Emily Skarbek  

Media Freedom, Markets, and Political Change

Efficiency is not just a good ... Utilitarianism as a lodestar (...

When I watched the video of Philando Castile die from gunshot wounds inflicted by a police officer in the course of a routine traffic stop, a deep sickness swept over me. Sadly, this feeling was not the result of a sudden realisation that police violence was a problem, particularly against black members of our communities. According to estimates, over 1,500 people were shot and killed by police officers last since the start of 2015 - inclusive of cases like Laquan McDonald in Chicago, Christian Taylor in Texas, Samuel Dubose in Cincinnati, Walter Scott in South Carolina, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

I learned of Castile's shooting on twitter. I saw #FalconHeights trending and clicked on the hash tag to find out what had happened. I immediately clicked through to video shot by Diamond Reynolds on Facebook live. When I started watching the video, I did not know whether Castile would survive or not. Horror came over me as I intimately watched the events unfold.

I give this account because amidst the more complex racial and social issues regarding the relationship between citizens and police, there is a lesson of media freedom. When Reynolds made the brave, flash decision to start recording what the police had done to Castile on Facebook live, she perhaps unknowingly made a choice that helped protect that content. By filming direct on Facebook, the video was immediately stored on Facebook's servers, which meant that the content was preserved even if her phone was confiscated or destroyed.

Just one day before, the video of police shooting Alton Sterling surfaced. In this case, the convenience store owner had filmed directly to his phone. According to the Guardian, Abdullah Muflahi said "As soon as I finished the video, I put my phone in my pocket. I knew they would take it from me, if they knew I had it. They took my security camera videos. They told me they had a warrant, but didn't show me one. So I kept this video for myself. Otherwise, what proof do I have?"

Academic work supports the anecdotal picture sketched above. Where the media is less regulated and there is greater private ownership in the media industry, citizens are more politically knowledgeable and active. This is the subject of Peter Leeson's paper in the Journal of Economic Perspectives examining the issue across countries and using a variety of different indicators.

"In countries where government interferes with the media, individuals know less about basic political issues and are less politically involved. Politically ignorant and apathetic individuals do not know enough about political happenings or participate enough politically to monitor or punish effectively the activities of self-interested politicians. When politicians are free from accountability to voters, they are more likely to pursue privately beneficial policies."

Private ownership of media outlets like Facebook allow for people have access to information that would otherwise not be possible because of the ability to hide behind state power. Today police and politicians routinely attempt to shelter themselves from scrutiny and evade responsibility by denying access to information. Even in countries with almost full press freedom, new evidence suggests that journalists are killed for corrupt reasons.

The video of Castile's death has been viewed millions of times, placing people as close as possible to being in the moment of an experience that no one would wish on another human being. Such technology is made possible and protected by capitalism, however imperfectly. Personally, I was literally sickened by watching the video. But I chose to share it on my twitter feed because I felt an moral obligation to stand witness the reality of the situation. In a free society, it cannot be the role of the police to use deadly force even in the most tense moments.

Peter Boettke has a nice post discussing both the importance of expectations for political change and the role of political economy in arguing for the types of rule changes - demilitarising the police, ending the war on drugs, rethinking what community policing means in federalism - that can address the deep political, social, and racial issues America is wrestling with. The power of media will influence how expectations change from the bottom up, and less directly, the strategies our political leaders think viable.

In the 1840s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, "only a newspaper can put the same thought at the same time before a thousand readers." Today an app can put the same event in real time before millions of viewers. The optimist in me thinks this technology can be a force for good by shifting public opinion to hold political actors to account, by cultivating mutual respect amongst diverse people, and discouraging recourse to violence. But it certainly is not inevitable or obvious that it will be used on net to foster more tolerance and better conventional understanding about the need for upholding the rule of law with limits on state power.

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Twitter: Emily Skarbek @EmilySkarbek

COMMENTS (8 to date)
ColoComment writes:

Instant information does have its drawbacks.
As we have seen with recent other claimed law enforcement offenses against peaceful citizens, you may want to be careful of the conclusions that you draw based on initial phone video (which doesn't give you the entire visual context of an event) and/or twitter/text reports (which tend to reveal more about the sender's personal perspective than factual information.)

