Video on the record


Among the many Pulitzer Prizes awarded in 2021 was a citation for a young person who modified history along with her cellphone. The Pulitzer committee acknowledged Darnella Frazier “for courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the globe, highlighting the crucial role of residents in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”

Frazier’s act of witness received unusual recognition, nevertheless it exists on a continuum with countless other visual documentations of injustice leveraged by activists, journalists, and bystanders to demand change. Bearing Witness, Looking for Justice: Videography within the Hands of the People, a conference held on MIT’s campus and via livestream Oct. 5–7, delved into the complex issues surrounding the creation and dissemination of those images. Hosted by MIT Comparative Media Studies/Writing (CMS/W) within the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS), the conference examined video technology’s histories; its role in protecting our rights and civil liberties; its interaction with the press and social media platforms; and its abuses, especially related to surveillance and deepfakes. (A video playlist of conference sessions is accessible on the CMS/W YouTube page.)

Sparked by Floyd’s death and Frazier’s video, the thought for the gathering originated with Ken Manning, the Thomas Meloy Professor of Rhetoric and the History of Science at MIT, and have become the primary proposal to secure support from MIT’s recent $1.2 million Racism Research Fund. Manning teamed up with Tracie Jones, SHASS’s assistant dean for diversity, equity, and inclusion, to place out a global call for presentations. They recruited educator and DEI technologist Samantha Fletcher as project manager and assembled a steering committee of MIT community members, including faculty inside and out of doors CMS/W, an undergraduate student, and leaders of the MIT Police.

Why hold such conversations at MIT? In keeping with Jones: “A lot of what our faculty and students do contributes to innovation that may combat racism, classism, and poverty. Highlighting to the world that MIT cares about these social issues is actually essential.”

Fletcher saw the event as a momentum-building opportunity. “I used to be very excited throughout the summer of 2020 when it wasn’t just Black individuals who were marching for Black lives. All different races were coming out, white people were coming out — but numerous that has died down,” she reflected the week before the conference. Convenings like this one, she said, “keep awareness going about those injustices.”

Video evidence, then and now

Over the course of the three-day gathering, nine plenary speakers and greater than 20 other presenters in thematically grouped sessions cracked open dialogues on the intersection of video and social justice. Several speakers offered tip-of-the-iceberg introductions to research from their very own recent or forthcoming books on these topics.

Within the opening session, CMS/W professor and film and media historian Heather Hendershot presented material from her book “When the News Broke: Chicago 1968 and the Polarizing of America” (to be published in December). When Chicago police met antiwar protestors and journalists with brutality on the streets outside the 1968 Democratic National Convention, a big segment of the American public was infuriated by what they saw on their screens — not the violence itself, Hendershot explained, a lot as a perceived overemphasis on that violence by trusted network news outlets.

“The truth, from my research findings, is that the media underreported police violence in Chicago,” Hendershot said. Even so, the tumult surrounding the DNC planted the seeds for pervasive accusations of liberal media bias and “fake news” in today’s political landscape.

University of Southern California at Annenberg associate professor of journalism Allissa Richardson also drew connections between history and present-day events in a chat based on her 2020 book, “Bearing Witness While Black: African Americans, Smartphones and the Latest Protest #Journalism.” The journalist-activists who’ve documented the Black Lives Matter movement using only their smartphones and Twitter are constructing, based on Richardson, on a strong “lineage of Black witnessing” that may be traced back through Nineteenth-century Black newspapers and 18th-century slave narratives.

Kelli Moore, an associate professor of media, culture, and communication at Latest York University, took the rostrum with a “provocation” from her own book, “Legal Spectatorship: Slavery and the Visual Culture of Domestic Violence:” “Is it possible the democratization and decentralization of the social media technology we use to proliferate our witnessing participates within the centralization of state control through courtroom power?” Moore studies the photographic and videographic documentation of injury to battered women’s bodies — which frequently stands in for girls’s testimony during court cases — in addition to how artificial versions of such images in art and media can shape public understanding of abuse.

