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Musings on digital media, urbanization and politics from Seattle, Wash.

‘Among Us’, Proud Boys and the (sometimes dangerous) power of exposure

September 30, 2020

This week, I’d been looking for an easy subject for a blog post to get back in the swing of things. That’s like half of blogging, trying to get back in the swing of things when you’re not. Anyway, I was watching the Packers game at my sister’s place and her fiancé suggested we play a random mobile game I hadn’t heard of.

It was ‘Among Us‘, which Wikipedia describes as “an online multiplayer social deduction game.” If you have no idea what that is, hey, right there with you because we didn’t actually all end up playing it.

But based on what I overheard, it being some kind of space-based multiplayer murder mystery, it sounded interesting and made the name familiar when I saw this tweet yesterday:

I’m not big on watching video game streams, but some people are. And this is a game that was dead before Twitch changed everything. Well, people streaming on Twitch changed everything.

And this was supposed to be the beginning of the end of the blog post, how when you just keep plugging away and trust in your product and finally connect with the right people, it can change everything.

I see it all the time in working with lawyers publishing at LexBlog, that success isn’t immediate but if you continue to work, to refine things, that growth will come if you’re putting good stuff out there—and when growth does come, it builds on itself.

Attention begets attention, which begets more attention and so on. You just need a spark.



Welllllll, then there was this other chart-bearing tweet.

That comes, of course, after last night’s debate and the now-infamous “stand back and stand by” from the president.

Much like a little bit of exposure for ‘Among Us’ changed the trajectory of its developers and their lives, exposure here has real-world consequences.

Starting only online, a simple search after the debate by an impressionable 13-year-old who’d already heard some racist stuff that made them chuckle from a poorly-raised neighbor kid would be a gender-reveal firework to a dried-out forest.

A search on Google can lead to a YouTube clip which can lead to, well, full-blown radicalization.

TechCrunch in January:

Research presented at the ACM FAT 2020 conference in Barcelona today supports the notion that YouTube’s platform is playing a role in radicalizing users via exposure to far-right ideologies.

The study, carried out by researchers at Switzerland’s Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne and the Federal University of Minas Gerais in Brazil, found evidence that users who engaged with a middle ground of extreme right-wing content migrated to commenting on the most fringe far-right content.

Facebook is every bit the same, with some massive brands going so far as to pull advertising unless the platform cleaned up its act on far-right speech.

And we still haven’t gotten to real life, where violent views lead to actual violence and loss of life. What starts as an off-hand comment, or the so-called “red meat to the base” leads to, shockingly, people doing what you tell them to do when you’re the president or a member of congress or veritable authority figure.

You tell a violent group to “stand by” and follow that with the notion someone needs to “do something” about another group, something is going to happen.

It already has.

And groups like the Proud Boys know this is how it starts, with a spark, a little exposure.

It goes back decades when, in the 1920s, media entities countered with “strategic silence”:

Campus by campus, from Harvard to Brown to Columbia, [George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party] would use the violence of his ideas and brawn of his followers to become headline news. To compel media coverage, Rockwell needed: “(1) A smashing, dramatic approach which could not be ignored, without exposing the most blatant press censorship, and (2) a super-tough, hard-core of young fighting men to enable such a dramatic presentation to the public.” He understood what other groups competing for media attention knew too well: a movement could only be successful if the media amplified their message.

Contemporary Jewish community groups challenged journalists to consider not covering white supremacists’ ideas. They called this strategy “quarantine”, and it involved working with community organizations to minimize public confrontations and provide local journalists with enough context to understand why the American Nazi party was not newsworthy.

In regions where quarantine was deployed successfully, violence remained minimal and Rockwell was unable to recruit new party members. 

I’m not going to try to get into what the journalistic approach is here—though no “Let’s get inside their head” fluff pieces, don’t ignore the problem would be a start—but it’s clear these groups thrive on exposure.

That screams validity, and it’s disgusting.

•    •    •    •

I wanted this to be a cheery “engage influencers!” post, but it’s hard to put your head down and pretend this type of thing is only used for good.

But whether for good, for profit or for pure evil, it’s impossible to deny the right kind of exposure at the exact right time is immensely powerful.

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