American News

The Tyranny of Algorithmic Order in Times of Revolutionary Change

The violence of the system now being contested finds its source in the rational application of rules, and the media hides that fact from view.
By
Black Lives Matter, US police, Derek Chauvin, George Floyd, George Floyd death, US protests, US protesters, Black Lives Matter protests, American news, Peter Isackson

Black Lives Matter protesters in Miami, USA on 5/31/2020. © Tverdokhlib / Shutterstock

June 08, 2020 11:05 EDT
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Who needs reporters to cover the drama that takes place in the streets of the United States? People with cameras on their cellphones have conveniently replaced traditional news teams. The news media merely selects the videos shot by ordinary people that it will broadcast. The star journalists and the experts they invite to chat with them can sit calmly in their studios — or at home, if still under lockdown — and prepare to offer enlightening commentaries and interpretations against the backdrop of crowdsourced video.

Much of what has become the substance of the news, especially in times of crisis, would not exist without amateur videos. This means that, before the advent of smartphones, some significant events, if noticed at all, would be reported to news agencies in the form of “something happened to someone.” The news outlets could then decide to ignore the story, superficially investigate it if they thought it was sensational enough to turn into a headline or simply mention it as an isolated incident.


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Broadcast media outlets rarely witness events. They follow them. They wait for trends and then attempt to document the events that unfold in their wake while stepping in to “interpret” the events before viewers have time to think for themselves about them. That usually means explaining them away by offering a standard take, consistent with the ideas people are used to hearing about why things happen in a society where the idea of predictability reassures.

What comes from the crowd cannot always be predicted. The rumblings of societal confrontation, if not civil war, now playing out across the US and elsewhere across the globe would not have emerged had someone on the street not filmed the moment George Floyd was killed while in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25.

Gil Scott Heron was right when he rapped nearly 50 years ago that “the revolution will not be televised.” He should be forgiven for not having suspected that the revolution would be videoed and spread through social media. (He did, however, find a convincing way of listing numerous peculiarities of US consumer culture at the start of the 1970s. His performance is worth listening to today, even if many of the trivial and non-trivial cultural references to an essentially trivial culture have been lost.)

Revolutions, civil wars and spontaneous revolts tend to be violent. The debate over the past week has focused on the question of which side — the protesters or the police — is more violent. Everyone seems to agree at least on one principle: The only legitimate excuse for violence is to suppress someone else’s violence. 

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Derek Chauvin, the officer facing murder charges in connection with the death of Floyd, demonstrated that the police could be sadistically violent, even against someone who was non-violent. His violence provoked a reaction that included violence. The fringes of the spontaneously generated protest directed their violence almost exclusively against property, possibly on the quasi-moral reasoning that you can rebuild a burned down Target store and fill it with merchandise, but you cannot bring a dead man back to life.

The crowd’s violence provoked a reaction from local and national authorities. The increasingly militarized police demonstrated their ability to attain more scientific levels of violence. Alas, their training apparently failed to include what is now clearly essential: restraint in the presence of people using their telephones as cameras. In Buffalo, New York, a bystander filmed two members of an Emergency Response Team brutally upending a 75-year-old protester to leave him bleeding on the pavement. Thanks to the existence of video documenting the scene, the two police officers responsible were suspended.

John Evans, the president of the Police Benevolent Association, explained what he felt was an injustice. “Fifty-seven resigned in disgust because of the treatment of two of their members, who were simply executing orders,” he said.

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Executing orders:

Fulfilling the role one has accepted to play in order to earn a living, with no understanding of its significance because one’s employers have reduced its definition to a set of instructions

Contextual Note

Evans expanded his reasoning in a note to the website Investigative Post: “Don’t put them out there if you don’t want them to do the job. This is an example of officers doing exactly what they’re supposed to and then getting charged. It’s so wrong.”

Evans is right. It’s all about algorithmic integrity, the same principle that is destined to guide the decisions produced by future generations of artificial intelligence (AI) when it begins taking over the management of a society that has become too complex for human reasoning to deal with. His statement can be interpreted in two ways. He may be blaming the authorities for their logical inconsistency when they punish acts that have been carried out in strict conformity with the algorithmic rules. Or he may be reproaching them for the inappropriate decision of calling on the Emergency Response Team when there is no real emergency.

This highlights one of the major weaknesses of a society increasingly regulated by an amoral commitment to the procedures and principles of rational management theory. Such theories depend on sophisticated calculations and predefined algorithms. Modern business culture in the US, as it is taught in MBA programs, contains a quasi-religious belief in the rationality of processes and procedures. It reduces to insignificance the notion of moral responsibility. Everyone in the decision-making chain can appeal to predefined rules. When things go wrong, only the rules will be blamed. People are passive agents who have either followed the rules or executed orders.

Historical Note

Almost all media outlets have made a perfect mess of trying to interpret the revolution unfolding before their eyes. In an op-ed for Al Jazeera, journalism professor Rami G. Khouri attempts to make sense of it not simply as a series of sensational events that fill up the news cycle, but as a significant moment of transition to be understood in a larger historical context.

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Khouri recounts the various revolts he has witnessed in the past 50 years in a range of countries. He sees one common feature: “Exasperated citizens see elites who make promises and offer thoughts and prayers as selfish liars and insincere brutes who will do and say anything to stay in power, especially to maintain the existing economic structures that enrich them and impoverish everyone else.” He could have added that the elites are careful to follow the algorithmic rules that make this possible.

The media play an essential role in obscuring the rules and blurring the historical patterns. Khouri describes how the media focus “primarily on the drama of crowds of protesters confronting the police.” By overplaying the drama and reducing it to a simple case of conflicting interests, the media prevent the kind of reflection required to bring clarity to situations rooted in history. Khouri writes: “The media widely fails to explore the structures of racism, colonialism, abuse of power and lack of equal rights in the US, Arab states and Israeli-occupied Palestine that trigger protests year after year, and decade after decade.”

Interviewed this week by Joe Rogan, conservative commentator and co-host of The Hill’s “Rising” show Saagar Enjeti described how the corporate media control their anchors and reporters, literally obliging them to repeat the “talking points” that are delivered daily to broadcasters. “You do the talking points, you will always have a job,” he explains.  It’s the algorithm of career management in the media. “When you get your talking points, you know that if you say them you are in X’s good graces.” The result, he adds, is that “they keep people who have dissenting opinions out.”

In such a system, some people clearly have the power to make decisions. But they also make their decisions in conformity with the rules for rational management, which ultimately aim at profitability. In that sense, even the powerful oligarchs hide behind the excuse that they too are just “executing orders.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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