Both Ben and I have struggled somewhat with how to write about the murder of George Floyd last week.
The most important reason we haven’t written much should be pretty obvious. In short, there are a lot of voices telling you how they feel about his death and the protests that have followed it. There are plenty trying to tell you how you should think and feel about it, too. In both cases, most of those voices are more worth listening to than those of two middle-aged, upper middle class white guys in Connecticut.
But if you are like either of us, you have probably also noticed something else. As you learned more about George’s death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, maybe you felt and thought a lot of different things at once. About the rule of law. About police and whose interests they serve and protect. About racism and where it still exists. About righteous protest and civil disobedience. About the moral obligations that go along with that disobedience. And then maybe you felt like you were being told that you couldn’t feel all of those things, that they were somehow in conflict with one another. Maybe you felt like you were being offered a set of two diametrically opposed and arbitrarily limited perspectives that didn’t allow for the depths of everything you felt. Maybe you felt channeled into one of the two archetypes which just so happened to align with the messaging of the two major political parties.
We won’t add to that chorus.
Instead, what we can do is try to shed some light on that chorus. What we can do is show you how media-driven narratives began to define and shape how all of us talked about this issue over the last week. And we can tell you where we think those narratives go from here.
If we would remember George Floyd with full hearts, we must first see with clear eyes what we are being told by a politicized media his death represents.
Phase 1: Just the Facts
On Memorial Day – May 25th – Officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on George Floyd’s neck until he died of some combination of mechanical asphyxiation or cardiopulmonary arrest triggered by the pressure applied, depending on the report you rely on. For the first two days – Tuesday and Wednesday – news reporting was generally focused on the facts and circumstances of his death, discussions of potential racial motivations and recounting of similar events in the recent past.
If you aren’t familiar with our framework, a short refresher. We leverage NLP-based clustering of language across a broad universe of English-language news to identify what we call the structure of narrative. We define that structure across multiple dimensions, namely: cohesion, attention, volume, engagement and sentiment. In this case, the attention of linguistic clusters – their mathematical similarity to the overall collection of news about the same topic – was highest for language describing procedural details, facts, and what we would describe as primary related topics. During these first two days of coverage – what we are calling Phase 1 – it was lowest for language relating to abstractions of “what his death was about” or coverage of knock-on effects.
In addition to observing the attention of linguistic clusters, we can also observe the aggregate similarity of language about a topic like the death of George Floyd. In this case, the cohesion of language used was initially very slightly below what we would typically expect for a similar number of news stories about a single topic. As you will see below, however, that cohesion increased dramatically over the subsequent periods, which we will discuss in greater detail in the following sections. What does this mean? It means that at first, media outlets reported what they knew and saw on the ground, without much consideration possible for what everyone else was writing and thinking. Yet within two days, the language used by those same outlets had been channeled and constrained into archetypal language. By Phase 2 (Thursday and Friday of last week), off-narrative language was almost non-existent. As we will see, however, that does not mean that there was a single narrative to which that language was forced to conform.
Phase 2: Enter the Missionaries
By the Thursday and Friday following Mr. Floyd’s murder, coverage had changed. So had events. In the latter case, what we mean is that the early emerging protests themselves became a newsworthy topic. In terms of coverage, we mean that the framing of the entire topic began to shift dramatically from the facts and circumstances of the event to discussions of what it was really about. In the game theoretic terms which underlie our framework, this represents the emergence of Missionaries, the people who tell us how to think about events in our world. And on Thursday and Friday, two clear and different missionary-driven narratives emerged.
The first was that Floyd’s death was not so much about Floyd, racism or the social role of police so much as it was about Donald Trump and the rise of white nationalism and white supremacist movements in the United States.
The second was that Floyd’s death was not so much about Floyd, racism or the social role of police so much as it was about the desire of the political left for destructive, anarchic riots to damage the presidency of Donald Trump.
In both cases, it is worth bearing in mind that these were not coverage of specific events. By Thursday, there was very little in the way of what might be described by anyone as a ‘riot’, and no evidence had emerged of any attachment of the involved officers to white nationalist movements. In our view, both represented frames that were voluntarily inserted into the coverage at this time. We make no judgment on whether either represented appropriate context to the events, simply that they reflected decisions to make the events about a particular external framing. The efforts were successful, and the two topics dominated the narrative structure on both Thursday and Friday.
As noted above, this was accompanied by a spike in the cohesion of all coverage of Mr. Floyd’s death to levels more than 30% higher than what we have historically observed for an average single-topic story of this magnitude. The only topic we have covered with a similar spike in the past year was, of all things, the coverage of the investigation and punishment of the Houston Astros cheating scandal, which drove almost uniform linguistic patterns across media outlets.
