October 25, 2020

On the Rejection of Live Streaming

The rejection of live streaming by activists in the US is deeply concerning. I understand some of the arguments as to why live streaming seems like it could be dangerous to activists but these arguments are largely misguided. As I am tired of repeating myself, I decided to type all of this out.

Live stream video has three important benefits over traditional video coverage. These benefits all parties: protesters, law enforcement, and any other interested groups depending on who can access the streams as it airs and any subsequent VODs that are stored and shared. Of course, the VODs can be altered but the live stream itself holds the most benefit.

  1. Coordination from a base to help people on the ground figure out what’s going on
  2. Unedited footage for evidence collection
  3. The public can bear witness to rights and wrongs

First, being able to help with coordination from elsewhere is beneficial for those on the ground who can see multiple streams at once. This is sheer tactical and should never be underestimated. Protesters do not necessarily have access to stable cameras from ATMs or stores, but they may have access to other publicly available stable cameras that depict broad areas. Being able to see footage from multiple live streams from within an event, the outskirts of an event, and from any available stable camera footage is purely beneficial to whomever is on the ground.

Second, unedited footage for evidence collection. Live streams are rarely edited. They are uncut. Yes, there is some manipulation in what the person with the camera chooses to show and when they turn the camera off and on, but that’s it. The obvious upside to this is getting full sequences of events, particularly with team-approaches of live streamers of the same events. The obvious downside of this being that is if teams are not used or coordination is not utilised, context may not be sufficient and false narratives can be made.

Third, bearing witness. This last point is more philosophical than anything else. The public’s ability to bear witness has been greatly hindered up until recently. The public has had to rely on the news, with edited and cut footage, with an attached narrative, to understand what happens in the world – protest related or not. Or they read articles. If you’ve ever played the game of Telephone, you understand this means that the original message has been retold several times and likely no longer resembles what was originally said. The same principle applies here: live video is captured at an event, the clipped and edited for clarity, then attached to a narrative by an editor and a news anchor. This is then retold by others until the story reaches you. By viewing a live stream yourself, none of the filtering occurs. Being able to bear witness to the event itself is of great importance for the public. We must remember that at the end of the day, we are fighting for the public, not only ourselves.

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Many protesters argue that live streaming is dangerous and unhelpful, that the cons outweigh the pros. I suggest differently as the few objections I’ve heard are self-originating and stem from a lack of communication, organisation, and understanding the purpose of live streaming. And from a lack of trust. Unfortunately, all of these criticisms share a common response: law enforcement already has these means and activists previously have not. Injustice at the hands of law enforcement will occur with or without live streaming performed by activists. The major difference that live streaming makes is that now activists have evidence on their side.

The primary criticism against live streaming has to do with how police and other potentially nefarious third parties can access this footage and use it to take various actions against protesters. These actions include identification for targeting protesters for arrest, stalking, harassment, etc. The criticism is both true and misleading. It is true that yes, of course if it’s on the internet and you can see it, most likely someone else can see it, too. And they can probably also record and save it and use it however they wish.

The criticism is misleading in that law enforcement and third parties already have this kind of evidence through their own means. Even if law enforcement has some kind of law or rule against a specific type of recording, they can still use body cams and subpoena any footage from ATMs, stores, or any other kind of camera in the area. Most of these cameras are not accessible to protesters. Typically by the time someone who is subject in this footage can access it (if they can access it), such as during a hearing or trial, the amount of time for analysis is now greatly hindered. In short, law enforcement will have evidence and you will not until it’s quite late and time to use that evidence for your own benefit is greatly shortened. Not only that, the evidence that they do provide may be altered or censored in a way that is not beneficial for you. We have seen how law enforcement releases video footage during trials. They do so reluctantly or not at all. Or with critical parts missing. With live streams (and traditional video) from the side of the activist, this is no longer a problem. We already have it and we can use it. So can they, but we can, too. the benefit here is significant particularly in catching law enforcement in lies and injustices.

