Media Freedom, Markets, and Political Change
By Emily Skarbek
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.