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Social media plays major role in national debate on police violence

July 15, 2016 at 2:12 PM EDT
Last week, news broke on social media on the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and of police officers in Dallas. Platforms like Facebook Live provided audiences with a front row seat to violent and graphic imagery that sparked national debate about police brutality and race relations in America. At the same time, social media provided a platform for messages of support and pleas for unity. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

Read the full transcript below: 

HARI SREENIVASAN: Alton Sterling struggling beneath police, shot dead. The entire scene captured on nearby cell phones.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Diamond Reynolds, sitting in the passenger seat of a car broadcasting live on Facebook, just after police shot her boyfriend Philando Castile. She calmly narrates as the officer still had his gun drawn just outside the car window.

OFFICER: I told him not to reach for it. I told him to get his hand open.

DIAMOND REYNOLDS: You told him to get his ID, sir, his driver’s license. Please don’t tell me my boyfriend just went like that.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The next day, reports of the shootings at the protest in Dallas quickly spread across social media. A post on Twitter read, “Police have stopped the protest. Shots have been fired.” And cell phone videos found their way onto T.V.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: There’s something about video that transforms an event.

HARI SREENIVASAN: David Folkenflik is the media correspondent for National Public Radio. He says these videos quickly take on national significance.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: You get a lot of conversation, people trying to figure out what is going on. And you also see a lot of anger, of hurt, of pain, of anguish, of fairly unvarnished emotions coursing through your streams on Twitter, on Facebook, on other social media platforms.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The hashtag #BlackLivesMatter began trending online as it has after so many such videos, but this time it began mobilizing people on the streets in the real world.

PROTESTER: Black lives matter!

HARI SREENIVASAN: The protests were recorded and in turn appeared back online. But you might have missed them unless you or your friends were already following the conversation or paying attention to excessive uses of force.

PROTESTERS: Hands up, don’t shoot. Hands up, don’t shoot.

CHARLTON McILWAIN: Much of that same kind of polarization is happening online. So we still have that echo chamber we get our news in the place that we like to get our news to tell us we what we want to hear.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Charlton McIlwain, a professor of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University, says the tenor of the conversation shifted after the shootings of police officers in Dallas.

CHARLTON McILWAIN: And I think when Dallas happen what you start to see is that conversation completely turn to cops as the primary victims and then folks on the other side as the villains really.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Angry tweets denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement spread quickly online. With messages like, “Clearly the rhetoric of Black Lives Matters encouraged the sniper that shot Dallas police officers” and “You did this Obama, you did this liberals, you did this Black Lives Matter.” At the same time, anti-cop messages like “Don’t feel bad for those pigs.” and “I’m glad 11 cops were shot. They need to know how we feel.”

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: There is a din and a cacophony that emerges, its loud, its clanging, it is often very much in conflict, people agreeing with each other, kind of pumping one another up.

CHARLTON McILWAIN: And then you just end up in a polarized conversation where no one’s going to listen to each other and everyone is just going to get more angry.

HARI SREENIVASAN: While parts of social media highlighted the differences between people, these same platforms became the space for an outpouring of support to a grieving nation.

WOMAN ON STREET: I appreciate you.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Images of people hugging Dallas law enforcement, were viewed more than 36 million times …the video of a Dallas police officer the day after the attack, got more than 7 million views.


WOMAN: I love you too.

HARI SREENIVASAN: He also had this message.

BRIAN WOODWARD: Always remember, I refuse to see hate live while love dies. I refuse to see hate live while love dies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Charlton McIlwain says, these moments that connect people have an important place in the national conversation.

CHARLTON McILWAIN: I think they help kind of re-humanize the situation. They help sort of become a kind of counter narrative that says look we don’t have to see protesters and cops as polar ends of a conversation or antagonistic parties with antagonistic interests.