How Twitter is getting it right in Ferguson

The Guardian’s Jon Swaine talks with Hari Sreenivasan about social media’s impact on his reporting.

When Washington Post reporter Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly were arrested Wednesday night in Ferguson, Missouri — an incident that even President Barack Obama commented on during a press conference Thursday — the news broke first on Twitter.

The two reporters were camped out at a McDonald’s alongside other reporters who had taken a break to recharge their phone batteries. Lowery and Reilly tweeted about the SWAT team’s arrival at the restaurant — Lowery filmed his conversation with one of the officers and Reilly tweeted that they were being ordered to leave the building.

It was then that The Guardian’s Jon Swaine picked up their story and conveyed to the public that the two reporters had been arrested.

The details surrounding the Ferguson riots — a reaction to the shooting death of an unarmed teen at the hands of the Ferguson police — have spread via a social media-first cycle. News of the the riots’ eruption Sunday night hit Twitter feeds before news wires, as did reports of tear gas being used in the face of peaceful protesters.

In a phone interview with Hari Sreenivasan, Swaine said social media has allowed him to immediately share stories coming out of Ferguson, like he did with the arrests of Lowery and Reilly, and the tear-gassing of Al Jazeera journalists later that same evening.

Conversely, social media has helped his reporting, ensuring that he be at the right place at the right time.

“You obviously can’t be at all places at all times,” so relying on the eyes and ears of other reporters and Ferguson residents has given him the ability to virtually watch everything at once.

The flip-side to relying on social media is that, of course, not all social media is reliable.

Earlier Thursday, the international “hacktivist” group Anonymous claimed to have the name of the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

The Anonymous Twitter account was ultimately suspended for releasing the sensitive — and unverified — information. Swaine said that in such a case, social media should be used as “an old-fashioned” tip-off, that must be checked before being reported.