Much like Apple has revolutionized the way we buy music, social media has changed the way we receive our news. Some are calling this the “post-televised news” age, meaning journalism, or what passes for it these days, is no longer exclusive to the professionals. In 140 characters or less, you too can report news from across the globe. As news unfolds faster and faster, and more opinions are entering the marketplace of ideas, social movements seem to be adapting to the social media age. I can only wonder how the Rodney King riots would have unfolded had Twitter existed in the 1990s. Can’t you just see the hashtag “#CantWeAllJustGetAlong” sitting at the top of the trending topics?
Over the last few weeks, the major topic on social media–besides the onslaught of ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos–has been the riots in Ferguson, MO. Earlier this week, the Wall Street Journal reported that close to 8 million tweets on the subject of the unrest had been sent between August 9 and August 18. That is roughly 4,400 tweets per minute. Whether they be expressions from afar or reports from on site, people cannot seem to stop talking about Ferguson.
In an August 22 article for the Financial Times, Hannah Kulcher reported that TV networks were woefully behind Twitter specifically, as over 1,000,000 tweets hit the web before CNN had even one full minute of coverage. This statistic, taken from the Pew Research Center, refers to the first appearance of the story on any medium.
Another recent violent protest driven by social media that comes to mind is the 2011 Arab Spring, which ultimately resulted in the ousting of long-standing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. In a study from 2011, just after the Arab Spring, the University of Washington looked at “more than 3 million tweets, gigabytes of YouTube content and thousands of blog posts, [only to find] that social media played a central role in shaping political debates in the Arab Spring.” Project leader Philip Howard said that online media provided a source for average citizens to play a role in the domestic political scene. Through social media, those in Northern Africa were able to create “a virtual ecology of civil society, debating contentious issues that could not be discussed in public.”
In looking at the events of Ferguson in August 2014 and the Arab Spring in 2011, one finds that social media can have a wildfire effect, yet yield drastically different outcomes. The protesters in the Arab Spring certainly did accomplish something, and whether or not it was good is up to you to decide. (Hint: It ended in the Muslim Brotherhood.)
The Arab Spring, though the world is still experiencing its after-effects, is mostly a thing of the past. Although the consequences are still unfolding in Missouri, this begs the question: what is to be said of Ferguson? Both are tragedies given the losses of life, but there is something unique to Ferguson. Unlike the Arab Spring or other area-specific events, people are traveling considerable distances to physically participate. According to an August 21 article from the Washington Post, over 20% of those arrested in the Ferguson riots were from out of state. As they were hearing about it from media outlets and from the internet, they were flocking to the scene to show solidarity with the native protesters without giving thought to the consequences.
This episode in Ferguson shows that we have become more careless about facts than ever before. Not that this is saying much for the culture already, but perhaps we have really hit the bottom this time. We will jump head over heels onto any bandwagon that makes us feel good, as we think that we can make a difference without giving much consideration as to what it is we are changing. We can influence the world with our opinion in 140 characters on a whim, and somebody will probably believe us. The anonymity that reigns as king in social media allows someone to light a fire and split from the scene. People will go ballistic, regardless of the validity of the claims being made.
I focus on Twitter as a platform for the common man’s journalism because it is architecturally designed to deliver content rapidly. Facebook registers interests within one’s personal life and with “likes.” Negative events like riots and terrorist attacks do not exactly elicit a “like.” Twitter, on the other hand, is quick and immediate. It allows the reader the text equivalent of a sound bite, which seems to be as much as the average attention span can handle these days.
The days of the popular news anchor’s extended narrative are on the decline. The time taken to think about stories and the facts at hand has been lost to knee-jerk reactions. Those knee-jerk reactions can turn into violent tragedies, if taken far enough. Perhaps if we took a little more time weighing the facts, we would be more careful about the actions we choose to take. After all, those actions can be the difference between life and death.