Social Media Brings Ferguson to the World

In the months since, Ferguson community leaders used social media to urge peace and organize crowd-minders.

by John Timpane, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS) / November 26, 2014

The night of Ferguson was a study, according to someone who is there, in "how social media make everything everyone's business, whether you want that or not."

Ferguson Democratic Committeewoman Patricia Bynes, speaking by phone from the St. Louis suburb, said social media -- "Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Vimeo, YouTube" -- had helped local people share their fears and feelings. "It has kept the conversation going," she said, "and it has helped inform people about the evidence and circumstances."

Bynes said she also thinks social media helped export the conflict and meaning of Ferguson to the rest of the world. Ferguson was and is everybody's business -- in a way news has never been before.

Monday night, as an initially peaceful protest in the St. Louis suburb turned to violence, with a dozen buildings burned and 60 arrested, Ferguson became more than a neighborhood demonstration over a grand jury decision: It expanded into a national night of witness and protest.

This night had been prepared for months. Remember: This was one story in which the public was ahead of big media. According to the Pew Research Center, more than one million tweets with #Ferguson hashtags were traded between Aug. 9, when Michael Brown was killed, and CNN's first prime-time story on Ferguson, on Aug. 12.

In the months since, Ferguson community leaders used social media to urge peace and organize crowd-minders. "We've seen a lot of creativity in Ferguson, as with other social-movement uses of social media," says Mark Lashley, assistant professor of communication at La Salle University. "There's a mix of humor and seriousness, as you also see in protests in Hong Kong and Mexico."

According to tracker site Trendsmap, as of Monday morning the hashtag #Ferguson was buzzing all over the world, and from coast to coast, with major spikes in Missouri, of course, but also along the I-95 corridor between Philadelphia and New York City, and in Florida and Southern California. People were ready.

Bynes says that thanks to social media, "people felt the shock we in this community felt, when they started seeing images of Michael Brown's body in the street uncovered, and it kept being retweeted and people kept seeing it. For others it was images of the mother and stepfather at the scene. They saw the agony happening right there. It's just been a storm ever since, as it should be."

On Tuesday, organized by local and national social-media campaigns, largely peaceful protests were launched throughout the country. In Philadelphia, growing as it went, a demonstration wound from City Hall to Temple University to Rittenhouse Square. This, too, showed the lightning-fast power of social media. Chris Krewson of BillyPenn.com tweeted that an early USA Today report of a no-indictment for Officer Darren Wilson was "being repeated at the Philly protest -- social media is spreading #Ferguson before the cable nets."

In New York, the Rev. Al Sharpton gave a speech in Harlem, and a large crowd marched from Union Square to Times Square -- where Police Chief Bill Bratton was sprayed with fake blood -- then to Columbus Circle. In Chicago, hundreds marched from the police station through town, sans much violence.

It had its spectacular side. The Brooklyn Bridge and the Triborough were briefly shut down in New York, as was Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. (In Philadelphia, protesters tried to shut down I-95 but were turned away by police.) In Los Angeles, protesters shut down chronically constipated I-110, which plows through the heart of the city, backing it up for miles in a glowing, snaking jam. In Oakland, Calif., demonstrators shut down I-580. Oakland's was one of the more violent demonstrations, with 40 people arrested and widespread property damage.

And at the gates of the White House, Jennifer Bendery tweeted: "At least 200 ppl chanting at the WH right now. 'How many black kids will you kill? Michael Brown! Emmett Till!' "

As all these things happened, people posted and tweeted all over the world. According to the tracking site Topsy, more than 3.2 million tweets using #Ferguson were posted between Monday and Tuesday afternoons, more than 771,000 for #FergusonDecision, and hundreds of thousands more for #MichaelBrown and #BlackLivesMatter.

It was a night of ironic, iconic images. One was of a cheery "SEASONS GREETINGS" in lights strung above serried ranks of SWAT teams striding through tear gas. But what may be remembered longest is the face of President Obama asking for calm -- while split-screened with wild street scenes from Ferguson. Cultural commentator Lee Rosenbaum tweeted: "One of TV's most surreal moments ever. Split screen: Obama preaching peaceful solutions; scenes of tear gas, fires, smashed glass. #Ferguson."

Exactly how is this all different from, say, the civil-rights demonstrations of the 1950s to 1970s? Didn't people say, "The whole world is watching," back then? Yes, they did. But as many remarked on Tuesday, today it's really true, in real time. The world was watching on live TV -- BBC, Al Jazeera, China's CCTV, Russia's RT, and France 24.

But the truly new, truly now, thing is this: The world could respond. Instantly. And it did. A survey of hundreds of tweets from all over the world suggests that, to these tweeters at least, the no-indictment decision of the grand jury was yet another racist episode in American history. The French justice minister, Christine Taubira, tweeted: "How old was #Mickael Brown18. #TrayvonMartin17. #TamirRice? 12. How old next? 12 month? 'Kill them before they grow' Bob Marley ChT."

Many headlines reflected that feeling. Germany's Die Zeit Online led simply with "Das Ist Nicht Richtig" -- "It's Not Right." And the Times of India ran a front-page headline you'd never see in the United States: "Ferguson Shooting: US Erupts in Black Anger Over Clean Chit to White Cop."

Ferguson night is not over. Rallies were planned in Ferguson, Philadelphia, Princeton, New York, Toronto, and elsewhere. High-profile tweets have come from celebrities like Spike Lee, and star athletes like LeBron James, who posts a picture of Brown walking with Trayvon Martin with the message: "As a society how do we do better and stop things like this happening time after time!! I'm so sorry to these families. Violence is not the answer people. Retaliation isn't the solution as well. #PrayersUpToTheFamilies #WeHaveToDoBetter."

And, now that the evidence before the grand jury has been released, people are evaluating it. One response has been the hashtag #ThingsMoreHurtThanDarrenWilson, which, once again mixing deadly seriousness with satire, questions the seriousness of the officer's injuries.

At midday Tuesday, according to Trendsmap, among the top 20 Philadelphia-area trending terms on Twitter were riots, indictment, #MikeBrown, Obama, testimony, CNN, prosecutor, #BlackLivesMatter, looting -- and racism.

©2014 The Philadelphia Inquirer