Big Brother may or may not be watching you, but these days someone probably is.
In your home, your car, or especially in public, you are only moments away from becoming a You Tube spectacle and a Facebook phenomenon if there is a cell phone within range.
Is everybody recording everything? Perhaps not yet, but the only safe course is to assume so. The cell phone is today’s ubiquitous instrument of record, easy to use, and capable of globally distributing content within seconds. You have almost no control over how that happens, and a difficult path to recourse if you are misrepresented, embarrassed, libeled, or just slimed for someone’s amusement.
Much of what you can watch on the internet is innocuous or inane. But every day, it seems, some new conflict or problematic behavior has been observed, recorded, uploaded, and vaulted to instantaneous social media infamy. Most vividly, the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, who died in front of our eyes, sparked a nationwide eruption of outrage and demands for change that will not quickly or quietly subside.
Although the Floyd video is already historic in its impact, it’s only one example of many confrontations initiated by white people against African Americans, or of police and demonstrators facing off, or of coronavirus hoaxers making fools of themselves in public, in front of a tiny but all-seeing lens.
These videos, usually amateurish and often of poor technical quality, are nevertheless news in its rawest, unfiltered form, documented as it happens.
Of course, video can be edited, altered, and manipulated, so watcher beware. A million views can occur before someone discovers the deceptions, and by then it may be too late to catch up with the newly raging meme.
Just a few days ago, Fox News was caught doctoring a photo used in illustrating a story about Seattle’s “Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.” Fox was forced to air a correction and an apology, after the disinformation damage was done.
But most opportunistic videographers are not that sophisticated, and what you see is what they recorded. Which makes it difficult for those involved to deny that what we are watching is what actually happened. Those of us in the news business are just as fascinated as anyone else, while at the same time recognizing that videos typically offer no context, no continuity, no analysis, and no follow-up. For good or ill, they stand on their own, open to tribalistic interpretation even if the evidence of what happened seems incontrovertible.
Laying low, staying quiet, and not being a racist twit in public are good strategies, yet nobody is safe from their own past. We can no longer count on youthful indiscretions, moments of drunken idiocy, or words spoken in jest staying forever buried. Things recorded years ago are surfacing to torpedo people’s lives and careers. Accountability is retroactive.
If you ever said or did something you regret, there’s always going to be a faint alarm bell going off in your head whenever you see someone eviscerated on the internet. Simply changing your mind (which we are all entitled to do) can come back to haunt you. Witness a several-years-old video now circulating of Trump lapdog Sen. Lindsay Graham lavishly praising Joe Biden.
This is what makes the pop-up video moment so damaging for people who clearly come across as a perpetrator: Once the clip airs, you have lost control of the narrative. It’s not your story, and trying to reclaim it is almost impossible. You are behind a runaway train, panting to catch up with explanations, excuses, mitigating circumstances or, worse, denials and counterattacks. The viewing public generally acknowledges only one response as remotely acceptable: an abject apology. Even that may not make a dent.
You can undo your standing among other human beings in one indecorous moment, because the intractable reality is that intent doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is perception – which is also entirely out of your control. To the extent that perception coincides precisely with reality, as in the case of George Floyd’s death, it’s not even up for discussion.
For years we’ve been telling high school and college students that one ill-conceived Facebook post can determine their life’s outcome. As the kids know, grown-ups don’t always take their own advice. Among the hundreds of columns and editorials I’ve written over the past 40 years, I’m sure there are things I would rewrite or reconsider. I’ll take that over 40 seconds of everlasting degradation.