely right. As much as I trust Buzzfeed and Poole among other journalists to try and tell the least biased story they can, there is still an element of personal judgement going into what’s being streamed and what’s not. I was putting all my faith in Buzzfeed’s ability, and while I don’t doubt them, my date’s sentiment did make me rethink the way we look at livestreaming in general.

Buzzfeed’s reporter, for example, wasn’t the only person livestreaming. After checking in with Facebook’s map system, it was obvious there were tens of different organizations, reporters and citizens streaming live from the riots in Berkeley. I chose Buzzfeed because I like their reporting, but how many people chose streamers whose ideologies they align with? How many livestreamers identified as members of the alt-right or Trump supporters and were using their camera as a way to showcase the antifa and anti-Trump supporters in the most negative way they possibly could?

It got me thinking about how much blind faith we put in technology — and reminded me that even though livestreaming could only exist to the extent it does now because of how accessible mobile data and social networking is on our personal devices, those tools are still being used by human. All of which is a long way of saying that we aren’t leaving reporting up to an algorithm; we’re still heavily reliant on human storytelling and that means we can’t escape bias.

But the term bias gets thrown around a lot these days as a way of discounting actual reporting and I want to remind people that bias has been around since the birth of history. History began as the oral retelling of an event that happened, whether that be a war or appointment of a new king, that was written down by someone else. The person who told the story probably exaggerated a few details to make it more exciting or may have even lied about something that he didn’t agree with. The person writing the story, in the same way, probably exaggerated those details even further to make it even more interesting to the next person that would read it.

If we examine Vietnam again, a moment in time that most journalists and historians point to as the way war coverage changed and what led to the iconic riots of the ’60s, we have to admit that even those broadcasts were heavily editorialized. The journalists who reported from Vietnam should be commended for their courageous decision to defy the federal government and show images that starkly contrasted the image various presidents were giving Americans about how successful the war was going, but there were still heavy editorialized decisions that went into each broadcast.

I don’t think it’s possible to have completely objective reporting. That’s not a new conversation, either. People have been debating this for decades and it’s not going to end anytime soon. I’d argue it’s only going to get worse the more reporting becomes something that anyone with a camera and a Facebook account can do, which is why teaching media literacy is so important.

I could go on a whole tirade about the importance of media literacy in the era of Trump and the alt-right, but that’s not the point of this blog. The point of this is to illustrate both to myself and hopefully those who stumble upon this, that while technology makes things easier, it doesn’t always make things better. It’s important to use technology as a tool to make certain aspects of our jobs and lives easier, but we should never point to a new medium or platform and hand over our blind faith to it. To do so removes the accountability that humans need to be held to and takes away our own responsibility to doing the best job we can.

Technology is such a huge presence in our daily, minute to minute lives, and that’s not going to end anytime soon. But what we can do is remind ourselves that technology does not define how we act. Rather, our actions should define the way technology is perceived, created, and used.