When seeing is not believing

The Derek Chauvin verdict was in doubt, and that is a reminder that video evidence isn't enough to convince people of something they don't want to believe

“The human eye is a wonderful device. With a little effort, it can fail to see even the most glaring injustice.” —Richard K. Morgan, Altered Carbon

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By now you’ve probably heard Derek Chauvin has been found guilty on three counts for the murder of George Floyd. The case, which took about a year to go from incident to trial, was a closely watched example of extrajudicial killing captured on video. The evidence was there for everyone in the U.S. to see at a time when we were paying more attention to news due to pandemic lockdowns. It was, by many, considered a stress test of the ability for the justice system to perform at bare minimum levels.

I got a push alert on my phone Tuesday afternoon when news broke that the jury had decided, and then I spent the next couple hours keeping an eye on Twitter for news of the actual verdict. In the meantime, as I scrolled through my feed it struck me how different the conversation was depending on your background. Black activists in general were fairly skeptical that the verdict would be guilty; the feeling was more mixed among people of other backgrounds, particularly white people. Optimism was not universal in a case that many thought was more clear-cut than some similar cases we’ve seen play out in the public eye the past 10 years.

The divide is important to note. Floyd’s killing was marked by a staggeringly clear and widely seen piece of video evidence. It was difficult for me to ignore what I could see. I do realize video, as with any visual media, is subject to framing effects. I often tell my students that it’s important to consider what is outside the frame when looking at video or photos. Sometimes it’s an editing choice, sometimes it’s the limits of a camera window. But it’s important to remember that there are things we don’t see when consuming visual media. What happened to George Floyd was less in that vein than other similar examples, which often feature grainy zoomed-in video and shakiness due to amateur camera operation. No, in this case the evidence against Chauvin was so strong that his own department cut him loose during a trial that featured several fellow officers testifying against him.

And yet.

This is just one example, but former NFL quarterback Brett Favre went viral this week because he used his podcast to question the verdict. His is the rant that made the round, but it is not difficult to find others. Few are taking the tactic of saying Floyd’s death was the result of an appropriate level of force, though there are exceptions. Most of the debate has shifted to skepticism about Chauvin’s motives, an attempt to pour cold water on the distinctions that make this murder vs. manslaughter, the latter of which carries a much less severe penalty.

I’ve been thinking about this case in a couple different media contexts for the past few months as the trial approached.

The first is the Rodney King beating, which happened 30 years ago this past March in Los Angeles. It was a rare-for-its-time example of police brutality captured on video and transmitted to the public, but it resulted in an acquittal that shook the city and led to civic unrest for days as a result of the outrage.

It’s important to remember the media environment in which the King case happened. This was the very, very early days of the public internet which meant that masses of people seeing the video depended on the willingness of TV stations to broadcast it. It also relied on eyewitness video at a time of expensive cameras and videotape that meant they were in few hands (and thus meant fewer opportunities to capture video). We too easily take for granted the ubiquity of mobile video today. The video we saw of Floyd’s death is one of several examples we have just in the past year, spread more easily by mobile phone cameras and social networks. The King beating stood out for its rarity, a unique moment made possible because one of the few citizens able to own and tote a video camera was in the right place at the right time to capture it, and then they also knew where to take it to spread the word.

My 17-year-old ignorant self saw the King beating on the news in ‘91 and too easily assumed a guilty verdict would follow. Generation X was reared on a message of racial progress achieved and colorblindness as virtue, the idea being that we were well past the injustices of prior decades and didn’t have to think about racial injustice as a current issue. The struggle for equality was a thing we studied in history class. It was settled.

And then it wasn’t. I remember being shocked. How could they? We had video. How can such injustice exist? It shook me out of my slumber and started a different path for me, one very different than the one laid out by my elders. Things were not as they seemed, and over the course of my life I’ve seen incidents such as the King beating replicated time and again in the news. New shootings, new excuses, same old injustice.

All that to say my thoughts were more aligned with the Black activists expressing doubt before the verdict became public Tuesday. I shared the sentiment and skepticism (cynicism, even), and more to the point I shared a sense that even a guilty verdict wouldn’t solve much in the long run. There was too much history as a counterfactual. More so, we had to have that much clear video evidence to even have a chance of conviction. It ended up working out in the George Floyd case, but it’s also a sign of how much harder it is to earn convictions in the face of the near-daily incidents we see in the news.

Very little has changed in nearly 30 years since Rodney King. The only thing we have is more video evidence, and if our system was working that should mean more progress than we have. Why can’t we believe what we see?

That brings me to the second thing I’m thinking about in this context, which is the rise of conspiracy theories that fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection in the U.S. Capitol. More specifically, the spread of the QAnon conspiracy theory the past four years and its coupling with the Big Lie about a stolen election in 2020. This might seem unrelated to the Floyd case, so I’ll state it more plainly: why do some not trust their eyes when a Black man is murdered by a police officers, but so easily fall for an outlandish conspiracy theory in the face of all evidence?

It’s not like these are unrelated groups. Many of the same people questioning the Chauvin verdict are people who bought into the election fraud lie, knitted together in a specific subset of U.S. conservatism sold at the time by then-President Trump. They are not the same people all the time, but there is enough overlap to present us with an opportunity to examine why some ignore plain evidence in one case while buying into strung-together specious arguments in another.

