These narratives have been intensified and supplemented by the work of right-wing adversarial -makers like Elijah Schaffer and Andy Ngo, who collect videos of conflict at public protests and recirculate them to their online audiences. Both have even gone “undercover” by posing as protesters to capture footage for their channels, seeking to name and shame those marching. Their videos are edited, decontextualized, and shared among audiences hungry for a new fix of “riot porn,” which instantly goes viral across the right-wing media ecosystem with the aid of influential pundits and politicians, including President Donald Trump. The footage has a hypnotic, almost balletic quality, designed to influence and overwhelm the sense-making capacity of watchers consuming it from a safe distance online. 

Riot porn is different from videos of abuse and violence carried out by police, and we should not confuse one for the other. In the recording of the George Floyd murder, the video mobilized hundreds of thousands of people outraged that Floyd’s killer had not been arrested. With riot porn, what moves someone from watching to showing up is the potential for participating in a violent altercation. The motivating factor is the hope to live out fantasies of taking justice into their own hands, à la Dirty Harry, the film series about a rogue cop who shirks protocol and murders at will.

Judging by the reactions shared by followers of right-wing influencers, riot porn further enrages and traumatizes these audiences from afar, inflaming their perceptions of risk and danger. In chat rooms, watchers actively cheer as cops and other aggressors brutalize Black Lives Matter activists. These emotional reactions help develop an unshakable trust between the partisan content creators and the content consumers.

Propaganda machine

Outrage contagion is why the McCloskeys, the husband-and-wife duo who pointed guns at Black Lives Matter marchers in St. Louis, were motivated to take their bizarre stand. It’s also why the couple were invited to address the Republican National Convention—an audience being encouraged to vote for Donald Trump’s reelection. They spoke on topics such as guns, property, and the threat posed by “Marxist liberals.” Peering into the camera from a velvet couch, they read from the teleprompter: “What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods across our country … Make no mistake: no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America … You’ve seen us on your TV screens and feeds. You know we’re not the kind of people who back down.”

They are both the product of riot porn and participants in creating the next cycle of it. First, they consumed coverage of the St. Louis protests, during which a 7-Eleven was burned. This, the McCloskeys claim, prompted them to put fire extinguishers in every room and keep a rifle ready. When Black Lives Matter activists marched on their street, they reacted as if it were a death threat. It wasn’t, and their armed display resulted in felony charges. Right-wing media and Republicans have turned them into heroes alongside Rittenhouse, affectionately known as the “Kenosha Kid.”

The problem isn’t simply that riot porn exists, or that people with divergent opinions can interpret videos differently depending on their -media feeds. 

And it’s not just that social-media platforms don’t know what to do with white vigilante organizing. Although they clearly don’t: ’s attempt to limit the spread of propaganda about Rittenhouse by blocking searches on his name is a drastic solution to a problem of its own making. Facebook took no action on 455 flags marking the Kenosha Guard’s event page as potentially dangerous. Memes in support of Rittenhouse and calls for armed MAGA rallies are on the rise. 

The real difficulty is that competing accounts circulate in parallel universes that are not even close to balanced in their reach. Kevin Roose of the New York Times pointed out that the majority of people on Facebook are witnessing a radically different narrative from the one presented to consumers of mainstream media. In August, he tweeted, CNN saw 21 million Facebook interactions; the right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro gathered 55 million. This doesn’t mean there’s a silent majority of right-wing media consumers—in fact, it means that the right-wing media ecosystem continues to be dense and insular, which makes the propaganda feedback loop much more effective at shaping audience perceptions and world views. Harvard researchers Yochai Benkler, Rob Faris, and Hal Roberts have described this effect in their study “Networked Propaganda.” 

Escalation, not reconciliation

It’s been almost three months since an independent group of United Nations experts called on the US government to conduct an independent investigation into racial terror. The reaction to the murder of George Floyd suggested for a moment that the US public was awakened to their country’s horrors and might be mobilized to do something. 

And yet, as the events of the last week have shown, wave after wave of white vigilante violence has followed. Several cities and towns have become treacherous terrain, where militias, MAGA groups, and conspiracists are carrying out their civil war fantasies by attacking Black Lives Matter protesters as police look on. The optics are reminiscent of the Freedom Rides in the 1960s, when police turned away as local white vigilantes attacked civil rights advocates. 

Last weekend in Portland, a long caravan of Trump supporters arrived with blacked-out license plates, paintball guns, actual guns, and bear mace; they drove their trucks straight at protesters. Some of these crimes were streamed live on Facebook and YouTube. Trump later justified their actions, saying that “paint is a defensive mechanism; paint is not bullets.” That same night, a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer was murdered, but no details on the shooter are available. Nevertheless, the media narrative on the right is clear: antifa must have done it. 

By using riot porn to incite fear in white people, the right-wing media ecosystem converts the real pain experienced by Black Americans into fodder for deranged, paranoid fantasies that white vigilantes must take up the functions of the police. Social-media companies need to work actively to prevent militias and vigilante groups from staging these armed standoffs. This includes shutting down event pages that are used as central organizing hubs and removing the accounts of those who are calling for physical violence. What played out in Portland and Kenosha this week is another confirmation that racial terror is real and getting worse.

—Joan Donovan is research director at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center.

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