Over the last two weeks the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, have grown in size, fury, volume. and visibility. Camera phones have recorded not only the most shocking of images but largely the most timely and accurate. From Michael Brown’s dead body laying on the pavement to citizens being shot at with tear gas to Ferguson police pointing assault rifles at media and saying “I will f**king kill you” it has been the most graphic and emotional pictures and footage that has defined the narrative of the Ferguson uprising. It is a narrative that has called into question both the bias of our local and state police departments, as well as the legitimacy of mainstream media in a manner never before seen in America.
A large driver in all of this has been social media, most notably Twitter and picture/video sites like Instagram, Facebook, and Vine. Twitter in particular over the last week and a half has been instrumental in delivering information, commentary, and visuals as events unfolded. More often than not the news coming out of Twitter either corrected the erroneous reports from larger media outlets or were sourced by mainstream media directly becoming a repository for crowd-sourced news.
For Ferguson it’s no surprise that social sharing was key to highlighting the death of Michael Brown and subsequently documenting and distributing the aftermath of a small,mostly black town in the throws of chaos. Looking at the demographics of both Ferguson and Twitter it’s easy to see both the inevitability and the importance of social media activism.
Ferguson is a town that has gone through a radical population change over the last twenty years including a 20% leap in African-American residents between the 2000-2010 census resulting in African Americans making up 67% of the Ferguson population, many of them younger residents born during the initial influx.
As has been often reported, Ferguson is a city whose municipality doesn’t represent its populace. From the police force to the community board and elected officials, Ferguson’s city officials are almost exclusively white. This in part has resulted in a longstanding tension between Ferguson officials and its African-American residents with evidence of harrassment and brutality on the part of the police culminating in the death of Michael Brown.
As Brown’s lifeless body lay in the street uncovered for several hours, something began to happen in the periphery. Cell phones came out of pockets and shaky videos and photos of Brown and his shooter Officer Darren Wilson were shot and shared on social media with the hashtag #Ferguson. According to Pew Research, African Americans make up 48% of social media owners while 18-29 year olds make up 67% of mobile users. This cross section on the ground at Ferguson sending the gruesome imagery out on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Vine ensured that an injustice and in turn a protest would trend worldwide with #Ferguson-related tweets reaching 3.6 million on August 14th alone.
The Ferguson hashtag would become the main source of communication from those on the ground to the rest of the nation and the world as coverage by major networks would repeatedly be found inadequate or inaccurate. The hashtag is also widely used by those on the ground to communicate with one another and mobilize protests coverage and general town support.
It can be argued that without mobile technology, social media, and independent media on the ground covering and relaying information the events leading to and stemming from Michael Brown’s death might have never become a national focus.
For all of the woes assigned to social media, from rampant self-promotion to bullying, the need for peoples’ ability to self-report and in this case cry out for help may be the only way people have to find justice.