Studying media does provide some avenues for thinking about the problem, and about solutions. Yes, we have more cameras and self-publishing to document instances of extrajudicial killings and violence, but the structural publishing change happening amidst all this is that the internet is a different kind of delivery and sorting system as well. Rodney King happened at a time when elite gatekeepers were dominant. A TV station broadcasting that video in a time when there was less competition for attention, but also that the station also possessed a kind of power by virtue of elevating something to the newscast. But today we are awash in a sea of choice with social media, with the power to consume or ignore what we like.

The internet also splinters us in ways that isn’t helping. Social connections allow us to self-organize and group by race, by gender, by ideology, by party if we so choose, which can have benefits in some cases but drawbacks in others. It’s a great deal for activists who use social media to spread information and organize or recruit. But on the downside, information in this context is delivered to us based on those backgrounds, beliefs and interests and by definition that acts as a filter on what we see and don’t see. But more importantly, it acts as a kind of filter on how we see. Conservative or progressive media choice comes with certain lenses, and that instantly pre-frames new information inputs. This doesn’t take a whole lot of deep thinking. There’s a police shooting, and you already know what Sean Hannity is going to say. This is baked in to media encounters for many users who live in self-constructed echo chambers.

Media psychologists talk about confirmation bias as a powerful influence on what we seek and how we see. Confirmation bias is a concept that describes a tendency to seek out information that confirms our existing belief system. Humans aren’t great at challenging their priors, and it’s a pattern that knows no ideology or belief system. It’s difficult to accept evidence that challenges our typical way of seeing things, which makes a lot of sense because we depend on knowing things as certain to navigate a complex world more smoothly. If I were to challenge the notion of gravity, for example, imagine how difficult it would be to pull you away from that belief even if you don’t understand the underlying science.

How does that apply the question above? One way to look at it is that skepticism to the Floyd video is the default setting for some. It’s important to underline that confirmation bias is not a given, or at least that it doesn’t lead to a given outcome 100% of the time. The video evidence changed some minds for the better. But we’re talking here about why people resist clear evidence of a crime, and confirmation bias is a helpful window here. The video evidence comes up against much more long-held opinions about police violence against people of color in the U.S. that are dependent on a person’s own race context as well as their past media choices (and in truth, those things are entwined much of the time). In that moment, the consumer is watching with their own eyes something that perhaps challenges some deeply engrained views of the world. It has potential, if done with an open mind, to completely rewire a worldview. The psychology says that is a lot, even too much, for some people to do with a single video.

Applied to conspiracy theory, you can see the flip side of a similar coin. Again, we are talking about people who can believe one and not the other, and it’s not difficult to see the correlations with Trump supporters. They were devoted to a president who took a very aggressive stance against Black Lives Matter and also was leading the charge on questioning the 2020 election, and people of all stripes often noted how much sway he had among his loyal following. There is a type of tribalism to this that predetermines certain views and outcomes. Some might in the end believe what they see on video, or think unsourced claims of election fraud are a bridge too far. But as George Orwell once noted, “To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.” It requires a pluralism of thought and pushing back against one’s own instant reactions. That is possible, but it’s not easily done and likely will not happen organically.

The longer game here is that we need to grapple with some things I write about regularly here. Social media works for a lot of us because of personalization, but it also isolates us in ways that make it difficult to build the kinds of bridges we need to challenge confirmation bias. This is particularly critical if you’re someone trying to change minds. You can’t influence others if everyone you’re connected to thinks like you. The natural tendency is to build echo chambers that cater to our desire to not be challenged, whatever our view of the world. Again, constant struggle. It is hard work to interrogate our own media environment, to ask hard questions of something that is largely invisible without seeing some sort of alternative option. Marshall McLuhan once observed that fish don’t know anything about water because they can’t perceive an anti-environment; similarly, it’s hard to know you’re in a filter bubble without seeing what it could look like instead. But those bubbles can be so important to dissect, because we largely construct our view of the world from media rather than direct experience.

You might not approach social networks as an information source or an activism outlet, but the network still behaves that way regardless. It is unpredictable that way, but it’s also being steered by algorithmic authority that preframes your world for you and creates self-limiting choices. Even chosen ignorance (defined in this case as using social media only for laughs and entertainment) is an ideological choice, a decision to look away from injustice staring at you because you have the privilege to not “get political” in shared spaces.

But done better, social networks can be fun and entertaining and aid in building empathy. They are built on the strength of weak ties, those casual connections to people of all backgrounds and stripes. Weak ties allow new ideas and ways of seeing to travel quickly across connections to people not like us, but we can’t build them while trying to influence. The hard work comes first, forging social connections and building trust. This is hard, difficult work on social platforms that speak more about the value of frictionless connection than the long-run work of building durable bonds between people.

In that sense, social networks can be seen as useful tools but we can’t assume the companies are going to help us do the hard work required, because the latter can be counterproductive to a business model that prizes engagement as a critical metric to sell advertisers. It’s somewhat cliche to say it these days, but that work is on us.

Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Find him on Twitter at @jeremylittau.