They thought they could get away with it. They were wrong.
This is a note about the good news about this year's vicious, nasty, horrible election, a contest between a deeply flawed candidate and a horrific, nasty demagogue. One source of good news is likely to be a quickening, a strengthening of voices against maltreatment of women. It seems likely to be an ironic outcome to Trump's dangerous misogyny. But that's not my point here.
I am thinking particularly about the revelations about the scandalous behavior of one presidential candidate, the digital ineptness of the other, and about the many revelations of police brutality.
These scandals would not have been exposed in earlier years: what we’re seeing, in part at least, is the power of new digital media hitting powerful men and women not at all prepared for the blinding daylight of their misbehaviors being exposed. It’s not so much that things are worse than before, it’s that they’re being caught on camera and on mike, and being shared worldwide without any possibility of distribution being halted.
So that’s the good news: digital technologies forcing some transparency. (A separate note might deal with the digital dark side, of hacking into the election and its dialogues, from nation states bent on furthering their agendas. But that’s a subject for another day, and perhaps another person.)
This year, in the USA, we’ve seen what appears to be a disastrous peek into the inner workings, musings, and beliefs of our politicians and our police and others. One aspect of this, at least, is a discontinuity: the old guard - powerful men and women in their later years - caught off-guard by the advent of technologies. A decade or two ago, they could have “got away with” their transgressions, but a suite of technologies are making that impossible. Social media (Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat); and ubiquitous means for creating and distributing digital files: smartphones with cameras, for example.
The consequences are that it’s not just in emerging nations (think those upended in the Arab Spring) - it’s here, too. The ubiquity of digital tools and the power of digital media are exposing sins that earlier would have remained hidden behind the doors of the powerful.
You combine that with a rising expectation that the promise of a free society includes the full empowerment of all its participants, not just the wealthy, powerful few, and conflicts are inevitable.
He thought he could get away with it. He was wrong.
Anyone who had really paid attention to Donald Trump during the Republican primary had already heard coarse language that showed utter indifference to lots of groups - the disabled, Mexicans, Muslims - but particularly women. For Trump, the frame for considering his one-time rival Carly Fiorina was not her incompetence, but her looks. “Look at that face! Could anyone considering voting for that face?” And the similar language belittling Megyn Kelly, and a long list of women.
The “grab them by the (genitals)” acknowledgement of his assault on women was far beyond the pale.
But it was of the same cloth as his prior boast that, as the owner of a beauty pageant, he could get away with walking in on young women and girls, naked.
The uproar that has erupted about this lechery was entirely empowered by digital media. Once the video, with Trump well-miked for sound, was in the wild, nothing could stop the rapid, viral spread. 20 years ago, the original file could not have been circulated among media, nor shared in any form other than a clip on a news program or two.
This is most literally true. 25 years ago, Anita Hill reported her sexual harassment from Justice Clarence Thomas. The supporting anecdotes came via the US Mail, slowly and incompletely, taking weeks. This diluted her message, prevented a full expose of Thomas' malfeasance. The past decades have given us so much: email, standardized video file formats, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. And these technologies can and will and must be used to fight abuse in all its forms.
Just as the rapid distribution was a consequence of the new world of digital media, so was what happened next. In the eyes off many, many women, the Billy Bush / grab-them video became a symbol of the vile bodily insults they’d experienced at the hands (literally) of lecherous, undisciplined, older men. The hashtag #notokay became a pathway for tens of millions of women to express their anger at molestation. A digital river of anger at powerful men abusing vulnerable women and girls.
Donald Trump thought he could get away with it, and digital media made him wrong.
She thought she could get away with it.
In an entirely different way, Hillary Clinton’s transgressions were also exposed. Her private talks given to groups of bankers exposed thoughts not intended to be exposed to the larger public, and thus showed - at best - inconsistencies. An at-best inept episode around the private hosting of government emails and the subsequent erasure of many. An inept episode around the internal dialog within the Democratic National Party.
In the past, these would have remained secret, or available only, again, through small-volume leaks. Now, however, presumably through the work of foreign government malice, secrecy was infeasible, and mass distribution through a strangely partisan Wikileaks turned this from a breached secret into a widespread anti-Hillary campaign.
In many ways the what Wikileaks has shown from Hillary's campaigns emails (like the Billy Bush video) is not at all suprising. It shows how deeply entrenched in the system Hillary really is.
She thought she could get away with it, and she was wrong.
They thought they could get away with it.
One might expect that powerful, well-funded political campaigns, staffed with cohorts of young, computer-literate workers, would have thought through the consequences of the arrival of digital media.
Nobody really expects police forces to be computer literate. And thus the problem: a powerful, macho set of organizations with an arms-linked omerta, but with little preparation for the new world of digital media. The weapons that made their lives different: tiny digital cameras and easy connections to social media.
Until rather recently, cops could beat, taunt, and kill with impunity. Bystanders, if they knew what was good for them, ignored and moved on. Not any more. Now, dozens of cameras surround most urban or suburban scenes. The cameras in the phones of bystanders. The security cameras on nearby stores. The surveillance cameras another arm of city government may have installed on street lights. Now, a cop goes rogue, much of the time, it’ll be captured on camera and published to Facebook before the weapons go cold.
Of course, many, most, perhaps nearly all police are not thugs gone rogue.
And police are finding that cameras can protect them. Thugs beating or shooting at or throwing things at the police or vandalizing property are now finding also a sea of digital evidence to deal with. Dashboard cameras on cop cars and body cameras worn by the police aren’t just there to show when cops go bad - they also show when thugs (or the mentally ill) go wild.
Neither old fashioned cops nor common street criminals were or are still prepared for the universality of cameras and digital media.
They thought and think still they could and can get away with it, and they’re wrong. The police thought this and powerful politicians thought this, and they're wrong.