Perhaps more strikingly, the engagement of articles dominated by the two highest attention language patterns was dramatically higher than other topics. For example, articles defined by their use of language describing the early protests as riots garnered 118% more social shares, on average, than articles we judged as defined by their use of language about racism. Articles we identified as characterized by “white nationalist” language yielded nearly 50% more social shares.
In other words, during Phase 2 of this narrative, missionaries promoted two ideas about what the death of Mr. Floyd was about. And they succeeded. They quickly influenced and permeated the zeitgeist.
Phase 3: A War of Narrative
By Saturday and up to the present, both coverage patterns and events had changed again. In terms of events, the protests had grown dramatically and, in some cases across the country, become violent and destructive. Likewise, governments had responded with curfew policies, police and national guard to curtail the violence. Yet coverage changed as well with the expansion of the dominance of the two diametrically opposed political narratives. They remained atop our measures of attention during this phase as well.
What changed, however, is that this dominance (and the associated rise in cohesion as outlets began to get on-narrative for their particular political brand) manifested in stark differences in the language used by major US media outlets to discuss all events related to the death of George Floyd. Fox News coverage was more than twice as likely as that of the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN to be driven by riot-related language. Breitbart coverage was 60% more likely. In contrast, New York Times coverage was about 40% more likely to reference white nationalism and Trump’s culpability than Fox News and Breitbart. Washington Post coverage was more than 50% more likely to do so.
This is no accident.
I suspect you may have sympathies for one or more of these frames. I do, too. Our response to the above may be to say, “Yeah, I get it. The other side’s outlets are hopelessly biased and under/over covered the real story here.” And we can do that, and maybe we’re right.
But it doesn’t matter.
I’m willing to bet some – no, most – of the people reading this have a point of view on this. I’ll bet a lot of you are heartbroken over what happened in Minneapolis. I’ll bet a lot of you want the offending officer to be tried for first-degree murder. I’ll bet a lot of you are sick of feeling like certain institutions – like police forces in some cities – never seem to be held accountable for these errors. I’ll bet a lot of you believe police are an obviously necessary institution. I’ll bet a lot of you think that finding a way to let the full-hearted majority of officers emerge to take control of their institutions is a big part of the way forward. I’ll bet a lot of you think that a majority of full-hearted officers doesn’t mean that there isn’t institutionally embedded racism present, especially against our black neighbors. I’ll bet a lot of you think protests – real, disruptive and angry protests – are an important part of civil society and driving long-term social change. And I’ll bet a lot of you think that destroying businesses and public resources in already hurting communities is a bad act worthy of punishment. And I’ll bet a lot of you still get why there’s anger. I’ll bet a lot of you feel powerless to describe a better way to demonstrate the supremacy of the people over the state that doesn’t require betting on an uncertain, decades-long process of changing hearts and minds.
And I’ll bet a lot of you think that the death of any human should be, first and foremost, above anything else, about his or her life itself and the devastation we feel at it being taken away in our name. Well before we try to make it about anything else.
I don’t know how much of America those paragraphs describe, but I’m guessing it’s a lot. Maybe not a majority, but a LOT.
And our political narratives leave no room for you.
The games being played out in our politics make sure of that. It’s something we’ve written out before.
Ours is a system with a constitution already geared toward the inevitable dominance of two political parties. Yet since the game has been transformed from a coordination game to a competitive game, maintaining the status quo of two-party hegemony also becomes a dominant strategy – the only strategy – for BOTH parties. The combination of these two factors means that the influence of each party’s governing narratives will continue to permeate all facets of our political and social worlds. Why? Because the only strategy that keeps your party at the table is the strategy which seeks to constantly limit the gains of the Other. Whatever they say out loud, make no mistake: The divisions that make so many of us so unhappy are politically desirable to BOTH of our political parties.
George Floyd’s murder was no accident. Neither are these channeling narratives.
Our political narratives coalesce into two archetypes because our politics coalesce into two archetypes. It is a feature of our two-party system. There are political ramifications to this, and all are worthy of discussion. We have done a lot of that and plan to continue.
Yet it is equally important, as we do in this case, to recognize that there are social and personal implications of two-party dominance and its influence on the bi-modality of political narratives. Even if you believe that one of those narratives is a bit more right than the other. Especially if you believe that. These narratives channel your opinions into archetypes that don’t represent you. These narratives channel your grief into archetypes that don’t represent you. These narratives channel your anger into archetypes that don’t represent you. These narratives channel your humanity into archetypes that don’t represent you.
