Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Subdivision’s social posts reflected fear before Ahmaud Arbery was shot | Ap

BRUNSWICK, Georgia – Months before Ahmaud Arbery was killed, gunman Travis McMichael wrote a simple, terrifying response to a Facebook post about an alleged car break-in in his Georgia neighborhood: “Arm yourself”.

The article he was commenting on was sandwiched between chats about lost dogs and interruptions in water supplies, like in many online communities in the US that are located around physical neighborhoods.

But in the year before Arbery’s death, the posts on the Facebook group for the subdivision McMichael lived in show a neighborhood growing increasingly nervous in the face of low-level incidents where residents share their suspicions, keep kids in the house and willing to take matters into their own hands.

At a time when race, criminal justice, and the role of technology are being re-examined, such online neighborhood forums in the U.S. tend to have a disturbing tendency to shift from healthy community talk to fearful hypervigilance when suspicion is the topic of discussion.

“It makes people more fearful, alert, or overly sensitive. But it also makes them more suspicious of someone who doesn’t like them, ”media psychologist Pamela Rutledge said in a number of ways. “It’s kind of like stacking kindling, because then people make sure something goes wrong.”

Final arguments are expected Monday in the murder trial of McMichael and two other white men charged with the murder of Arbery, whose death became part of a broader reckoning of racial injustice in the criminal justice system.

Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael grabbed guns and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after seeing the 25-year-old black man running in their neighborhood outside the port city of Brunswick, Georgia in February 2020. William “Roddie” Bryan, who joined the chase in his own truck, recorded a cell phone video of Travis McMichael who shot Arbery while he was punching and reaching for the shotgun.

They say they tried lawfully to stop break-ins in their neighborhood and McMichael testified that he shot Arbery in self-defense.

He also testified that much of what he knew about local break-in reports came from the Satilla Shores subdivision Facebook group where he lived with his parents.

His “arm up” comment came in response to a July 2019 post found in court documents in which a woman warned of car break-ins: “Remember, you can’t tell whether a thief is a lightweight or a murderer. “

An article published this November related to a black man and white couple photographed on consecutive nights in a house under construction five houses away from the McMichaels. Travis McMichael’s answer: “You really are playing with fire.”

All sides agree that the black man was Arbery, who was videotaped five times in the same house – including just before the McMichaels began their pursuit – although prosecutors say there is no evidence that he has committed crime in the neighborhood committed.

A neighbor testified that a post about a car break-in caused her to check her husband’s truck and find that some of his tools were missing. Brook Perez said it “felt like an injury”.

Neighbor Lindy Cofer said people in the Facebook group exchanged theories and suspicions about who might be responsible for certain property crimes. When asked if she had ever been a victim of crime, Cofer hadn’t said anything for more than 30 years.

Scientists have long found that people who consume a lot of media tend to be more anxious, said David Ewoldsen, a professor at Michigan State University who studies media and psychology. Local news has the greatest effect because people know the area and identify with it.

On a neighborhood site, it is even closer to home and “enhances the effect,” he said.

People have a “fight or flight” response to fear. If the spark is a social media post from a neighbor they know, people may want to react to the situation in some way. “So this is all intertwined and it will increase the likelihood of a violent response,” said Ewoldsen.

However, open violence remains rare. In one case earlier this year in affluent Danville, Calif., Some residents went on the Nextdoor social media platform to urge police to remove Tyrell Wilson, a black homeless man, before a separate stone-throw call resulted in it a police officer fatally shot him in the head.

“These platforms act as vehicles to reinforce and reflect the feeling that your community is under attack,” said Steven Renderos, managing director of the MediaJustice group. Upon watching discourses himself, he feels that “there is a way in which white vigilante justice is praised and black existence is criminalized”.

Nextdoor has worked to curb racism on its platform, including with diversity and inclusion training for its moderators, Renderos said. Facebook did not respond to an email request for comments from the Associated Press on the story.

Still, Renderos wants more transparency in user demographics to see if it reflects the entire community, as artificial intelligence can only go so far as to stamp out hate speech or violent language.

“Ultimately,” he said, “the racism that exists in these communities is what cannot be fixed on the platform side.”

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