Design activism & freedom of press

This is the story about that one time I Googled myself and I found a thumbnail pic with my face next to a blond dude on it. On a cold Tuesday evening of October, I was engaged in one of my favourite activities: productive procrastination. Too tired to keep working, I figured I might just as well keep myself busy with a boring task that sooner or later I would need to get done. Said task was ‘social media clean up’. I wasn’t expecting anything major: adjusting privacy settings on my socials here and there, perhaps deleting a facebook album of my 14 year old self, fixing up a few posts on my website. Little did I know… I was about to stumble upon a bigger mess to deal with.

A couple pages deep into my google pictures I find this article from an American conservative e-newspaper, that leads to a… YouTube video! My jaw drops. This blond early twenty dude dressed like an anchor is reviewing my Twitter profile and talking about a project that I worked on while I was living in New York and studying at Pratt Institute (at the time of writing, a year ago). And the commentary is far from flattering…How did this happen?

How did this happen?

Flashback to mid-July, a Campus Reform Intern contacts me asking for pictures of my work at Pratt, a puzzle booklet. What puzzle booklet?

Second flashback to fall 2018, during which I was studying at Pratt Institute and I joined the Undocumented Design course, led by prof. Alex Schweder. This course connects students with the reality of undocumented citizens living in New York and the systematic dangers, abuses and rights violation that they experience on a daily basis. Students are encouraged to collaborate with the New Sanctuary, a volunteering association that provides support to undocumented citizens. An example of their support is that they accompany them through the legal procedure, which consists of a long series of hearings that will determine whether they can stay in the USA or be deported. Their main role is to make sure that the process is run lawfully and to send a message that there is a strong community around undocumented citizens. Especially after Trump’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy, the New Sanctuary volunteers feel that the process has become inhumane and that the chances for undocumented citizens – who may have families, run businesses, pay taxes in USA for many years – to remain have shrunk (on this topic I recommend the Netflix show ‘Living Undocumented’). The ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy is enforced by a specific department of the police called Immigration and Customs Enforcement, ICE.

As a designer, it is part of the process to immerse myself in the context at hand so I decided to join the New Sanctuary in witnessing the final hearing of an undocumented citizen. For privacy reasons, I will not go into what happened during that hearing. However, I can share that one of the main insights was how slow and bureaucratic the process was. Because of that, some guards and policemen brought with them sudokus and newspapers to kill time during slow moments of the day.

This inspired me to design a speculative product: a puzzle booklet (to come in attachment of newspapers or by itself) that the New Sanctuary volunteers could distribute in front of courts or detention centres. These booklets are a provocation: they contain ‘subtle’ (read: obvious) puzzles and games, meant to challenge the practices of ICE officers and to question the new Zero Tolerance policy. Obviously, this work embodies my political perspective. It is clearly a piece of design activism, meant to provoke debate around a difficult topic.

Obviously, this work embodies my political perspective. It is clearly a piece of design activism, meant to provoke debate around a difficult topic.

Coming back to Campus Reform email: the intern asks me pictures ‘for verification purposes’ of another article from Pratt Institute that features my work. I check Campus Report and I find that they report on ‘liberal bias and abuse’. Wow. For a second, I ask myself whether I should just ignore his request, but I believe in freedom of ALL press.

I believe in freedom of ALL press.

What does it mean? That I am responsible for my work and I am open to any form of media commentary (of any color or party) as long as it is truthful, respectful and honest. It would be unfair of me to accept to be featured only on magazines or articles that are aligned with my political views. So I accept to share my pictures since they are ‘for verification purposes only’. How naive of me.

Back to that not-so-boring-anymore Tuesday evening: another article from ‘Campus Unmasked’ attacks me and Pratt Institute for their ‘liberal propaganda’. Attached to the article, a flashing YouTube video attacks me personally and it features the very same pictures that Cai promised me to be only for ‘verification purposes’ (note: the intern who contacted me seems to not be associated with this video, very strange). I am more confused than ever. First of, the young anchor of the video is not even close to pronouncing my name correctly (very disrespectful! – I hope you get the joke), secondly, I am not a Pratt student, I am (was) an exchange student for a term. Thirdly, what does my Twitter have anything to do with this?

