GS Student Advocates to End Use of Social Media in Legal System with VR Project

July 16, 2020

Jarrell Daniels, a sociology undergraduate student who enrolled at GS last fall, began working with the SAFE Lab on the Digital Arrest project over two years ago. Fueled by his passion for criminal justice reform, Daniels became a research assistant and has assisted in the development of a virtual reality (VR) experience that aims to address how urban youth, and young Black and Latinx men in particular, are often labeled and identified as gang members through online surveillance by law enforcement agencies. The project demonstrates how youth use social media to express themselves and how this can be misinterpreted, leading to legal consequences and impacts on public perception. The lab recently hosted a soft launch for the VR experience, soliciting feedback from over 75 guests, including prominent researchers and faculty across the Columbia community. 

“We wanted to explore the relationship between social media and the criminal justice system, and the ways that it may perpetuate violence and the issues surrounding this,” said Associate Professor Desmond Patton, Director of the SAFE Lab. “Through the virtual reality world we built, we hoped to create an experience that could highlight this issue and use it as an educational tool. Jarrell’s life is showcased and allows us a ‘window’ into the experience.”

Jarrell Daniels, GS Undergraduate Student

The Digital Arrest team, including writers, 3-D artists, and more, created an avatar and virtual landscape inspired by Daniels’s personal story as a teenager, when prosecutors used his Facebook and Instagram accounts as evidence to help convict and sentence him to six years in prison at just 17 years old. During the launch, attendees got a preview of what the final VR experience will entail including Daniels’s avatar examining a graffitied wall and photographs of his loved ones, checking his notifications and messages, and posting on social media. 

“Once we developed the script, we worked to create 3-D environments that were as authentic, truthful, and close to his experience as possible,” said Leah Roh, the lead 3-D artist on the project. “We chose to build out scenes depicting his childhood home and neighborhood.”

Acknowledging that prosecutors often use social media as a means to build criminal profiles against youth through misinterpretation, stereotyping, and racial profiling, it was important for the team that the elements in the VR world worked together to humanize Daniels by contextualizing his online persona within the realities of his upbringing and experiences. 

“How someone is perceived or how they present themselves on social media is not an accurate representation of who a person is in the real world, and it is not who people have the potential to be,” said Daniels. “People have the potential to grow and evolve.”

In addition to targeting individual bias within the legal system with Digital Arrest, Daniels and Patton also spoke to using the VR experience to advocate for the end of the use of technology such as Clearview, an artificial intelligence tool used by law enforcement agencies to identify perpetrators and victims of crimes that often provides wrongful identification of people of color. 

“I see this as a unique opportunity that’s unfolding at the height of legislative advocacy efforts to hold police accountable for their acts of injustice,” said Daniels. “Digital Arrest is more than a VR, animated experience, it is a tool that can be leveraged to change the narrative surrounding youth of color and the way they’re often perceived in a negative, hyper-racialized way.” 

The SAFE Lab plans to continue expanding the narrative presented within the VR world and working with partners to determine how the tool can be used once it has been completed to make the greatest impact.

“In the coming year, I hope this simulation will serve as an educational training requirement for all law enforcement agencies. In addition, I will personally conduct workshops and presentations at middle and high schools, community centers, and organizations, using the VR experience to provide an example to help youth understand their own digital footprint and how it can and will be used against them in court,” said Daniels.

Jarrell Daniels in Digital Arrest VR Experience