On August 9, 2014, in a town called Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager. TV news stations reported, “Riots continue Raging”. But Twitter roared with hashtags like #IfIWereGunnedDown and #IGotTheTalk, fighting injustice directly with social media activism. In the wake of the unrest occurring in Ferguson, one thing certainly became apparent – a new wave of information gathering is bursting at the seams. Though TV news stations, newspapers, and radios have been supplying us with information for years, the people have taken to social media to represent their own truth.
The Rise of Social Media (all information found here)
Social media has been steadily growing for decades. In 1985, American Online aired, and by 1997, the company allowed its user to chat from separate computers. In 1999, Friends Reunited, which is considered by many to be the first social media website, was created. Soon, websites like Facebook and MySpace took over the web, breaking out of the dawn of social media. By 2006, Twitter and YouTube had been launched, and so came the “holy trinity” of media: Facebook, which overpowered MySpace in 2008, YouTube, where millions of videos were viewed each day, and Twitter, the 140-character news-story platform for everyday people.
While the growth of social media had been on a steady rise since the 1980s, media had been well noticed before that. With Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1450, mass media took off. Soon came pamphlets, newspapers, novels, anything that could be printed and spread to the world. Then, as the years continued and more inventions became public, radios were installed into every home, eventually followed by the television. By the 1960s, society had been satiated with many ways to gather and process information, especially news stories.
It’s important to remember, however, that these two subjects, mass media and social media, are intricately interwoven, as social media is a mass medium. After the dot-com bubble, getting one’s news from social media sites became just as effortless, if not more, than finding news on the television or radio. As we continue to progress forward with our advancements in technology, that line of difference in news sources continues to be more and more blurred. Take, for instance, the shooting of Michael Brown.
Timeline of Events in Ferguson (source found here)
August 9th– Michael Brown was shot and killed by a member of the Ferguson Police Department.
August 10th– Protests begin in the city of Ferguson, mostly led by Brown’s friends and family. By night time, anger runs high in the town, and riots begin to spark. Police officers respond by using tear gas to control the crowds. 32 civilians are injured.
August 11th– The people of Ferguson continue to protest. This time, in addition to protesting the killing of the unarmed teenager, they also protest their unfair treatment during protesting, fed up with being shot by rubber bullets and gassed out with tear gas. The police force responds with even greater measures, sending in SWAT units and an armored vehicle.
August 12th– The FBI begins to look into the shooting; investigating for any civil rights issues. President Obama gives a public announcement; giving his condolences and wishing everyone express their emotions in a healing way, rather than a harmful way.
August 13th– SWAT teams are deployed into the city. Journalists gather in the protests to document and report on what’s happening via twitter and other social media sites. Two journalists, Wesley Lowery and Ryan Reilly, are arrested while charging their phones in a local McDonalds.
August 15th– Ferguson Police release the name of the officer who fatally shot Brown – Darren Wilson.
August 16th– Governor Nixon decrees a curfew and urges citizens to remain indoors from midnight to 5am. He states the curfew will be enforced peacefully. The night ends with seven arrests and one man in critical condition after being shot.
August 17th– Details of Brown’s death are released to the public, including an official medical examination, which shows that Brown had been shot six times from the front, including one from the top of his skull. The police force worry this will cause greater unrest, and subsequently try to regulate peaceful protests happening before curfew with excessive amounts of tear gas and rubber bullets. A student working with the local radio is held at gunpoint by a police officer, who was unwilling to be recorded on camera.
August 18th– Gov. Nixon calls in the National Guard in order to restore the city. The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy on Brown, Dr. Michael Baden, reports that the placement of the shots indicates that there was no sign of a struggle. He urges the city to further examine and evaluate Darren Wilson.
For weeks after, Ferguson remained in the center of news sharing on social media. Citizens continued protesting their police force, even as late as October 20th, when State Senator Jamilah Nasheed was arrested for blocking traffic. Though the coverage of Ferguson has exponentially quieted down since August, the city still runs in dismay.
Media Coverage during Ferguson Unrest
“Absurd coverage of police, Ferguson unrest and African-Americans” Fox News posted on August 19th. “Caller says she has the officer’s side of the Ferguson shooting” headlined CNN the same day. But real people, real citizens of Ferguson and their supporters, flocked to Twitter and used the hashtag #Ferguson to tell their side. While national news outlets require a careful amount of time processing what information they receive, and then even more carefully promoting it in accordance to the image they’ve created for themselves, outlets like Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube upload information and perspectives that big name news corporations could never air. However, with unmonitored usage of social media, bias is bound to occur. With opinionated tweets and Facebook posts, there will always be one-sidedness. But concerning Ferguson, it wasn’t just the messages the public was receiving, but the images and videos that made a difference.
Right Now in #Ferguson
Antonio French, a St. Louis alderman, is an excellent example of those who use social media to inform and educate. He used his Twitter and Vine accounts to show the public what was happening “Right Now in #Ferguson”. He recorded many six-second long video clips, including a video of his own arrest. He was a staple in recording and reporting, without showing much bias or opinion in the tweets themselves. Simply, “Happening Now” or “#Ferguson” was stuck on to the photos and videos. The photos and videos spread massively, many times being reinterpreted into something different each time, but French fought to keep representing the people of Ferguson. On August 12th, French posted a Vine video with the caption “Crowd is leaving. Peacefully.” His efforts are summed up excellently by a twitter reply to that same post. Twitter user DaFuturMrKc replied, “I thank you for keeping me Updated. I really want to be there with them. This is what America needed to witness.” Following this reply, the same user made another reply saying, “keep reporting even when National News won’t… Thank you.”
Another crucial part of the activism that occurred in the midst of the Ferguson unrest was a new phenomenon many refer to as “Hashtag Activism”. Examples of this surrounding Ferguson at the time were “#IfIWereGunnedDown” and “#IGotTheTalk”. In the If I Were Gunned Down tag, many black citizens posted two photos of themselves side by side. One side would have a picture of the twitter user shown in a societally acceptable light; for instance, a picture of the user in a cap and gown or business suit. On the other side, however, would lie a picture of the same user in a less flattering light, often times smoking, drinking, or wearing baggy and “questionable” clothing. The point of this tag is to ask the public, “If I were gunned down, which picture would they use on the news?” Many black twitter users argued that it would be the more unflattering of the two, based on the recent “thuggification” of black youths in the news.
The second tag, #IGotTheTalk, refers to the effect that the Ferguson shooting, and discrimination in general, had on black families. Many families sat down with their children after, and explained to them that law enforcement is often unfair and biased. One twitter user, Elon James White, posted on the day of the shooting, “#IGotTheTalk at age 9. My mother told me if stopped by the cops don’t even pull out my student ID because they might think I had a gun & shoot”.
Many people argue that Hashtag Activism is more like “Slacktivism”, criticizing twitter users on the fake façade of their volunteering. One tweet with one opinion won’t change the world, some may say. But is that true? While it is fair to criticize the lack of resources we send to those in needs, spreading awareness is also important. If one person with 100 followers posts a hashtag with a personal story or opinion, there’s a relatively good chance that one of their followers may be inspired by the post and subsequently create one of their own. The chain can continue, until the majority of Twitter users are familiar with the hashtags, and thus, the subjects behind them.
This, in short, is how social media is influencing our intake of news. In mass media, like newspapers or TV news stations for instance, we become informed through other people’s analysis or outlook on a situation. But, with the easily accessible availability of social media, we are allowed to see firsthand accounts and make our own firsthand opinions. As shown with the coverage of Michael Brown’s shooting, everyone has the opportunity to be a journalist today. Even if that journalism is under 140 characters.