I am more confused than ever. First of, the young anchor of the video is not even close to pronouncing my name correctly (very disrespectful! – hope you get the joke), secondly, I am not a Pratt student, I am (was) an exchange student for a term. Thirdly, what does my Twitter have anything to do with this?

I trace back the original article that Mr. Intern asked me pictures for (and that about which he never followed up with me). The article has a more honest and definitely more respectful tone than the YouTube video. It comments on other Pratt students’ work and on the objectives of Undocumented Design as a course. However, there are 2 main issues with the article:

  • the supposedly ‘for verification purposes’ pictures are there, in full width on the header.
  • at the bottom, they claim they asked me for a comment but I did not answer in time for publication. This is not true.

This half-decent yet sloppy article – Cai’s article – has given the chance to more opportunistic outlets (Campus Unmasked and the YouTube channel associated with it) to create completely misconstrued stories about my work by copypasting screenshots of Cai’s article. The irony of all of this is that while I am not making a dime out of this work, through the ads on YouTube they could actually be making a profit. Sigh. This complex situation started with me accepting to share my work with a conservative news report intern for the sake of freedom of press.

This complex situation started with me accepting to share my work with a conservative news report intern for the sake of freedom of press.

After reflection, I identified few basic issues:

  • Lies: why did both Campus Reform and Campus Unmasked need to lie to me and to the public in order to gain and use information?
  • Lack of research: both articles and the YouTube video display a depressing lack of in-depth research into the author (me) and the work. How come shallow content generates more attention than in-depth journalistic investigation?
  • Personal attacks: just, why?

After flagging this ‘incident’ to the team of professors at Pratt Institute (who showed warm support and inspired me to write this article), I decided to share a few final thoughts on the impact of these toxic online behaviours and clickbait culture (yes, I said it):

  • mental health: when this kind of denigratory publicity hits you and your work, it takes a mental leap to realise –and really believe– that having ‘pissed off’ someone with your work means that it is good work. I am a confident of the fact that I do good with my design, so although it upset me and annoyed me, I did not loose sleep over this. But would it have been the same for maybe a younger, less experienced and perhaps more fragile designer?
  • harassment: everybody says it: ‘Don’t read the comments on YouTube!’ Nobody listens to this. I read them and the horrible thing about it is that you can’t stop. Among supporting comments (not supporting of me personally, but of the message), the majority of them are personal attacks or comments of sexual nature, insults to me and my family, accusations of belonging to left-extremist groups. Now, back to the point of mental health, this would do no good to anyone’s self-esteem. However, the real question is: why political debate has to constantly enter the private domain and quickly abandon the relevant subject matter? Why are people -internet trolls- constantly searching for scape goats against which they can unleash their keyboard rage?
  • permission and consent: what has really shocked me was how in all this, nobody asked me for permission. Although these articles and the video are about me, I was barely in the picture. I did not give the first intern who contacted me consent to publish my pictures. I did not give consent to Campus Unmasked to share my personal information on their video. I purposefully did NOT choose YouTube to share this work because I believe it is not a suitable medium to discuss this specific issue. Yet, I have been dragged into it, forcefully and in a fishy way, WITHOUT MY PERMISSION. Yes, all of these actions are ‘legal’ but in my view, not ethical. As a creative, I wonder: how can we engage in a meaningful conversation on the role of permission and consent, in a world in which this content, created on lies and – frankly – abuse gets more traction than intellectually honest work?

I would like to encourage designers to keep creating work that speaks to power and generates controversy; I would like to encourage educators to reflect on the relationship between clickbait culture and speculative/activist design and create awareness for emergent designers. Lastly, I would like to address media outlets and ask them for integrity when it comes down to reporting news: let’s discuss content, opinions, thoughts. Let’s have a dialogue in which our diversity meets in a constructive space. Let’s leave personal attacks out of it. For freedom of press’ sake.

For freedom of press’ sake.

Note: in this post I reference some articles and a YouTube video. I will not link in this page said articles as I will not spread content that could capitalise on polarising misinformation. Thank you for your understanding. The intern who contacted me apologised for what happened and removed the pictures from the Campus Reform article. Campus Unmasked’s article and the YouTube video are still online.

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