We hear a lot these days about how social media is a negative influence on society. It is a ‘time waster’, it destroys interpersonal relationships, and it encourages ‘cyberbullying’ and mental health problems. But that is just one side of the story. Social media, as well as the wider internet also connects people like never before, and allows them to share their stories of injustice with an audience of millions.
Indeed it is this very side of social media that came to the fore in the face of massive police overreach during the (still ongoing) Ferguson protests.
The small and impoverished community of Ferguson on the outskirts of the St Louis in the US was shocked by the killing of an unarmed black teen after an alleged scuffle with police. While it is unclear of the details of the boy’s death, bystanders have stated that they believe that the local police had no justification in the use of deadly force. What followed was several days of protest, where local residents clashed with police who they believed were protecting the identity of the cop involved in the killing.
While this situation is unfortunately not uncommon in the United States, what was unusual was the police tactics employed against the (mostly) peaceful protesters in Ferguson. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas, APCs and pepper spray to subdue the protests, while at the same time arresting journalists who attempted to document these actions. Despite this, the mainstream media was slow to begin covering these events in any meaningful way.
Luckily for the protestors, the internet provided the perfect tool for them to get their side of the story out. Several citizen journalists began documenting the entire event via live streams gaining thousands of views, while also others on the ground rapidly tweeted events as they unfolded. These citizen journalists not only risked being tear gassed or hit by rubber bullets, but also faced arrest from the police, who has seemed to have forgotten certain parts of the US Bill of Rights.
In conjunction with these journalists on the ground, a whole collection of concerned social media users began taking efforts to collate and document the reports coming out of Ferguson in a more accessible manner. Several Reddit users worked around the clock to curate a live thread on the protests and the police actions, an effort which drew in almost 10,000 viewers at its height. Alongside this, a veritable army of social media users took to their respective networks in order to share pictures and video of the scene as the ‘#Ferguson’ hashtag began to trend.
These actions enabled large sections of the community to witness key events and increase their level of revulsion towards what was going on. This included the deployment of military snipers on rooftops, the use of armoured vehicles that were developed for the Iraq War and the seemingly intentional gassing of an Al Jazeera American news crew as they prepared to film the police.
As well as bringing public attention to the issue, social media seems to have actually precipitated a change in the way the police are now dealing with the protests. The police chief who was formerly in change of the crackdown has since been taken off the case and replaced with a more respected state police captain, who has close ties to the community. He has since met with the community and attempted to ease their concerns. While protests have continued, they have stayed peaceful, and there have been no further attempts (to date) by the police to stop them.
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