Is “the U.S.A most racist town” racist? (Or is it the Visual Media that wants you to think so?)

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On: October 3, 2021
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Abstract

One of the functions of New Visual Media is rendering representation of places through online imageries. These images establish and reinforce audiences’ awareness alongside the perception of a particular location without requiring physicalinteraction with spaces. However, from a critical point of view, the practice raises a question about the authenticity of the truths that these online images represent.

Arguing that visual geolocation falsely shaping perception about places, the text connects Colombo’s article “Visual Geolocation. Repurposing online data to design alternative views” to the case study of the representation of Harrison, Arkansas through Google Image. 

Visual Geolocation

The article “Visual Geolocation. Repurposing online data to design alternative views” demarcates the means to construct visual imageries for manipulating the human perception of place (Colombo et al. 1). Much as images before the digital era could see alteration through physical means to alter meanings output, digital images invite various approaches of repurposing online imagery. Colombo et al. argued that one of such approaches was assigning meaning to geographical stereotypes by establishing and using collections of Google Image results (2). The approach becomes possible through the extensive mapping of the surroundings by collecting uploaded images from social media, thumbnails on Youtube or cars passing by the location (Colombo et al. 8). The abundant visual footage from social media and video-sharing platforms geotags the location with associated implications, meanings, and themes. However, the value of the location comes under the risk of lacking authenticity through the diverse but dominant amount of users’ input without considering other representations. 

Google Image’s results of Harrison, Arkansas 

In a modern digitalised context, platforms have prioritised highly participated images over others; Google Image is no exception(Cornelio and Ardévol 329). On the 27th of July, 2020, a filmmaker named Rob Bliss posted a Youtube video of himself titled  Holding a Black Lives Matter Sign in America’s Most Racist Town: Harrison, Arkansas, headquarter of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (Peiser). The video captures the heckle and harassment Bliss received from the white population of the town. The Youtube video then received three million views within three days, gaining popularity on Facebook and Twitter, putting it on first page results on Google Search and particularly Google Image. For example, typing in the keyword “Harrison, Arkansas” on Google Image will lead to the first page of results filled with the thumbnail of Bliss holding the BLM sign in front of Harrison’sHarrison’s billboard: “WhitePrideRadio.com”. Other imagery search results feature billboards on the entrance of the town, such as “Anti-Racist is a codeword for Anti-White” and “Diversity is a code word for #WhiteGenocide”. 

The visual geolocation of Harrison, Arkansas

The metaphysical, ontological question of what constitutes reality has been a pressing concern in the digital world. Global audiences live in the mediated representation of their surroundings, making geographic media and its content more of a reflection of our streams of thought rather than a tool (Specht 5). The perception of Harrison as America’sAmerica’s most racist town is the direct result of Youtube and Google’sGoogle’s social mapping and geotagging. In this regard, platform users have contributed to assigning a narrative to the town, primarily through circulating the video alongside the thumbnail around the internet (Georgakopoulou 70). As a result of the video’s popularity, the thumbnail and pictures of “racist” billboards occupied the first page of Google Image results. Therefore, both these platforms and users have participated in assigning meaning to the town by forming a Google Image results collection (Colombo et al. 2). Considering Cornelio’sCornelio’s argument on place-making, the case study of Harrison reflects media as a performative practice that constitutes “place” through shared and multisensorial experiences and collaborative productions (329). In this sense, the perception about Harrison has transcended strictly visual spaces to provoke in audiences a sense of physical interaction without physically arriving at the town (Brantner 25). Just as the knowledge becomes obtainable through Google Search, the awareness and knowledge about the town will become associated with the incident in the video alongside the first pop-up results on Google Images filled with the video’s thumbnails and the racist billboards. 

Examining the reality of Harrison, Arkansas

While during Black Lives Matter, it is necessary to confront racism with the manner and courage similar to Bliss; however, the video over stereotypes the town of Harrison, Arkansas. Recently, on the 10th of September 2021, a Youtube crew named CantoMando uploaded a video titled: Day in the Life of an Asian in America’s Most RACIST Town. Contrary to Bliss’s video lasting only two minutes, CantoMando posted a twelves minute long video in which they explored and interacted with the population around the town. The crew concluded that the town struck them not as racist as Bliss’s video previously described. Therefore, labelling Harrison as “America’s most racist town” is an overgeneralisation of the town’s actual state. At the time of the original video, city leaders and citizens voiced their concern that the video misrepresented the whole population of the county. In this sense, the most recent video emphasised the difference between media’s representation and reality. Nevertheless, due to the label established through collections of first-page Google Image research, the image of Harrison being America’s most racist town might be the only images audiences associate with. Such association overshadows demographically progressive differences between elders and the young generation and activists’ efforts to change the mindset {Citation}. However, labelling Harrison, Arkansas, as the most racist town stereotypes the citizens. Thus, such representation creates more division. 

Conclusion

Visual Geolocation is beneficial to the circulation and reception of images in the online sphere. However, both platforms and users could repurpose images through various means. Among these approaches is place-making through assigning meanings to a location through establishing and circulating Google Images search results. One of its recent examples is the representation of Harrison, Arkansas, which is known as America’s most racist town through a prioritised trendy thumbnail and popular images. Through the most recent confrontation with the town by another Youtube crew, the diverse nature of the town emphasised the bias that visual media committed in place-making. 

Works cited:

(208) Day in the Life of an Asian in America’s Most RACIST Town – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/. 

(208) Holding a Black Lives Matter Sign in America’s Most Racist Town – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/.

Brantner, Cornelia. ‘New Visualities of Space and Place: Mapping Theories, Concepts and Methodology of Visual Communication Research on Locative Media and Geomedia’. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, vol. 13, no. 2, Ubiquity Press Ltd., Oct. 2018, pp. 14–31. go-gale-com.proxy.uba.uva.nl, https://doi.org/10.16997/wpcc.290.

Colombo, Gabriele, et al. ‘Visual Geolocations. Repurposing Online Data to Design Alternative Views’. Big Data & Society, vol. 4, no. 1, June 2017, pp 1-9. 205395171770240. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717702409.

Cornelio, Gemma San, and Elisenda Ardévol. Practices of Place-Making through Locative Media Artworks. no. 3, De Gruyter Mouton, Sept. 2011, pp. 313–333. www-degruyter-com.proxy.uba.uva.nl, https://doi.org/10.1515/comm.2011.016.

Georgakopoulou, Alexandra. ‘Sharing as Rescripting: Place Manipulations on YouTube between Narrative and Social Media Affordances’. Discourse, Context & Media, vol. 9, Sept. 2015, pp. 64–72. DOI.org (Crossref), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcm.2015.07.002.

Osunsami, Steve, and Matt McGarry. ‘Facing Racism: Activists in Arkansas Chase down KKK Leader with BBQ and a Protest’. ABC News, https://abcnews.go.com/US/facing-racism-activists-arkansas-chase-kkk-leader-bbq/story?id=73501365.

Peiser, Jaclyn. ‘He Held a BLM Sign in What He Called “America’s Most Racist Town.” The Result? A Viral Video of Abuse.’ Washington Postwww.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/07/30/black-lives-matter-racist-town-video.

Specht, Doug. ‘Did You Find the World or Did You Make It Up? Media, Communications and Geography in the Digital Age’. Westminster Papers in Communication and Culture, vol. 13, no. 2, 2, University of Westminster Press, Oct. 2018, pp 1-13. www.westminsterpapers.org, https://doi.org/10.16997/wpcc.298.

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