The answer to all this, if there is one, is complicated. And it’s going to be hard. Change will require action. Still, for you and me, knowing that we are being channeled again is still important. That awareness is what permits us to express opinions, grief, anger and humanity that is wholly our own.
And if there were a time to be capable of doing each of these, it is now. This, too, can be #ourfinesthour.
Powerful insights, thanks Rusty. I saw and shared a venn diagram floating around twitter last few days with a “you can think all of these things at the same time” message that dovetails with this piece.
Also, that picture up top, wow. Was your selection there meant as an intentional contrast to another recent photo many viewed of a man holding a bible with the thumb facing the camera (a bit more awkwardly, perhaps, than Mr Floyd did)? It speaks as many words to me as the article, and I’m wondering if those words are all internally generated or if they’re prompted by any motivation on your part.
Awesome work Rusty , I will take issue with only one thing…I think the vast majority feel all those things in that paragraph, although maybe not equally.
It is good to see how we are herded into our thought lanes and recognizing a problem is the first step??.
I must admit, it didn’t occur to me at all until you just mention it. It is admittedly a powerful juxtaposition.
I hope you are right, Lawrence!
I have a problem with everybody pointing the finger at everybody else. Even this article trying to explain some path; what?
It’s very simple; those who create poverty are just as guilty as those who steal within it!!!
There were more protesters than rioter; why didn’t the protestors stand and protect life and property. Were they not protesting some kind of wrongdoing? Everybody standing around watching a man die and nobody stepped in … come on, why are they not arrested and charged? And I’m not talking about the 3 additional police officers.
Yet everybody protests, everybody riots, everybody writes about it! Hmm.
Both the Protestors and the Rioters are not only guilty but responsible. And both must be held accountable in a court of law!!!
Stand in front of a judge and explain yourself.
I like this word; culpability. The sword cuts both ways as far as I am concerned. No passing the buck here, it’s your fault too!!!
I joined a group of people, individuals years ago who gathered together to form a bigger part of a group of people, individuals trying to stop Monsanto’s from some issue Monsanto’s was involved with at that time. I thought I was doing something good. Only to discover that the courts, another battle beyond my ability to truly understand stopped Monsanto’s. I was happy because I felt bad … meaning there was something wrong with protesting. I could not put my finger on it at that moment but something was off. I was doing something wrong. Once the word got out that our effort were fruitless, the organizer called a meeting. This meeting was interesting and I quote; “Who do we go after next!” … I said what!!! Next!!! Not me!!! I made the connection …
Protestors are nothing but Rioters - Rioters are nothing but Protestors. Just a different color.
Tom, I’m not 100% sure that I understand what you’re saying here. I think you are saying that all members of a society share some responsibility for its state. Of course this is true. But despairing at pointing out what is wrong because it might be perceived as looking for someone to blame seems a bit too fatalistic for my tastes.
Meaning vs Definition? I made a discovery years ago, where I was convinced that during the Los Angles Riots three young men were charged with murder in the 1st degree which I agreed with. Only in my shock and horror, these three men go off! Instead, these three men got a lesser charge, I believe it was manslaughter. At that moment I could have been a rioter! I was angry. A week later the defense attorney was interviewed and in my shock and horror, I agreed with the defense attorney. To get a conviction of murder in the 1st degree you must prove “Intent” … and I knew immediately that there was no intent. I was changed forever. I discovered “Meaning” vs “Definition”.
“Fatalistic” … oops! Didn’t mean that what I meant is that if you choose to stand on either corner, right or wrong, yes or no, the error shows up, if you are going to charge the rioter then you must charge the protestors, both sides equal here.
Based on everything I see, hear, and read there is a lack of “Meaning”. I only see “Definition”. Meaning is missing.
I am trying to find meaning to all of this and I continually come up empty. What does all this mean?
I am no longer interested in being a protestor nor a rioter, thanks to that fateful day, fate if you will.
I want to choose something higher; “Law and Order” ?? These two words have meaning to me.
Am I being nieve?
excellent work here Rusty !
You’re actually looking at the Deep State, media division. Both narratives.
You’re also watching the beginning of state implosion. You can stop worrying about the cops now.
Or the military, which is now combat ineffective except for point self defense. Seriously, off the table.
Sergeant Major of the US Army is posting on his official Twitter:
Trust me; your real problem is there are no men on the walls.
