As early voting gets underway, we’ve seen videos of flag-waving crowds blocking early voting sites in Virginia, ballot boxes being lit on fire in L.A., and the Trump campaign calling for an “army” of poll watchers–language now banned by Facebook. It’s hard not to feel worried about what might happen when you set out to cast your vote (not to mention the threat of Covid-19). So what do you do if you witness an incident of voter intimidation?
Many of us might instinctively pull out our phone and film it. After all, it has been viral videos, often filmed by bystanders, that have shed light on some of the most pivotal moments of the last few months–the police murder of George Floyd, the militarized policing of the massive nationwide demonstrations that followed, and clashes between white supremacists and anti-racist protesters.
However, at WITNESS we’ve seen both positive outcomes from these videos as well as unintended consequences. Sometimes these videos and images are deliberately misused by people who take them out of their original context and claim they are from another. During recent Black Lives Matter protests, a TikTok video was widely shared without clear labeling or context showing a Black business owner pleading with people not to destroy his business. The video was viewed more than five million times, shared more than 160,000 times and has received over 20,000 comments. It turns out the footage was actually from at the L.A. riots in 1992, following the acquittal of police officers in the beating of Rodney King – none of which was mentioned in the TikTok post.
Understandably, in this hyper-partisan climate, mixed with rampant misinformation and disinformation, many people have come to distrust, dismiss or deny reports and videos they see online, regardless of who publishes them. We saw this play out in 2017 when Brennan Gilmore filmed the killing of anti-racist protester Heather Heyer, who was demonstrating against a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. After posting the video of Heyer being fatally struck by a car on social media, Gilmore became a target of alt-right media and online trolls claiming the video was “fake news” and threatening to harm him and his family.
So how can you film in a way that your video is less likely to be misused, disputed or put you at risk? Fortunately, there are some basic dos and don’ts that you can follow and you can download our Documenting Voter Intimidation tip sheet here.
First, it’s important to know that under federal law it is prohibited to intimidate, threaten or harass voters for the purpose of interfering with a person’s right to vote. It is also illegal to spread false information about voter requirements at polling stations. This is voter suppression and if you see it happening, you have the right to document and/or report it.
Do you have the right to film? Most polling places will allow you to film outside, but it is unlikely you will be able to film inside. You have the constitutional right to film law enforcement in public places as long as you don’t interfere. Before you hit record, assess what risks you are willing to take and make sure that filming won’t make you a target of the aggressors. And of course, be respectful of voters’ privacy.
How can you prevent becoming “fake news”? Make your media easier to verify for journalists and legal experts by filming identifying details like street signs and landmarks and make sure the GPS settings on your phone are turned on. If you decide to narrate what is happening, stick to the facts and note the time, date and location (though when possible it’s better to show versus tell). Including this information may also make it harder for someone to misuse your video claiming it took place in a different time or place than it did.
What should you film? Capture incidents of voters being arrested, attacked, or harassed, such as people being aggressively asked about their citizenship or people using hateful speech. Film images of people disrupting the line, blocking the entrance or handing out misleading flyers. Document if the aggressors are wearing uniforms, carrying weapons and whether or not they are part of an organized group. If law enforcement is involved, document badge numbers, license plates, indications of police rank and methods of communication. It’s also helpful to show voters who are acting peacefully, long lines and if polling places are inaccessible to voters with disabilities.
If you can, try to film continuously and hold your camera steady. This can be hard if the scene is escalating quickly, but take a few deep breaths and move somewhere you can film out of harm’s way. If you don’t feel safe filming, then stop. It is not worth risking your safety. Alternately, you can take written notes or alert a poll worker or local officials to what is happening.
Before you share your video to social media, pause! This might seem counterintuitive, but it is important to take a moment to consider your safety, the safety of those you filmed and think strategically about how to share your video. Ask yourself, “do I want my name associated with this video?”, “who might be at risk if their identity is exposed?” “could publicizing this video further escalate the situation or deter others from exercising their right to vote?”
Where should you send your footage? Share your video and report the incident to local and state officials or bipartisan groups like 1-866-Our-Vote or the ElectionLand project by ProPublica. If you feel like it’s important to publicize the video sooner than later, but don’t want to share it on your own accounts, seek out a trusted journalist, lawyer or local advocacy group to help come up with a plan.
Lastly, if you believe your video may have evidentiary value that could bolster a legal case, store the original file in a secure location. Never edit the original file or change the filename, always do this from a copy.
Voting is a right and a civic responsibility. We should not have to face intimidation to cast our ballot. But if you do, these tips can help you feel prepared to use your cellphone to document in a safe and effective way so that we can hold perpetrators and those inciting violence to account.