The week of December 28, 2014

7 things we learned the hard way from Ferguson

By Gillian Branstetter

Few topics revealed as much about American culture in 2014 than the events surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown—not to mention the ensuing deaths of Eric Garner and Tamir Rice. The failure to indict the officers who killed these three revealed deep fissures of mistrust and prejudice throughout our legal system. Far from merely occupying the news cycle, however, their deaths moved millions around the country to activism both on- and offline. Through every tweet, video, and livestream, activists have created the strongest movement that Americans have seen since the days of Occupy Wall Street.

The role social media and the Internet at large had in building and sustaining the issue of police violence can not be understated. From the YouTube video showing Eric Garner’s death to the movements centered around hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe, social media influenced the on-the-ground events as much as this movement has taught us about social media. Even as the news cycle moves on, what has been revealed will last well into 2015.

7) Black Twitter matters

The black community on Twitter is famously active and vibrant, be it for joke hashtags or fighting against prejudice. The saga of Justine Sacco showed the speed with which Black Twitter can act, and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen showed the massive reach and volatility it can obtain. It’s become part of the Twitter climate and, more importantly, given an increased role to African-Americans in online life. As the Washington Post wrote months before Ferguson, “It’s a radical demand for acceptance by simply existing—or sometimes dominating—in a space and being yourself, without apology or explanation.” The nationwide protests of the past few months have shown the value this increased level of visibility can have.

Even before a grand jury decided not to indict Darren Wilson for the death of Michael Brown, Black Twitter was alive with active planning for protests in Ferguson and across the country. Users like @deray and @Nettaaaaaaaa gave out locations and tips, set up text alert services, and helped to inform their respective tens of thousands of users. The Ferguson National Response Network quickly formed with protests in cities as varied as Los Angeles and Kalamazoo, all sprung out of the tight-knit quilt of black activists on Twitter. As Amma Marfo wrote in Talking Points Memo, “The tragedy of Ferguson is only the latest example of the power that this medium has given this community to affect their own change.”

If there were any doubts Twitter is where history unfolds, let them be squashed in 2015.

The infrastructure for such action has been around for years and served activists back in the days of George Zimmerman’s acquittal. The spark of Ferguson, however, showed how quickly this community can work with fervor, passion, organization, and efficiency.

6) Twitter is the perfect bullhorn

If there were any doubts Twitter is where history unfolds, let them be squashed in 2015. The loose, user-controlled nature of Twitter over the highly structured systems of Instagram or Facebook means it makes for a flawless landscape for informing others and driving them to action. In the words of Digiday’s John McDermott, “Facebook is for ice buckets, Twitter is for Ferguson.”

It’s a role Twitter is happy to play. Cofounder Jack Dorsey proudly hailed the events unfolding on his site, saying, “People want to feel like they’re there, and they want that sense of connection and it doesn’t matter if there’s a geographic boundary at all anymore.” In the less refined words of cofounder Ev Williams, “Important stuff breaks on Twitter and world leaders have conversations on Twitter. If that’s happening, I frankly don’t give a s**t if Instagram has more people looking at pretty pictures.”

Even with those strong words, however, one must question whether Dorsey and Williams understand how why Twitter has this over other social networks. The egalitarian approach Twitter has to content—allowing users to build their own chronological feeds—over Facebook has been put into question in the name of advertising dollars. As Zeynep Tufekci warned about this scary new future for Twitter, “would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?”

5) Filter bubbles are real—and dangerous

In fact, much of the Internet is built on the concept of giving you exactly the information you want—which may not be the information you need. Such “filter bubbles” are influenced by how Google organizes your search results or how Facebook shows you your News Feed. They lead you to the news and information that’s comfortable to you in the same way Pandora leads you to more of the music you like.

That’s a major problem for activists trying to inform and engage with people nationwide. Emma Pierson showed how, during the announcement by prosecutor Robert McCulloch that Darren Wilson would not face trial, Twitter quickly devolved into dueling echo chambers. There were lots of posts for the decision and even more against it, but communication between these views was almost nonexistent.

It’s not enough to simply sit around on social media with people who agree with you.

This affects more than just the atmosphere of social media. As Pew found earlier in the year, most people clam up when faced with dissenting opinions but happily engage in conversations with people they know agree with them. This creates a form of self-censorship can quell a social movement. Considering a recent study found just a 20-minute conversation can change someone’s mind on an issue as volatile as gay marriage, interconnectivity is vital to social change.

This is a major lesson for the future of activism. It’s not enough to simply sit around on social media with people who agree with you. Active engagement and outreach on Twitter and elsewhere is of tantamount importance, especially when you consider the massive benefit increased exposure can bring.

4) Livestreamers could reasonably replace breaking news coverage

As crowds marched through Manhattan after the refusal of trial for Eric Garner’s death, millions watched the events unfold thanks to the tireless work of dozens of livestreamers. When cable news is forced to the sidelines, livestreamers can find themselves right in the middle of a protest, offering that sense of “being there” Jack Dorsey hailed so happily.

While livestreaming a protest is nothing new (it was a stalwart face of the Occupy protests in 2011), 2014 is the year it began to be taken seriously, due in large part to the activism of Ferguson. While streaming is making stars out of Twitch users, it’s also revealing the treatment of protesters in real time.

