The revolution will not be televised, but it may be streamed. Live streaming platforms have paved the way for citizen journalism as a form of social activism. It is an accessible and immediate method of news documenting which allows anybody with a smartphone or other web-enabled device to broadcast events on a global scale, in real-time. In this way, it empowers average citizens to serve as critical eyewitnesses to social injustices and demonstrations as they happen, especially in the presence of law enforcement that intends to suppress any immediate or subsequent backlash.
Live streaming began to establish itself as a raw alternative to traditional cable news as well as a powerful tool in organizing, mobilizing, and broadcasting resistance with the beginning of the Arab Spring in 2010. Since then, it has come into its own through social media and bled into other movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. The authenticity of somebody on the ground who is unassociated with larger, strait-laced news outlets that are often censored is something that is difficult to replicate because live content is just that–live and unaltered.
Consider Occupy Wall Street, a movement protesting social and economic inequality that began in mid-2011. When police pushed back against peaceful protesters, it was not CNN that broke the news. Occupy gained momentum through the work of citizen journalists such as Tim Pool, who documented the most vital moments of the movement, with streams lasting as long as 21 hours. According to New York Magazine, when the NYPD violently evicted protesters from Zuccotti Park on November 15th, Pool was the only journalist broadcasting from inside the park. More than 750,000 people tuned into his live stream that day and Occupy grew to be one of the biggest stories of the season with the aid of Pool’s ongoing narrative.
Citizens and activists who provide firsthand narrative in a crisis situation can and have been able to use live streamed content to their advantage and that of others. Aside from having the power to broadcast and publicize events as they happen, they are also creating archived footage after the fact which can serve as evidence in cases of legal action (or inaction). This is common in cases of police brutality. The citizen witness transcends physical barriers to allow viewers to serve as secondary witnesses, opening up the possibility of a much larger audience to essentially play the role of judge, jury, and executioner in situations that call for it.
In a piece for WIRED Magazine, an activist described an incident while protesting the Olympic games in Rio de Janiero, explaining to a police officer who approached him to conduct a search that 5,000 others were watching on a live stream. The activist was arrested, however, the video evidence attracted support that called for, and ultimately secured, a quick release. In this case, the camera acted as a tool for holding law enforcement accountable, possibly deterring a police officer from using excessive force with the knowledge that he had an audience of thousands.
The same cannot be said of police officers who utilize excessive force in the United States. Although there is video evidence of the police killings of unarmed black civilians like Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, and Walter Scott, not enough has been done in the way of persecuting the officers responsible. The shooting of Michael Brown, which incited riots that brought the Black Lives Matter movement to the forefront, was filmed on a cellphone by a bystander. Videos like these, which only became public after the fact, shed light on the systemic racism and violence towards black people in America that Black Lives Matter actively campaigns against.
On July 6th, 2016, Diamond Reynolds began a Facebook Live stream just seconds after her partner, Philando Castile, had been shot seven times by an officer during a routine traffic stop. Castile, who had been fully compliant, was mortally wounded. From the moment Reynolds began streaming the daunting aftermath–keeping her composure throughout–she became a citizen journalist. The systemic racism and institutional bias that lead to Castile being murdered were captured by Reynolds and broadcasted to a massive audience in real-time a way that others would have never been able to report. This was real. This was now. This was grief, and this kind of thing had been happening for years. Philando Castile died 20 minutes later.
Citizen journalism is often what generates media coverage for movements like BLM, but in some cases, it is the only kind of coverage. The Arab Spring was a series of uprisings and anti-government demonstrations across the Middle East which were most concentrated in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. In areas like regime-controlled Egypt, civilians lacked concrete access to information and freedom of speech. The internet offered an environment open to anti-regime sentiment, in which people were able to express themselves and diversify their perspectives. It also became a powerful tool in organizing and broadcasting their dissent, which gathered international attention and aided in sparking a revolution. With just a phone and an internet connection, protesters in the region were defying their governments by recording demonstrations and sharing them with the world. In this way, they were able to control their revolution’s narrative.