The good news is you’re going to be able to stop fretting about video brutality, the bad news is it will be in person. Better get a harsher mindset.
And a crew, one gun is not enough.
This incident–and let’s call it what it is, an extrajudicial killing of one of our fellow citizens by an agent of the state–has revealed an awful lot of the ugly underlying elements in society. The internet, and by extension some places within the flesh-and-blood world, are evidently filled with civil war fetishists and Nazi cosplayers who are just itching to jump into some conflict, ANY conflict, just for the thrill. That modern American life is so staggeringly comfortable for so many of these angry young men appears to mean nothing to them. The anger persists. Perhaps some of it is warranted. Quite a few of us aren’t happy with the institutions that are meant to serve us. But for young men who have the disposable income to spend thousands of dollars on guns and body armor, the notion that their Red Dawn LARPing is anything more than a sign of arrested development is hard to take seriously. And yet they are given an awful lot of media attention, almost as if we are being lead to believe that they represent some great, heretofore unawakened beast that is poised to take down our liberal order. How exactly that became the story rather than George Floyd and the suffering of our brothers and sisters in poverty and despair, is beyond me. If national media cared in the slightest about black lives, if they truly believed that they mattered, the coverage would not just be of protests, but would be wall-to-wall with experts in policing, community activism, and management. We’d have heard a dozen ideas already about how to approach policing in a way that balances the lives of the officers and the lives of the alleged perpetrators. We’d have heard from mayors in cities with low incidents of brutality as they tout their community-based policing strategy. We’d be hearing from mental health experts that would outline the importance of getting better services into poor communities, so that early detection of childhood problems–behavioral, learning, or environmental–could be addressed before they metastasize into a life of crime. We’d be discussing the disbanding of police unions and their powerful hold on local and statewide politics. We’d be figuring out how to purge departments of the bottom 20% of officers every year and replacing them with better-trained, more mentally fit people. But of course we aren’t discussing any of that. Instead it’s white supremacists and ANTIFA. It’s broken windows and looting, Donald Trump and tear gas. We are broken. We have chosen to be broken. We elected to be broken. We ASKED to be broken. Jeff Zucker and Donald Trump are playing the same game, the rewards for each are simply a little different.
A lot of this is really well said. Thank you!
I would say that i enjoyed reading your piece, but enjoyed is not really the right word. I, too, as i am sure of many others, have struggled this past week with all of the imagery and talk being thrown around on the media. My 30 year old son has had CNN on almost 24/7, and while it long ago stopped being a news agency and started being an opinion piece, this has now taken it to new heights. However for those watching, along with fans of late night talk shows, THE VIEW, etc., the narrative has taken over, and the american flag with its anti racist memes (In our America we believe in science, black lives matter, we all love one another…) has now been replaced with Black Lives Matter. If you raise issues such as facts, or if you offer perhaps a different perspective then you become racist, if you are not with us then you are BAD!!!, and so on. the virtue signaling has reached even greater heights than i could have ever imagined. Every corporation, CEO, non-profit, professional organization, and so on has now published statements condemning racism and police brutality. Peaceful protests (with rocks, solvents, bricks, sticks, and occasional rioting and looting) have suddenly been deemed OK, when a few days ago funerals or church services invited arrest and closure. The country has lost its mind, and there is no room left for discussion, or even minor disagreement.
If i say, as i always have, that police accountability is the issue, and social class is the issue, and crime and single parent families is an issue, whether white or black, i have always been shouted down. I no longer can say any of that because of my white skin. And coming from a 3000 year old civilization that has usually been the target of discrimination still puts me at the bottom of the intersectionality list because i grew up in a lower middle class family and now earn a good living. I cry for what America stood for, and is in danger of losing. And yet the mob, including the media, and a large number of well meaning people who are still screaming, have taken over, and we have not yet seen the backlash, because it has become shouted down rather than engaged.
Who’s yo’ narrative has now become the order of the day, and it is not pretty. I guess we can only hope that we survive this madness, and figure out a way to talk to each other again without shouting.
Please continue to write, you guys are the best, and i love YOUR narratives. It does give me hope that there are still enough people left with clear eyes, full hearts, and maybe we can’t lose?
From a full hearted member of the pack, Barry Newman
PS I will add that inviting people to join the pack is not easy. When i try to explain any of this, including trying to get people to step out of the matrix, nearly everyone i have discussed any of these issues with (and i only try with people who i think might be willing to open their eyes) essentially refuse to engage (Oh that is a fringe right wing site, oh those are radicals, oh those are …). The narratives have been sold so well that it will be a long and likely painful process to overcome that. But try we will, or as Yoda said: We will Do, or Do Not, there is no try. There is no other option. Thanks again.
