Live Streamers Make Great Informants – Except when they don’t
This is a response to an article called Live Streamers Make Great Informants written by WeCopwatch. I’m writing this because there have been wide generalizations about live streamers and some accusations made without any examples given that all live streaming of all protests is bad. As with most binary thinking a middle ground is usually the better path. WeCopwatch expressed many valid concerns and most of those concerns can be addressed with giving security culture training to new live streamers. There are ways to stream that keep people safe. Many activist believe that live streaming protects activists. I am coming from that perspective with safety being my main concern.
I’ve been doing activism livestreaming for over three and a half years and I’ve been invited many times by many activists groups to livestream their actions and events because they want the truth to be broadcasted and many activists feel safer when they have a streamer with them. Live streamers should always be sensitive to the needs and wishes of the group they are streaming for and the stream should be about the action and not about the streamer. Security culture should always be a major component to new streamer training. It is the job of the streamer to protect the activists and not their job to help the cops. In most cases protests are nonviolent and laws are not being broken. It is as important to document the calm peacefulness as it is to document when police get violent. My livestream footage has been used in court to get not guilty verdicts. Without my footage it would be the cops word against the protesters words and juries tend to side with the cops. Most activist groups welcome livestreaming and don’t ask that faces not be shown.
What is security culture?
Every activist group has different concerns and different needs for varying levels of privacy. Some groups want everything to be open and transparent and some groups want to be completely private. The same is true of individuals within groups. These needs should be respected by livestreamers. Consent must be respected by streamers.
Many of the concerns expressed about live streamers by WeCopwatch are valid and apply to some streamers and not all streamers. It is unfair and irresponsible to say that all live streamers are the same. The actions of an irresponsible streamer should not be blamed on all streamers.
Live streamers must always be mindful that the police are watching at all times and the mute button should be used for all private conversations and planning huddles. Also live stream footage is often used in court as a defense for activists. This should also be kept in mind while streaming. I am not aware of any cases where a person was convicted of anything based on livestream footage but it can happen. In most cases activists are following the law. Any action which may lead to arrest like chalking should never be live streamed unless the activists have requested the civil disobedience to be streamed. A streamer can simply point the camera in another direction and or use the mute button.
It is rare for a protest to not be followed by uniformed police officers. When cops are present it is helpful for possible future court cases to announce each intersection. When there are no obvious cops around a streamer should not announce the location of a march unless the organizers wish for that information to be known. The camera can be pointed at the ground to avoid showing landmarks or the lens can be covered by a hand. Not every action has the same security protocols.
Never film anyone’s face without consent and don’t call anyone by name who wishes to keep their identity private. If someone asks not to be streamed at all do not stream them.
How is live streaming different from regular video?
With regular video police can confiscate phones, break equipment and destroy videos. Livestream video is automatically uploaded to the internet and can’t be destroyed by police. Sometimes people watching at other locations will film a backup copy of the livestream and when a stream is mirrored by other stream channels backup copies are also archived. According to WeCopwatch, “There’s no reason why you can’t go home after a protest and produce some content.” Actually there are many reasons. Not everyone can afford a video camera and very large SD cards that are need to store large amounts of video. Regular video must be backed up and the uploaded manually to the internet. Even without editing that takes a lot of time and resources that a lot of people simply don’t have. You only need a phone and an internet connection to live stream. You need a computer and ideally an external hard drive to backup video and to edit video. Using regular video takes a lot more time, effort, energy, money and skills that not everyone has.
Why is livestreaming important?
While watching activism live stream other journalists can catch mainstream media in lies in real time. For example during the big Trayvon Martin march from Leimert Park to Hollywood a CBS helicopter livestream reporter alleged that property was being damaged in the W hotel parking lot. I was streaming in that parking garage at the time and clearly showed that no property damage had occurred. People saw the two streams side by side in real time. This juxtapositioning of real time reality next to mainstream TV news lies is vital in helping people new to activism to see what is real and how corporate media is manipulating their thinking by reinforcing the police lies and the political narrative imposed by those in power.
During one of the protests in front of the Ferguson police department someone opened fire on the cops and footage of that was captured by someone mirroring a live stream. That footage never would have been caught if a streamer was not continuously live streaming even when things got boring.
Before I became involved with on the ground activism a guy I went to high school with who is now a cop commented on police brutality videos I that would post on Facebook. He would tell me those videos were edited and we don’t know what happened before the cops took violent action. It’s important to have a continuous unedited documentation of an entire protest and keep the camera going at all times because one cannot predict when police will suddenly become violent. These videos showing calm protesters becoming agitated by the actions of police are valuable in court when cops make unjustified arrests with false charges.
Do streamers keep activists safe?
It has been my experience that in downtown Los Angeles where cops know who I am they were less likely to get violent with protesters when they knew I was present. The CCA sleepful protest is a good example. This was a four month long sidewalk camp where protesters slept in tents on a sidewalk in solidarity with unhoused people. There was no live streamer present for the first month and there were several violent arrests. People took out their cell phones and began filming after the police violence began. Having regular video did not prevent the violence or stop the police violence once it had begun. When I began staying there most nights of the week there were no more violent arrest for the following months. I’ve also live streamed situations where cops suddenly calmed down and began to behave more professionally when I announced, “This is streaming live and LAPD watches my stream.” I’ve said this to prevent people from being unjustly arrested when cops have made threats to arrest people who were just filming them. Seeing several cell phones pointed at cops doesn’t get the same reaction from them as their realization that the bosses are watching live.
According to WeCopwatch, Oakland police increased their use of undercover cops because the protesters were not allowing live streamers.
Are cops using live stream footage to Identify activists?
We don’t know. If they are then they are getting really poor images as live stream quality is usually significantly lower quality than HD footage or photography. Cops have lots of ways to gather images of people. Live stream footage is not the best choice of gathering images.
Are live streamers giving cops information that they don’t already have?
The answer is we really don’t know. Large cities like Los Angeles have live video cameras on major intersections and LAPD has a control room where they can watch this video and that can keep tabs on protests that way. It is a well known fact that police departments use undercover agents to infiltrate activist organizations and actions to gather information to give to police. Police are going to get information. As pointed out by WeCopwatch fewer streamers mean more plain clothed cops. Each activist group has to decide if they want live stream coverage of their actions and if so what are the parameters for the streaming. Ideally each group will have their own live streamer as part of their own media team.
Not everything should be streamed. There are times when the camera should be pointed in another direction. There are times when the mute button should be used. There are times when using the mute button and filming the ground is a good idea. There is no need to film faces during a protest unless people want their faces to be shown. It is important to have respect for the security culture of each activist group you are live streaming for. I hope the good folks at WeCopwatch will realize there are times when live streaming is a good idea and there a good streamers who want to keep everyone safe by respecting the security culture of each group they stream for.
Also check out Livestreaming, its inherent dilemmas, concerns… and a “How to…” by @StopMotionsolo:
Follow me, PM Beers, on Instagram and Twitter @PMbeers