On Sunday, I caught one of the featured panels at the Margaret Mead Film Festival, which I wrote a little about here. The panel featured several people involved creating “user-generated content” including the engaging cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch (from Kansas State University), who created the mesmerizing and wildly popular Web 2.0 video; Sara Pollack, YouTube’s film manager; Sameer Padania from Witness, introducing the new participatory online video site for human rights organizations The Hub; and Michael Smolens, founder and CEO of dotSUB, a sort of wikipedia-like translation site for films; and, Jenny Douglas, introducing her new site called KarmaTube. While the panelists tended to focus on the democratizing and emancipatory potential of digital video and video sharing sites, in the Q&A afterward there seemed to be some desire to talk about the negative potential of the medium. For example, Sameer Padania screened a horrific video of police brutality from Egypt that is intended to highlight human rights abuses and prompt action by people opposed to such abuses. I wondered about the people who click on such horrific videos to enjoy them or laugh at them; and, I wondered about the ways that seemingly straightforward “video evidence” like the Rodney King video, get discredited by oppressive political regimes, like the Egyptian police or LAPD. This view was certainly not well-represented on the panel, but to be fair, that wasn’t the intention.
Despite the up-with-people quality of a lot of discussion about digital video, the reality is that there’s no shortage of people using these sorts of digital video sharing sites for nefarious ends, among them neo-Nazis, skinheads and white supremacists who want to use digital video to spread racist propaganda. For example, CurrentTV (Al Gore’s venture and my current default cable channel) is running a video “pod” (their term for a short digital video segment) called “From Russia With Hate,” about neo-Nazis in Russia who are filming racist attacks on immigrants, then posting these digital videos online. (I’m posting the link but not the video because it contains violent scenes that I don’t want to reproduce here.) This is a well-done bit of investigative journalism by the reporter Christof Putzel, and while these are quite disturbing to watch, the intention of the filmmaker is clearly to be critical of the neo-Nazis. The CurrentTV site shows that approximately a month after posting, the video has received 3,844 views and there are 32 comments. All the comments are supportive of the filmmaker’s point of view, and several even remarking on their “unease” with voting “for” the video on the website as they fear this implicates them somehow in the neo-Nazi violence.
I raise this example here to address some of the nuances of online video for addressing racism in the digital era and offer some complexity to the panel presentation from Sunday. On the one hand, Putzel’s investigative journalism and digital video distributed through cable networks and online via CurrentTV offer support for the argument about the democratizing and emancipatory potential of online digital video. This approach both highlights the problem of racist violence and offers people an opportunity to take some, albeit limited, action by posting comments in support of the critique of neo-Nazism. And, as Putzel mentions near the end of the report, one of the central figures he interviews is later arrested for “inciting ethnic hatred,” so there is some material result of his reporting in the effort to stop neo-Nazi violence.
On the other hand, there is a way in which the very possibility of digital video and the presence of digital video cameras gives rise to racist violence. Several of the scenes that are shown in Putzel’s piece have clearly been staged for the (neo-Nazi’s) digital camera. In one scene of racist violence on a train, the digital camera operator is already in place near the (eventual) victim of the violence, and stands waiting, filming both the unsuspecting victim and the approaching gang of neo-Nazis. While it is possible that this violence might have happened without the presence of the camera (or the potential to upload it), the fact that the violence happens in such a seemingly staged manner implicates the digital video in the violence. And, in the gravest negative consequence, after the arrest of one of the figures in Putzel’s piece, another neo-Nazi video is released in which two immigrants are killed on camera and this is uploaded to the web. No one has been arrested for these murders; and, to date, no one knows who made the digital video of these racist murders.
Several of the panelists on Sunday mentioned that we are still in the early days, indeed “way before the beginning,” of the convergence of digital video, Internet and television. I couldn’t agree more. And, what this means in terms of racism, and resisting racism, is still unfolding.