There’s a line from the Simon and Garfunkel song, The Boxer, that has always seemed perceptive to me: “A man sees what he wants to see and disregards the rest.”
We can really see that phenomenon in the debates, Facebook posts and memes and twitter wars over the widespread Black Lives Matter protests. It won’t resolve the issue of confirmation bias–“seeing what we want to see and disregarding the rest”–but a recent study of the demonstrations documents the reality behind the spin.
The report was from the U.S. Crisis Monitor, which is a collaboration between the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative. The project collects and analyzes data on protest movements, using news reports, social media and a variety of other sources.
The report covers data gathered on protests between May 24, the day before police in Minneapolis killed George Floyd, and Aug. 22. During that period, the researchers collected more than 10,600 demonstration events across the country, with more than 7,750 of them related to the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests peaked in late May and early June, and while they have leveled off since, activists in many places across the country continue to hold largely peaceful demonstrations every day.
The overwhelming majority of the protests — more than 10,100 — involved peaceful protesters, the researchers found. In only about 5%, or under 570 of the protests, did participants engage in violence.“
The vast majority of demonstration events associated with the BLM movement are non-violent,” the researchers wrote. “In more than 93% of all demonstrations connected to the movement, demonstrators have not engaged in violence or destructive activity.”
What about the protests that became violent? The report found that, when violence occurred, it either began with what the report labeled “state-sanctioned violence”–described as “violent intervention from local, state or federal authorities,” or was initiated by counterprotesters from extremist groups.
The research also reported that the police or military “disproportionately used force while intervening in demonstrations associated with the BLM movement, relative to other types of demonstrations.” In nearly 10% of BLM protests they studied, the police violently intervened by deploying tear gas, rubber bullets and/or pepper spray, and were seen assaulting protesters with batons and other items.
If 93% of the demonstrations were peaceful, why do so many Americans believe they were violent?
The researchers suggest three likely reasons: selective media coverage (they don’t point fingers, but the identity of those media sources isn’t hard to deduce), “disinformation” campaigns on social media, and viewers’ pre-existing political opinions. In other words, confirmation bias.
And for those who are prejudiced against Black people, we have the new phenomenon of right-wing provocateurs infiltrating the protests, pretending to be “Antifa” or BLM members. According to NPR and other sources, far-right white supremacist extremists are responsible for much of the protest violence. The Boogaloo Boys (I wonder where that name came from) are reportedly working to foment a race war, and a white supremacist channel on a messaging app encouraged its followers to commit violence during George Floyd protests, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
These strategies are aimed at Americans who harbor racial bias along with confirmation bias. Trump supporters hope that enough people believe what they are already primed to believe–and disregard the facts.