Toward a More Vigilant Approach to Consuming Visual Media
It seems that in our current consumption of visual media, we have taken too seriously the adage, “seeing is believing.” We have become prone to putting too much trust in videos and pictures, blindly accepting them as complete, accurate reflections of reality. In the process, as a society, we have made ourselves vulnerable not only to visual media that is intended to mislead us, such as photoshopped pictures and soundbites, but also to visual media that does not intend to mislead us but, nevertheless, has the same effect. In these highly polarized times, when a picture or a video appeals to our biases, we are all too willing to accept them as testaments of truth.
Perhaps the best example of the problem with the way society interacts with visual media is the Covington Catholic controversy. With several major media outlets rushing to judgment in coverage of the event, this controversy is particularly illuminating because it demonstrates the extent to which visual media can deceive.
The encounter between Covington Catholic Student Nick Sandmann and Nathan Phillips captured in the initial viral video is itself uneventful. Almost the entirety of the interaction consists in Sandmann and Phillips staring at each other, with Sandmann smirking and Phillips pounding a drum. However, to many viewers, the interaction between a young male donning a “Make America Great Again” hat and seemingly mocking an older Native American man peacefully beating a drum, fits their political biases perfectly. From this short clip, viewers, and even several media outlets, crafted a narrative portraying a clear villain and a clear hero. Regular Americans, politicians, and even many journalists accepted this narrative and swiftly condemned Covington Catholic High School and the students. Many labeled Sandmann and the other students as racist, while some went so far as to send hate mail to both Sandman and the school. However, a few days after the initial video, longer clips of the incident surfaced presenting a new perspective and, with it, a newly crafted story. The longer videos show a Black Israelite protest group yelling disparaging remarks and taunting the Covington Catholic students. Additionally, this video, which is shot from a different angle, depicts the confrontation from an alternative point of view, presenting Sandmann more favorably and providing important context for the incident: the Black Israelite protest group were clearly the aggressors and Sandmann and the other students were unfairly demonized. While access to the entire video provided critical information and greater context to the controversy, one would be mistaken to claim the video eliminated all ambiguity or offered a clear interpretation of who was in the wrong and who was in the right. Yet again, many Americans and media outlets committed the same mistake, this time drawing conclusions that absolved the students of any blame. The reality of the incident is much more complex than the binary of good vs. evil or guilty vs. innocent that many wanted to accept.
This example spotlights not only biased interpretations but also how readily viewers and media outlets oversimplify a situation’s complexity by allowing rashly published video clips or a few photos to tell the whole story. Often, the most important factors to explain events, and the ones typically disregarded, are not the moments captured by a camera but the moments preceding the filming or the moments immediately after the filming ends. Furthermore, this controversy illuminates the tangible, potentially dangerous effects of our rushing to judge what we see in visual media: Nick Sandmann and many of the other students and their families have received numerous death threats and hate mail.
Not only are these problems with visual media not going away, but it is also going to become increasingly challenging to combat them given the threat posed by “deepfakes.” Deepfakes are a recent development in technology that employs advanced digital audio and visual impersonation techniques. Put simply, it is akin to photoshop for videos. In law professors Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron’s article, “Deepfakes: A Looming Crisis for National Security, Democracy, and Privacy?” they outline the technology behind deepfakes and their hazards to society. They explain that the use of “[m]achine-learning algorithms (often neural networks) combined with facial-mapping software enable the cheap and easy fabrication of content that hijacks one’s identity—voice, face, body.” This technology enables someone to map one person’s face onto another person to create a fake but highly realistic video of them doing or saying something that they did not actually do or say. The long list of ways deepfakes may damage people’s careers and spread misinformation are endless and frightening. As Chesney and Citron emphasize, the potential for hostile foreign intelligence agencies and other nefarious actors to easily manufacture and disseminate videos of important public figures committing crimes or saying racist or offensive things would elevate ‘fake news’ to a whole new dimension. More specifically, it could have a massive influence on political elections.
The threat posed by visual media is certainly not going away, which means that we must become more vigilant and responsible consumers of it. We cannot continue to treat pictures and videos as a complete and accurate depiction of the world. Instead, we must take the same critical approach to visual media that we take to the printed stories and news we read. For instance, we must take into consideration the potential biases of the person who captured the photo or video in question and make sure to fact-check the information we receive via visual media. This is not a simple task. News, viral videos and pictures on our phones and social media pages continuously flood us with information throughout the day. And it seems that the videos and pictures that spread the quickest are the ones that appeal most to our inherent biases and political leanings. Thus, reserving judgment may not only require that we wait several days before drawing a conclusion but also that we try to resist our natural tendency to readily accept information that fits our narrative of the world.
As we adopt a more critical approach to consuming visual media, we must be careful not to overcorrect by becoming unduly overcritical. There is a crucial distinction between taking a critical approach toward visual media and adopting a blind skepticism of all visual media. If society overcorrects for this issue by casting doubt on the legitimacy of all the information we receive via visual media, we will only further debase the truth by eliminating any standard by which to judge the validity of information.
The Covington Catholic viral video controversy shows how pervasive and widespread an effect visual media can have— illuminating that even journalists are susceptible to visual media’s potentially deceptive nature. While companies like Google, Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have recently made an effort to hinder the spread of misinformation on their respective platforms, this problem is certainly not going away— nor can we possibly expect them to be able to eradicate all forms of misinformation. In fact, with deepfakes, the problem is only going to grow more challenging to combat. Thus, we cannot blindly rush to judgment and accept any video or picture at face value to be credible. We must take some responsibility for tackling this issue ourselves by examining the way in which we interact with visual media.
(The overhead photo contains a picture of one of the videos from the Covington Catholic controversy. Credit: YouTube).