I returned home to Cincinnati after visiting family in St. Louis the evening of Aug. 10, 2014. Hell was breaking loose in Ferguson. As a St. Louis-area native, I was eager to know what was happening. Coverage on cable news networks was limited, and so I took to the internet and then social media to get first-hand accounts of what was taking place in the wake of the shooting of an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown Jr. by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.
Following #Ferguson as it trended on Twitter throughout the months that followed, I became more curious, as a journalism professor, about how social media might affect the relationship between traditional news media and the public. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube provided a forum for a community in Ferguson and the public at large to tell their own stories about the shooting and challenge some of the images that tended to pervade national news.
This led to my current line of research with colleagues at University of Cincinnati’s Digital Scholarship Center, where we produced our first study that graphically illustrates how social justice groups and the public used social media to give personal meaning to the events that took place in Ferguson.
While hashtags that are proper names like #MichaelBrown and place names like #Ferguson are the first wave of hashtags that become viral, more engaging hashtags, like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, #HandsUpDontShoot, and #BlackLivesMatter dominated Twitter discourse in the long run. In examining the change in the hashtag behavior over time, we could also see where triggering events like the legal decision to not indict Darren Wilson, and the death of Eric Garner, registered large increases in Twitter activity about Ferguson, and appeared to have contributed to greater personalization of the event.
The hashtags #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #ICantBreathe were especially meaningful in that they framed the shooting as something relatable to individual contributors’ own lives and experiences. In these tweets, the shooting wasn’t something that just happened to another person (Michael Brown) and occurred in a specific place (Ferguson). Rather, what had happened to Michael Brown in Ferguson was relatable to each participant as a person — as if they gunned “me” down, or “I” can’t breathe.
By telling their own stories, on their own terms, Twitter users changed the conversation from one that focuses on basic story elements (people, places and events) to one in which the meaning of the event is more internalized. Using the #IfTheyGunnedMeDown hashtag, black Twitter users showed that police and legacy media might tend to characterize people based on appearance, whereas whites demonstrated an awareness of their own privilege. In similar situations, police and media do not necessarily make the same assumptions.
Analyzing Twitter activity around the events in Ferguson provides us a more vivid picture of what a social movement may look like as it develops off the conventional news media grid in coverage of strikes, protest marches and sit-ins. Civil rights organizations, such as the NAACP and National Urban League commonly use social media platforms in conversations about social justice issues. The inclusion of personal hashtags like the ones used in Ferguson broadened the scope of engagement to a larger group than the people immediately impacted by the events. Individuals of all colors personalized how racial stereotypes, or white privilege, were related to the shooting and therefore connected to social justice.
However, social media is not just a platform for giving voice to the marginalized. While social media has helped social justice advocates to be more effective storytellers, it also empowers hate groups and others who use these digital tools as form of intimidation through trolling, cyberbullying, and social media mobbing, in which targets are relentlessly barraged with insults, threats and vulgar memes intending to drown them out.
In our media-saturated world, more people than ever have the potential to be a storyteller through the use of social media and mobile streaming applications. While conversations taking place on social media are not necessarily driving the news cycle of traditional news media, social media platforms have emerged as an important venue to amplify more voices and give users the ability to disrupt, confront or counteract traditional narratives through their own storytelling.
Jeffrey Layne Blevins, a St. Louis area native, is an associate professor and head of the Journalism Department at the University of Cincinnati. His email address is Jeffrey.Blevins@UC.edu.