Another possible objection concerns (1) above, where those with access to viewing the streams can use the same information for coordination of action. Again, law enforcement already has superior coordination to protesters because they already have these means. They have comms, equipment, general training, and familiarity with each other. You do not. Live streams can help you with this if you use them wisely.

Third party interests also have access to whichever streams you make available to public platforms such as social media accounts. This means that they can also make tactical decisions using any publicly displayed live streams. Keep this in mind when you have live streams and coordinate accordingly.

Another argument comes from live streaming any kind of direct action that involves intentional illegal activity. Now I find this to be a particularly poor criticism of live streaming. The criticism here rests largely on the ability on the part of those doing this kind of action. If you don’t want illegal activity on video, live or otherwise recorded, you need to do your illegal activity better. It’s an illegal activity. You know this. Do it better if you don’t want people to know it’s you. Don’t be stupid. If someone shows up while you’re in the middle of said illegal activity and your face is visible, that is a whole lot of your problem for being really bad at what you’re doing. Not theirs. You got caught and you have to deal with that. And if you have trust issues with leaks about these kinds of actions, again, not a fault of live streamers – that’s a fault in your organisation methods. Clean your house.

This brings us to an important point in regard to who has access to a live stream when it is being viewed. Streams do not need to be streamed to social media, to the public, for views. Some people can do this – sure. There is great benefit in doing this (see 3, above). However, secure streams can be aired to a small group of people who can help protesters navigate and collect evidence. A dedicated team of “watchers” can be set up to notate, timestamp, clip, and archive footage while another assists with navigation when necessary. Streams like this can be said to be closed-access. Law enforcement and security teams do this all the time. So can you. It’s a neat trick. But it requires organisation and trust. So get organised and clean your house.

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Live streaming can be used not just for showing the world what is happening and not just for collecting evidence, but for vital tactics and by a coordinated team both present within the event and outside of the event. This requires a team approach with a close-knit organisation. Of course there will be individuals who are live streaming for other purposes. It is up to you and whomever is working with you to figure out how to handle various people who are around. You are activists in the public sphere. You must remember this. That is the point of it all: public action for the public good. But it should be clear that within whatever group or event you are involved, you should know and have one or two people live streaming specifically for the event in your interest. Coordinate with them. Make it public or not. I would say public access is best because the more eyes on an event, the better off you are. The more people can write and share the stories and push out the messages of what is happening on the ground.

Coming from one of the people who has followed the development of live stream use in protests in the US and around the world, and who has been involved with activism for most of their life, I can say this without a doubt: you will get brutalised, beaten, tear gassed, maced, shot at, hosed down with water cannons, stalked, harassed, arrested, and/or put on trial with or without a live stream. Yes, it can help law enforcement and make their job easier. But it can significantly help you. The major difference is that without video, and in particular live video on the side of activists, is who has access to the evidence. Without a live stream on the activist side, only law enforcement will have this. You might have some ahead of court (if you even get to go to court), but you won’t know what and it can be tampered with or censored. Also with live streams, you can gain support of the public. It is a broad coordinated effort to live stream effectively. Learn to use this tool well. It can give you (and the public) so much. And frankly, we all really need the public on our side if we want to make the changes we want to see.

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One odd note to add: there is serious hatred of clout-chasing: people who are in for the viewers and the money. I will say this. In some ways, we need them. Not enough of people care out of the sheer goodness of their hearts. That is a sad reality of being human. Personally, I am not a fan of “in it for the views” but live streaming is one of the most powerful tools that we have in terms of being able to bear witness. When the world watches, the world knows. Getting the world to watch involves getting viewers. And unfortunately, people who are clout-chasing are leading the way in getting people to watch. I’m not sure how to resolve this, to work with this, to harness this so that we can get more people on board to see what is actually happening. But there is a way. There must be.

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N. M. Baudelaire
N M Baudelaire

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