Invisibilia: The Online Version Of Us Versus Reality

Mar 15, 2019
Originally published on March 15, 2019 12:10 pm
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Photos on Instagram and Facebook - are they real life, or, really, are they images we use to pose as we want our lives to be? Well, that is a question that comes up in everyday life and also in the courtroom. In this week's episode, NPR's Invisibilia looks at how the law blurs image and reality. Here's Invisibilia co-host Hanna Rosin.

HANNA ROSIN, BYLINE: Is it so imprinted in your memory that you can describe exactly what's going on in the photo? Like, what color are your shorts?

JARRELL DANIELS: So my boxers were purple.

ROSIN: Oh. (Laughter) It is, like, etched in your head.

This is Jarrell Daniels. He's now 24, but the picture he's describing was taken in the fall of 2012 when he was 18.

DANIELS: So I had a tank top tucked inside of my boxers. My pants were sagging below my waist.

ROSIN: In the picture, he's standing in a stairwell with two other people. The boy standing next to him, Ronald, is shirtless, covered in tattoos. They're all flashing hand signals.

DANIELS: I had two hand signs up on both my left and right hand. My co-defendant - he was in the photograph with me.

ROSIN: Co-defendant. I was struck by how easily that word came out of his mouth. That's a sign that what that photo became over the last six years, how it was read and interpreted by police and the New York tabloids, had seeped into Jarrell's own brain and changed even his view about what was real and not real in his own teenage life...

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ROSIN: ...Because at the time the picture was taken, that other guy in the photo was definitely not his co-defendant. He was Jarrell's best friend. They took care of each other in their teen years. And they also got themselves in trouble. They skipped school, smoked weed. And one night, Jarrell shot a guy. He says it was a spur-of-the-moment thing - a fight in a laundromat that got out of hand. The guy Jarrell shot survived. Nobody snitched. And it seemed to Jarrell like the whole thing would be forgotten, until...

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The initiative is dubbed Operation Crew Cut because it focuses on loosely affiliated gangs called street crews.

ROSIN: In 2012, the New York police were trying out this investigative tool that was used in other parts of the country. To get ahead of the violence in certain neighborhoods, they trolled through social media sites. They would track who was hanging out together, who was posting pictures with what kind of hand symbols. The police were playing a long game - use social media to help build a picture of a street gang, and then arrest a big group of offenders all at once.

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ROSIN: For Jarrell, that meant that 14 months after the shooting at the laundromat, he got arrested at a house party, charged with attempted murder and multiple counts of conspiracy - gang conspiracy - that he was in a criminal street gang known as WTG. And that photo in the stairwell was part of a stack of documents used to help show that Jarrell was part of the gang.

When was the next time the picture washed back up in your life?

DANIELS: Well, my mother mailed me a copy of the news article when I was sitting on Rikers Island in C-74 in the adolescence division. I remember looking at the caption that The New York Post put inside of it. They said throw the book at them.

ROSIN: Given the weight of the charges, Jarrell decided to plead guilty.

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ROSIN: But were Jarrell and his friends in a gang? They had a name, WTG. They made gang signs. And they posed like gangsters, like stars in the movie of their own life. And in their lose friend group, some were convicted of crimes. But in Jarrell's mind, that didn't mean they were some organized criminal enterprise.

DANIELS: We didn't have any handshake, any codes or any specific way that we did anything. We were teenagers.

ROSIN: The place they looked most like a real gang was online. This has become a tactic used in courts all over the country - use pictures of teens posing and talking like gangsters as evidence of organized gang violence.

How should we think about that?

DESMOND UPTON PATTON: I'm terrified - not just for young people. I'm terrified for all of us that things that we say and do online could be so easily misconstrued.

ROSIN: This is Desmond Upton Patton, a professor at Columbia University. Desmond has a lab where he tracks how violence starts on social media. He knows it's a problem, but he's still wary of how police use social media to round up dozens of black teens at a time.

PATTON: And what I'm really concerned about, to be very honest, is, is social media a new apparatus for mass incarceration that we're just not aware of?

ROSIN: In the indictment that Jarrell was a part of, 10 people were charged with gang conspiracy. Most of them took plea bargains, and the two who did go to trial were found guilty. Jarrell himself was sentenced to six years. And here's the thing. That photo that got Jarrell in trouble - it actually had a really complicated backstory.

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ROSIN: At the time he took the photo, Jarrell's mom had convinced him to join a Job Corps program, which was far from home. At the program, he went to school from 8 to 2 and worked at McDonald's from 3 to 10. And then sometimes on weekends, he would race home to see his old friends. That's what he was doing on that day in the stairwell with his best friend.

DANIELS: You know, we was excited to see each other. We did a man embrace, which is a hug.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSIN: Standing there in the building where they both used to live, they took the picture.

DANIELS: I actually had my whole McDonald's uniform on, and that's the reason why I took the shirt off. Like, that's not something that would get any likes, and I wanted the attention.

ROSIN: So one way of reading that picture - gang. And another...

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ROSIN: ...The picture represented the moment Jarrell had left the neighborhood and the violence and started to get his life together. It was him looking back with nostalgia.

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ROSIN: I asked Jarrell why he didn't fight the charges against him. He says it was because, even then, he knew that he couldn't win because the image of him as part of a large criminal enterprise would eclipse everything else.

DANIELS: Because when law enforcement presents this evidence to them, anybody in their right mind would say this is bad; we have to get these people off the street.

ROSIN: And that's the problem with these images. They create a reality of their own.

Do you think any of us should be held responsible for how we present ourselves in images?

DANIELS: I believe that that image that you display on social media - everybody should understand that that's not who you fully are.

ROSIN: But he also knows that you have to be wary, that these days, especially, the image can carry more weight than the facts on the ground.

So what's on your social media now?

DANIELS: Usually don't post a picture unless I'm speaking publicly somewhere or...

ROSIN: (Laughter).

DANIELS: ...I'm in a suit.

ROSIN: Really? Like, in a suit - you have to be in a suit. Why?

DANIELS: Because I understand that social media can be used against me. And I put the image out there as if I'm living a certain lifestyle, as if I'm a successful adult when, really, I'm still sleeping at home on my mother's couch.

(LAUGHTER)

ROSIN: Jarrell Daniels is now out of prison. He takes classes at Columbia University.

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ROSIN: Hanna Rosin, NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.