In many ways, it’s very reminiscent of the role television played during the civil rights movement of the early 1960s. The popularity of the new medium means millions of Americans saw the events in Selma and Montgomery that same evening on the local news, likely helping to turn the tide of public opinion. When put side-by-side with images from the civil rights movement, the images and footage from Ferguson are uncanny and have equipped the public with the truth about what has happened there. In this way, livestreaming has allowed a large number of Americans to experience what the protesters experience, an enormous benefit when any report can be misconstrued.

The misuse of Humvees and military-grade tear gas should raise deep questions about the technology we are entrusting to police.

3) But traditional media still has a role to play

One of the biggest stories out of the initial protests from Ferguson was the harsh treatment many members of the press received. Reporters from the Washington Post and the Huffington Post were berated, abused, and arrested by the Ferguson Police Department, followed by mass arrests of reporters whom police kept in the “press pen.” Several news outlets had tear gas fired at them, with an Al Jazeera outfit having their equipment confiscated. While the behavior by the Ferguson Police Department was atrocious, it showed the value traditional journalists can have in moments like these.

While mass arrests were common in the early days of Ferguson, journalists hold a traditionally privileged position. It’s why the the poor treatment of the press was seen as such a grand escalation of events. That position—otherwise known as “freedom of the press”—must be maintained if such stories are going to reach mass audiences.

The line between journalist and citizen is constantly being blurred; the most important “journalist” of 2014 might be Ramsey Orta, the man who filmed Eric Garner’s death and uploaded it to YouTube. But the brazen behavior of police in Ferguson shows the value of a credential-holding journalist covering a protest. That’s not to mention the impartiality necessary when events are being narrated on Twitter and through livestreaming by protesters themselves.

2) Police need less, not more, technology

The militarization of police was one of the most popular stories brought to mainstream appeal by the events in Ferguson. Americans were shocked to see the same equipment used in Iraq and Afghanistan on the streets of an American suburb, pointed against American citizens protesting peacefully.

The misuse of Humvees and military-grade tear gas should raise deep questions about the technology we are entrusting to police. In the same way that heavy artillery and armor found its way into police departments from the Pentagon, law enforcement is also getting more and more acquainted with the surveillance tech of the National Security Agency.

There’s a deeply entrenched divide between law enforcement and the citizens they serve.

Perhaps most troubling were police discussions on new methods of crowd control. As Ferguson began to simmer, lawmakers in California proposed giving police a “kill switch” device that disables all cellphones in a certain area. The bill empowers officers with “emergency control,” meaning no court or warrant is necessary for police to shut down the connectivity of an entire crowd.

Considering it was social media and smartphones that made the nationwide protests possible, this should be very concerning. Police are equipping themselves in the name of anti-terrorism but itching to use them for either crowd control or censoring their own actions. While body cameras are a promising use of police tech, one must wonder whether even those will be abused—by departments withholding or editing footage—in the name of protecting law enforcement over the law. In the words of University of Chicago law professor Craig Futterman, “It’s a waste of time if it’s nothing more than a PR plot that’s designed to alleviate public pressure at a time of crisis.”

1) Sadly, it’s us versus them

There is perhaps no better argument for the strength of social media than the words of prosecutor Robert McCulloch: “The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything to talk about, following closely behind with the non-stop rumors on social media.”

This astonishingly tone-deaf response to the organized efforts of activists shows just how powerful activists can make themselves when armed with social media. When McCulloch calls the exposure of the behavior of Ferguson police “the most significant challenge,” that’s a good thing. Police should have a hard time of oppressing their citizens and prosecutors should have a hard time of denying Michael Brown’s family justice.

How could any observer see anything but a technological arms race?

And keep in mind: This came from the prosecutor of this case, the man used by the state to represent Michael Brown. His statement, combined with the antagonistic nature police had to being watched and recorded, reveal a deeply entrenched divide between law enforcement and the citizens they serve. And it’s not just in Ferguson: The NYPD has shown an almost callous response to protesters and Daniel Pantaleo, the officer who choked Eric Garner to death on camera, blatantly lies when he says, “I never used a chokehold.”

These aren’t the habits of a well-preserved society. Police are viewing the powers given to protesters by technology with disdain, breeding discontent by approaching a protest as an inherently antagonistic act. In the same beat, departments are buying up surveillance technology to combat the efficient use of smartphones and social media. How could any observer see anything but a technological arms race?

Whether the newfound tools of protesters are enough to sustain the nationwide protests against police violence into 2015 is yet to be seen. News cycles have very fickle attention spans, floating from one topic to another. Major news events in Sydney and Pakistan already threaten to push the protests within the U.S. off the front page.

What can be said for certain is activists have more power and readiness to act now in the face of new events. Protesters now turn to the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by a Cleveland police officer while playing with a toy gun, with more fervor, preparedness, and enthusiasm than ever before. For years, armchair sociologists have wondered whether online engagement in social issues can ever affect real-life action, rising above the slacktivist title. The events since August that have brought hundreds of thousands to the streets should lead them to wonder no more.

Photo by Rick Majewski/Twitter