I just came across an interesting take on the current situation by Ziad Jilani who basically disassembled the entire narrative of BLM and the WOKE world of whatever. It summarizes many of the things that i have known as facts, but i am told are fake news, and not to be believed. What is more, as a white person, now anything i say becomes suspect if it contradicts the narrative. Worth looking into. I am trying to find his contact information, as i think he would be a good addition to the pack:
As Penn Gilette said reflecting on “I am not gay, I am not straight, I am Siegfried” : “the only team I want us to be talking about is all 7 billion of us human beings.”
Media Widening the Gyre.
Divisive narratives designed and engineered to force the Reasonable Middle to choose sides. Playing both extremes against the middle is part of a well honed playbook also called ‘divide et impera’. Been in practical use for millennia.
Up here in Eugene, Oregon we have had Peaceful Protests of well meaning folks in the evenings and bus loads of well dressed ‘ANTIFA’ dropped off after dark to “Wreck Shit”. Widening the Gyre.
It is far past time for our culture to renegotiate our relationship with our institutions of ‘Enforcement’.
We ALL understand that in an encounter with ANY police we can lose our lives, our possessions, our ability to travel (TSA) without recourse. This has gone too far.
And yet these same ‘Law Enforcement’ folks Stand Down while the agents provocateur burn and loot? What? Why? Widening the Gyre.
Not an Accident.
Thanks for the Opportunity to Vent.
Brings to mind parallels with the Indian classic, the Mahabharata.
The ‘bad guys’ the ruling Kauravas vs the ‘Good guys’ – their cousins the Pandavas.
By day 14 ( of 18 day war ) both sides had descended to all manner of underhanded tactics and schemes. Both also had their heroic moments when moral values and principles were upheld.
How to distinguish between the good side and the bad side? Increasingly, their actions were identical……
The first thing I learned over the last 4 years is that the Main Stream Media is no longer a reliable source. The second thing I learned is that the internet is not a reliable source. The third thing I learned is that my go to internet sources are not reliable. Many noteworthy philosophers have tackled epistemology. It is a worthy but seems a hopeless task except as an abstraction. Goodnight Irene
Hey Ben , in part 4 of the Long Now you talk about how the meanings of words have changed as we are being nudged. I see the meaning of the word “violence” being changed as we go through this. The destruction of property is no longer a type of violence or will no longer be in the near future is more accurate.
HI Tom, Perhaps you were more interested in stopping Monsanto due to specific principles/values than you were in the process of “protesting” for its own sake. You had an issue that mattered and personally wanted to impact more than just be against something, while the organizer used the honestly motivated volunteers to justify his existence and paycheck as an organizer of opposition, regardless of issue. Perhaps you felt used as part of a faceless class of “protesters” and not appreciated as a thinking individual.
Excellent job, Rusty. Very clear illustration of how the facts are massaged into managed narratives to serve the purposes of the elite. Keep it up. You will never run out of opportunities, so please pace yourself for a long distance marathon.
I live three blocks from the nearest fired building and within a mile of the dozen or so burned out blocks. Truly, I do not find either party, nor our local leadership, expressing my own thought and emotions about what happened. We followed it all up close through a FB lead of a young African American that my youngest son knew from a few years at the local high school. He was partying and showing everything up close. Neighbors to the area from various backgrounds: race, age, social class, education, closeness to the epicenter, etc. were devastated. We had seen that section of Lake street gradually, slow improve over the last 25 years, and it disappeared overnight.
In the late 70s, I worked in South Central LA rehabbing dilapidated housing, purchased on high interest short term loans, to provide multiple dozens of living spaces at fair rents despite rent control. (Everything was to no avail when interest rates rose to 18%, and I could not refinance with conventional loans.) In the late 70s that part of LA still suffered the “bombed out” look from the riots of the late 60s, and that is what this section of Lake Street in Minneapolis looks like today. We were already suffering economically from the COVID-1984 shutdown of the healthcare system and economy, done in tandem with the populace being manipulated into mask and non-mask tribes. Now the consequences of a few days of destruction and anger.
However, the people have been filling the beaches, almost socially distanced, against city and park rules that had shut them down, closed restrooms and not hired lifeguards. There are some aspects of human nature that still inspire hope, which is why the narrative spinners can never give up lest they lose control of the masses. So pace yourself and keep up with the revealing counterpoint articles along with Ben.
Like! ‘Nuff said
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