How the Rich and Powerful Use Tech to Silence Activists
By now, everyone knows the story of Eric Garner. In the summer of 2014, the Staten Island man died after being held in a chokehold during a confrontation with police. Everyone knows about it because a cell phone video of Garner’s death—and his repeated cries of “I can’t breathe”—went viral on social media, inspiring demonstrations across the country.
The filming of Eric Garner’s death is one of dozens of stories told in Truth and Power, the final episode of which airs tonight on Pivot. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, the 10-part investigative series, narrated by actress Maggie Gyllenhaal, traces the mechanics of how people in positions of corporate or political power undermine activist movements.
The episodic style is a departure for Knappenberger, who directed the feature-length documentary The Internet’s Own Boy, about the late Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz, and the Anonymous doc We Are Legion. “There are a lot of stories I’m interested in that are not really feature films,” Knappenberger says. “They wouldn’t sustain that length, but are still really compelling and I think really need to be told.”
Knappenberger’s series clearly takes a position (“I don’t think anyone would look at my work and wonder what side I’m coming down on,” he says), but the director also makes sure each episode features experts from all sides of the issues he’s covering. “I promise them to take their view seriously,” he adds. The end result is a collection of short documentaries that doubles as a syllabus of today’s most salient political conflicts, as well as an introduction to the individuals who, sometimes accidentally, have found themselves on the front lines.
Here are the most important take-aways from the series to help you get ready for tonight’s finale.
Social Media Has Helped Activists Reclaim the Narrative
If it wasn’t for the cell phone video of Eric Garner’s death, it’s unlikely that most people reading this would know his name. It’s also possible the protests in Ferguson following the police-shooting death of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown might have taken a different turn if it wasn’t for Twitter. Social media brought those events to people’s attention—and made it so that mainstream news outlets couldn’t ignore them.
“New technologies, like cameras on cell phones, have really allowed people to tell their own stories and take control of the narrative themselves,” Knappenberger says of the sixth, and perhaps most powerful episode, “Shooting the Messenger.” “There was this abuse happening already. It’s just that now we have a front row seat on it because we can see it. We have eyes on the scene everywhere, and to me it’s very, very powerful.”
Police Have New Tech Too
But it’s not just activists who are benefiting from new technologies. Knappenberger spends nearly half the series carefully explaining the myriad ways governments and corporations use digital tools to surveil social movements. From examining the cell-phone tracking technologies used by law enforcement to uncovering how repressive regimes work with American tech companies to thwart social movements, the series offers up a smart meditation on the threat of digital surveillance on political dissent.
There’s a Constant Struggle for Information
While data from the government is subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, corporations are not required to offer the same transparency. And without the ability to document systemic abuse, it’s incredibly difficult to make a case for reform. It’s a problem Knappenberger illustrates in the “Activists or Terrorists” episode, where he unpacks how “Ag-gag” laws were passed under pressure from corporate lobbying and have made it illegal to film or photograph inside any animal farm without consent of the facility’s owner.
And that lack of corporate transparency is particularly pronounced in America’s massive private prison industry. “Prisoners for Sale,” the seventh episode, explores the story of two inmates-turned-journalists who started an independent publication to document systemic failures of the prison industrial complex.
“It’s that struggle for information that’s at the heart of so many of these stories,” Knappenberger says.
The final episode of Truth and Power, which examines the use of surveillance drones, airs tonight on Pivot. Check out a clip from the episode above.
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