Brunswick, Georgia. – Months before Ahmaud Arbery was killed, gunman Travis McMichael wrote a simple and frightening response to a Facebook post about an alleged car burglary in his Georgia neighborhood: “Arm yourself. “
The element he commented on was sandwiched between discussions of lost dogs and the disruption of water service, as in many online communities in the United States based around physical neighborhoods.
But the year before Arbery’s death, posts by the Facebook group of the subdivision where McMichael lived portrayed an increasingly nervous neighborhood in the face of low-intensity incidents, with residents exchanging suspicions, keeping the children at home. interior and becoming ready to take matters into their own hands. .
In an age of vast reexamination of race, criminal justice, and the role of technology, these online neighborhood forums in the United States have a disturbing tendency to shift from healthy community chatter to anxious hypervigilance when suspicion is the topic of discussion.
“It makes people more anxious, more alert or hypersensitive at the same time. But it also makes them more suspicious of someone who is unlike them, ”said media psychologist Pamela Rutledge. “It’s really kind of piling up kindling, so to speak, because people are on the lookout then if something goes wrong.”
Final arguments are due Monday in the murder trial of McMichael and two other white men charged with the murder of Arbery, whose death is part of a wider consideration of racial injustice in the criminal justice system.
Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael seized guns and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after seeing the 25-year-old black man running around their neighborhood outside the port city of Brunswick in Georgia in February 2020. William “Roddie” Bryan, who joined the chase in his own truck, caught a cell phone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery as he threw punches and grabbed the shotgun.
They say they were legally trying to stop burglaries in their neighborhood, and McMichael testified that he shot Arbery in self-defense.
He also said much of what he knew about local burglary reports came from the Facebook group in the Satilla Shores subdivision where he lived with his parents.
Her “arms up” comment came in response to a July 2019 article, included in court documents, in which a woman warning of car break-ins said: “Remember, you can’t tell if a thief is a lightweight or a murderer. “
An article in that November referred to a black man and a white couple recorded on consecutive nights inside a house under construction five houses away from the McMichaels. Response from Travis McMichael: “They really play with fire.”
All parties agree that the black man was Arbery, who was videotaped five times in the same house – including just before the McMichaels began pursuing him – although prosecutors say there is no evidence that he committed any crimes in the neighborhood.
A neighbor said an article about a car break-in prompted her to check her husband’s truck and find that some of his tools were missing. Brook Perez said it “looked like a violation.”
Neighbor Lindy Cofer said members of the Facebook group had exchanged theories and suspicions about who might be responsible for certain property crimes. When asked if she had ever been a victim of a crime, Cofer replied that it was no more than 30 years old.
Researchers have long found that people who consume a lot of media tend to have a greater sense of fear, said David Ewoldsen, a professor at Michigan State University who studies media and psychology. The strongest effect is with local news, because people know the area and identify with it.
On a neighborhood site, it’s even closer to home and therefore “amplifies the effect”, he said.
Humans have a “fight or flight” response to fear. When the spark is a social media post from a neighbor they know, people may want to react to the situation in some way or another. “So this is all intertwined, and it’s going to increase the likelihood of a violent response,” Ewoldsen said.
Yet outright violence remains rare. In one case this year in the wealthy town of Danville, Calif., Some residents took to the Nextdoor social media platform to urge police to remove Tyrell Wilson, a black homeless man, before another call was made. throwing stones results in a policeman shooting him fatally in the lead.
“These platforms serve as vehicles to amplify and echo the feeling that your community is being assaulted,” said Steven Renderos, executive director of the MediaJustice group. Watching the speeches himself, he felt “that there is a way in which white self-defense is praised and a way in which the existence of blacks is criminalized.”
Nextdoor has worked to reduce racism on its platform, including training on diversity and inclusion for its moderators, Renderos said. Facebook did not respond to an Associated Press email request for comment for this story.
Still, Renderos would like to see more transparency around user demographics to see if they reflect the wider community, as artificial intelligence can’t go further in eliminating hate speech or violent language.
“At the end of the day,” he said, “what you can’t fix on the platform side is the racism that exists in these communities.”