August 27th, 2014

Social media and instant news in #Ferguson


By Anna Christiansen

Details surrounding the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, surfaced at light speed through social media. Citizen reporting through social media outlets made it possible for the nation to experience Ferguson firsthand and voice their reactions along the way.

For many, the shooting of the unarmed black teen by white police officer Darren Wilson recalled the deaths of Trayvon Martin and other black teens. The event immediately spurred racial unrest and protests among residents of Missouri, with others soon flocking to join.

This geo-targeted heat map shows how many people were talking about Brown’s death on Twitter using the hashtag #Ferguson. It spans from the day of the shooting, when Twitter saw concentrated discussion in St. Louis, Missouri, to an explosion of tweets on Aug. 11, less than 72 hours after the killing. The news became a viral phenomenon shortly after.

Brown’s autopsy showed that the unarmed teen was shot six times. Various social media platforms featured pictures of an arms-raised “don’t shoot” pose. The act of surrendering soon became the defining symbol of the protests along with the hashtag #handsupdontshoot.

Howard University, a prominent historically black university, posted on Facebook a picture of their students gathered en masse to depict #handsupdontshoot.


Journalists also used social media platforms to publicize their treatment. Every major media outlet sent reporters to cover the situation and some reported pushback from local law enforcement. Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowry live-tweeted his arrest from inside a McDonalds where he was charging his phone. A local news affiliate captured a video of Al Jazeera America journalists getting tear gassed, which social media users widely shared.

Journalists flocked online to track the treatment of their colleagues by police. Some reporters kept track of how many journalists had been arrested on Twitter, reporting updates in real time.

People also used social media to criticize what some called the “militarization” of the police, who used crowd control tactics such as tear gas, smoke bombs and dogs. Protesters shared images of tankers, rubber bullets, heavy machinery, and riot grade defense mechanisms, spurring conversations about whether the use of resources was necessary.

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