There is more to the Philandro Castile story than you see in the girlfriend's video and her commentary. See here:


For example, do view the video. In the one, be sure to take note of the life saving measures being taken by the two police officers in the background.

Unfortunately, what we see often is the use of "instant" media to inflame emotions based on incomplete, erroneous, filtered, and/or edited information.

JK Brown writes:
In a free society, it cannot be the role of the police to use deadly force even in the most tense moments.

Of course, the police cannot use deadly force for any other reason than any other citizen, i.e., self defense, defense of others. However, when you have a reasonable belief of a threat of imminent death or serious bodily injury will be the "most tense moments."

In a free society, it is important that the people retain their rights to self defense and, in the absence of behavior demonstrating abuse, possession of tools, weapons, to assert that right.

Now this doesn't mean that there haven't been perversions of the system that could be exploited to hide wrongful use of deadly force by police. The investigators may view evidence in a light supportive of the officer's story. Other officers may remain quiet or present their statements favorable to the officer. Prosecutors have unaccountable discretion in choosing to prosecute, which can go either way for the officer depending on the political climate. Judges are amenable to support of the police view of the shooting and thus may rule in a favorable manner on grey areas of the law. Juries are often favorable toward officers. In addition, the investigation will usually leak profusely on the "suspects" past while using every means to suppress the officer's past.

Of course, the police are the physical manifestation of the government's monopoly on violence which it uses to administer the social apparatus of coercion and compulsion, i.e., the state. In the Anglosphere, erosion of rights was slowed by Common Law, but the gradual migration to popular (statute) law made by legislation over recent centuries is a clear and present danger to rights of those without political connections and requires constant vigilance.

Unfortunately, as a new freer method of media comes on line, it is most often used to provoke emotions and while it undermines the old order, it generally, as with Hitler and FDR's use of radio in the 1930s, is used to incite the crowds toward an erosion of their freedom and liberties. We see that with these posted videos which while can show wrongful behavior are often used to sell the lie, such as the "Hands up, don't shoot" meme which turned out to have been a complete fabrication.

bill writes:

Police wearing body cameras will also have video evidence available to show what things looked like from their perspective.

Nathan W writes:

ColoComment - It's OK for police to kill me if they are looking for some different person but I do nothing wrong and nothing suspicious?

Hands up anyone who wants to live in a police state where arguments like these are not seen as particularly unusual.

ColoComment writes:

"It's OK for police to kill me if they are looking for some different person but I do nothing wrong and nothing suspicious?"

I fail to see where I suggested anything so absurd. A remark that there's "more to the Philandro (sic, my bad) story..." falls far short of any sort of approval as described in your comment, which alleges circumstances yet unproven in the instant case. Doesn't it make sense to wait until the investigation of ALL the facts is complete? If the investigation finds the Philando shooting unjustified, then the officer will be duly prosecuted. If the investigation finds it justified, then I suppose you'll find that as hard to believe as that Michael Brown never said, "Hands up, don't shoot."

However, Nathan W, I do have to thank you for so competently & completely proving my point about the easily-led drawing emotional & hyperbolic conclusions from initial (unverified) information.

ColoComment writes:

A blogger far more knowledgeable and a much better writer than I has taken similar note:


Hazel Meade writes:

I find it difficult to imagine that there are any circumstances which would make the shooting of Phillando Castille justified.

I think many people make a categorical mistake by believing that the police are justified in using deadly force any time they think there is a threat to their personal safety.

We hire police to take on risk. It is an inherently risky job. They cannot be allowed to believe that it's ok for them to impose risk upon innocent people in order to reduce their own risk.

jon writes:

Emily Skarbek writes:

Private ownership of media outlets like Facebook allow for people have access to information that would otherwise not be possible because of the ability to hide behind state power.
Because a private enterprise like Facebook will always be on our side against state power (and will never become a threat like state power).

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