The usage of video evidence in courtrooms was a recurring theme in several other sessions — including one moderated by Harvard University faculty member and former NAACP president Cornell William Brooks. Among the many panelists were University of Cincinnati journalism professor Jeffrey Blevins, who detailed legal precedent for considering bystander filming of police encounters as a First Amendment right, and Sydney Triola, a PhD candidate in information studies on the University of Maryland who’s researching the admissibility of “sousveillance” (citizen-made videos) in police misconduct trials. Of greater than 10,000 instances of police brutality in Triola’s dataset, fewer than 200 led to criminal charges against officers, and only 98 involved video. But when video evidence did exist, her findings-in-progress indicate, it was generally admitted.

Moore, Triola, and others also questioned what harm may result when images of violence, especially against people of color, go viral outside the courtroom. Social scientist R. Kelly Cameron, one other participant within the panel moderated by Brooks, discussed the emotional impact he experienced as a Black man throughout the events surrounding Floyd’s death. He shared something his father once told him: “No man is ever secure from memories … Regardless of the eye sees will ceaselessly be ingrained on the mind of the person.”

Video and justice around the globe

Bearing Witness, Looking for Justice took a distinctly global perspective. Presenters reported on the role of video and social media in movements worldwide: from calls in Haiti to denounce sexual violence (#PaFèSilans) and corruption (#KotKòbPetroCaribeA); to condemnation in India of caste-based assaults (#DalitLivesMatter); to laws difficult police procedures in South Australia (#BanSpitHoods). Other speakers discussed on-the-spot coverage of protests in places including Brazil, Hong Kong, Turkey, and Egypt.

A creative role for video in making social change emerged in one other international panel, titled “The Place of Videography in Future Making: Constructing on Our Pasts.” Featuring several African scholars and artists and arranged by MIT professor of science, technology, and society Chakanetsa Mavhunga, the session asked how Africa’s indigenous myths and technologies may be used instead of Western vocabularies and values as the premise to assume recent realities for the African continent. The panelists have produced digital art and film that extrapolates from traditional crafts reminiscent of grass-weaving and ritual practices reminiscent of “calabashing” (gazing right into a water-filled gourd for scenes of the past and future). In artists’ hands, video becomes a tool for speculative design — as Mavhunga put it, a method of “making what didn’t occur occur, and making what happened not occur in the long run.”

After all, the identical digital tools artists employ to expand viewers’ imaginations may be used to deceive. Nonprofit organization WITNESS goals to remain ahead of that danger within the age of deepfakes. Faked videos don’t just spread misinformation — their existence undermines authentic footage as well, said Sam Gregory, WITNESS’s director of programs, strategy, and innovation. For 30 years the organization has endeavored to assist people use video and technology to guard and defend human rights. Now one in every of its goals is “proactively fortifying the reality,” Gregory said, partly through recent technologies that track the provenance, editing, and sharing of content. But Gregory also warned that the event of such tools “risks being weaponized against vulnerable witnesses.”

A productive forensic impulse

“All of the tools we’re taking a look at cut each ways,” concluded William Uricchio in the ultimate plenary. An MIT professor of comparative media studies and founding father of the MIT Open Documentary Lab, Uricchio used his session to explore how the identical “forensic itch” that prompts residents to document, scrutinize, and call out hidden injustices can lead down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. “How can we take that impulse and drive it in a way that’s productive as a substitute of going off the deep end?” he asked.

That query is arguably most urgent for the conference’s youngest attendees — delegations of highschool students from Boston; Hartford, Connecticut; and Washington — who’re coming of age with video cameras of their pockets. The scholars convened for a special session, joined by PhD candidates Miles George ’22 and Malik George ’22, twin brothers whose entertaining STEM outreach videos have amassed greater than 1.5 million likes on TikTok. Guided by conference manager Fletcher, the highschool session challenged the scholars to look at their assumptions about identity and technology. Fletcher’s goal for the youngsters — indeed, for all conference attendees — was to send them home equipped to proceed the conversation.

“I hope they generally is a a part of unpacking all of this,” she said. “Hopefully that leads them to be more intentional and careful with videography, and to make use of it for justice and for good.”

Archived livestreams of most plenary sessions might be posted for public viewing. For more information, visit


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