I came across an interesting little report the other day – an analysis of traffic from Occupywallstreet.org. Studying trends in hits, new/repeat visitors and length of stay, they came up with a very interesting theory. They’re calling it the “riot porn hypothesis”. The second slide makes fairly clear why – the eviction of Zuccotti Park on Nov. 17th generated an immense surge in views, from ~`10 000/day or less to more than half a million. This date and other events led to the hypothesis, which states that traffic spikes after incidents of arrests or police brutality.

Quantatative Analysis of Phase One of Occupy Wall Street – OWS Analytics (Google Docs)

To anyone familiar with the media or activism in general, this should come as no surprise. “If it bleeds, it leads” has just been put to the test, and it got the result everyone expected. Nothing catches people’s attentions like a bunch of arrests, and that’s just as true with new media as old.

Why? Because arrests show that both “sides” were serious. That something “happened”. In an atmosphere of conflicting accounts where most are wary of cops, reporters and protesters, they give a solid number by which to judge the “scale” of unrest. The create a story with compelling characters and conflict, and make normally “boring” issues exciting. “Riot porn” in particular – images and footage from “the front lines” captivates people, whether for or against, and it’s very hard to ignore.

OWSAnalytics didn’t manage much detail on what in particular drives this attention. Is it police brutality per se? Does it matter whether protesters resist arrest or go peacefuly? How about property destruction? How do the effects differ between Occupy Wall Street and Occupy Oakland? Ultimately, this may matter a lot less than one might think, since the coverage of these events is so standard, no matter what actually happened. Papers will write about “clashes between demonstrators and police” whether those demonstrators are seated quietly or burning police cars.

We need to be really careful here of treating these events as simple “spectacles” for the sake of viewers at home. They aren’t. There’s a difference between protests and publicity stunts. Success cannot be measured in “views”, and getting people to read your website is only the first step in changing the world. Focusing too much on publicity obscures real strategic goals. These struggles are newsworthy because people are fighting for a cause, not our attention, and once that changes things start to seem a little forced. When it becomes obvious that a group of demonstrators wanted only to be arrested or break stuff, it’s never quite as interesting. Beyond that, these actions are really frackin’ dangerous, and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.

How this all relates to debates about “violence” at protests is a really interesting question. Above all else, it certainly does lend some credence to the oft-made claim that the only reason protests get any coverage is because things get broken and people get hauled off. That does kinda suggest that the actions of the Black Bloc aren’t nearly as “unpopular” as often claimed, and that they’ve done a lot more for moderate groups than most would like to admit. It also suggests that police violence is a less popular than we might think, and that these actions are having a serious impact on public opinion of the justice system. None of this, of course, is any kind of “vindication” of one tactic or another – but it also can’t be ignored.

As someone who often writes about rioting, I must say, my own traffic sees the exact same patterns. Posts about riots get at least double the hits of others, and keep getting visits long afterward – seen most recently when I wrote about Quebec students. This kind of attention ensures that these confrontations will keep happening. When peaceful, thoughtful, polite protests get consistently ignored, while a few dozen rock-throwing vandals can capture the world’s attention, this kind of chaos is inevitable. Condemn them if you like, but you’re the ones tuning in every time it happens.

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