Courts & Crime

Social media help take Ferguson protests national

A protester raises her hands in the street as police use tear gas to try to take control of the scene near a Ferguson Police Department squad car after protesters lit it on fire on Nov. 25, 2014
A protester raises her hands in the street as police use tear gas to try to take control of the scene near a Ferguson Police Department squad car after protesters lit it on fire on Nov. 25, 2014 TNS

Post-Ferguson protests are now viral, a hybrid of old school and new wave that can skitter in unpredictable directions.

On Friday, the fourth day following a grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, demonstrations are expected in cities nationwide. Some activists have been pushing for a boycott of the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday sales day.

Some demonstrations to date, such as a Tuesday evening rally at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, have been marked by public prayer and song. Others have been more kinetic, in cities such as Oakland, Calif. Taken together, all reflect the varied face of 21st century social protest.

“When you see people kneeling down on the highway, they’re trained to do that . . . it is just straight-up tactics from the civil rights movement,” James Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., said in an interview Wednesday. “But social media certainly has been a great tool.”

Twitter, the popular micro-blogging service, has been engorged with Ferguson-related postings. Between Tuesday and Wednesday, 580,000 Tweets citing Ferguson were counted by the analytical service Topsy. One targeted hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, was included in 72,000 Tweets in just one day.

Underscoring the reach of social media, prisoners at Boston’s South Bay Detention Facility held up signs reading “#BlackLivesMatter” to high-security windows. Other social media venues, such as Facebook, have likewise been aflame with Ferguson news and commentary. One page alone, called Justice for Mike Brown, had accumulated 43,934 “Likes” as of Wednesday.

“So many people are getting information from their friends or circles of people they know,” Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and a former CNN Washington bureau chief, said in an interview Wednesday. “What’s changed is word of mouth is much faster, more powerful. The amplifier role of social media has gotten bigger and louder.”

With its low cost and ease of use, social media enables anyone to become an organizer on the fly, and potentially reach a wide audience without help of a traditional organization. The Black Friday boycott, for instance, is the inaugural effort of a several-month-old group calling itself Blackout for Human Rights.

Founded by Ryan Coogler, director of the acclaimed film “ Fruitvale Station,” the group has used such social media tools as Tumblr, YouTube, Instagram and Facebook to attract activists.

“An affront to any citizen’s human rights threatens the liberty of all,” the group states on its website. “So, we participate in one of the most time honored American traditions: dissent.”

Traditional media, too, has fanned the flames of the Ferguson story, though some outlets have been more aggressive about it than others. CNN, for one, has had Ferguson updates on constant rotation, while Fox News has spread its attention more liberally across other topics.

Sesno said that traditional network and cable television are doing what they always do, “which is to amplify and project.” Particularly among the cable networks, new studies have confirmed, the different approaches to coverage can amount to preaching to the choir.

On Wednesday afternoon, Fox News reported on Ferguson developments above the summing-up phrase, “Number of protests this week centered on bashing capitalism.” Simultaneously, CNN was running a spot above the phrase, “Brown’s parents: ‘We don’t believe Officer Wilson.’”

The contrasting story frames seemed likely to confirm the predispositions of viewers forming impressions about the meaning of Ferguson, as a Pew Research Center study issued in October found that liberals and conservatives gravitate to news sources that each feel reaffirms their political views.

In the study, 47 percent of consistent conservatives cite Fox News as their main source for political and government news and expressed distrust of 24 of the 36 news sources Pew measured in the survey. Fox News ranked the highest among consistent conservatives at 88 percent.

“When you have a situation that’s so emotional and such a highly disputed account, the media become galvanizing forces,” Sesno said.

Peterson traced the marriage of social media and civil rights demonstrations to the 2006 “ Jena Six” case, in which six African-American Louisiana high school students were charged with attempted murder for allegedly beating a white classmate.

The severity of the charges against the teens was chronicled by the black blogosphere, which helped drive large national protests over the case and attracted the attention of the national media, Peterson said.

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