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Did social media make the situation in Ferguson better or worse?

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Nothing highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of social media quite like a breaking news event, where rumors and misinterpretations appear alongside official accounts and expert analysis in a giant stew of instant commentary. That’s been the case ever since a police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in Ferguson, Missouri on August 9, and it continued on Monday night following news of the decision by a grand jury not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

In what even some legal experts said was an unusually combative speech about the decision not to charge Wilson with a crime, St. Louis county prosecutor Robert McCulloch spent a considerable amount of time — before he even got to announcing the decision — criticizing social media and “the 24-hour news cycle” for complicating the Brown case.

According to McCulloch, erroneous witness accounts that were circulated through social media — including some that said Wilson shot Brown in the back while he was standing over him, or that he was killed while he had his hands raised in surrender — made it more difficult for the grand jury to come to a decision, and exacerbated the tension in the community.

A double-edged sword

Is there some truth to the prosecutor’s criticism? Of course there is. Twitter and Facebook inevitably extend the reach of false information and incorrect assumptions, just as they do with true information and correct assumptions. That’s the reality of a world in which anyone can publish their thoughts instantly and potentially reach a large audience, and it has always been a double-edged sword — as incidents like the hunt for the Boston bomber have shown.

As more than one person has pointed out in response to McCulloch, however, that same ability has also allowed more information about the Ferguson shooting to emerge than would ever have been possible before — including information that the police department and the district attorney’s office might not want circulated, such as eyewitness reports and evidence.

Those same tools have also allowed black residents of Ferguson and plenty of other towns across the United States to talk about what it’s like to lose loved ones in police shootings, or to live in fear of their lives, or to not have their version of events taken seriously because they are the wrong color or because they are not from a police family, as Ferguson prosecutor McCulloch is.

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A larger truth

In the early days following the shooting, a number of different versions of the events circulated: some said Brown wasn’t threatening at all, and that Wilson shot without provocation, or that he killed the teenager while he was running away. Autopsy results were released that showed young man had been shot 12 times, including what appeared to be several shots to the head, and that seemed like too many for an incident involving an unarmed man.

According to the testimony and evidence presented to the grand jury, many of these stories have turned out to be untrue — there is no evidence that Brown was shot in the back, and there are injuries and other signs that show he struggled with Wilson while he was in the police car. Some witnesses said he was charging towards the officer when he was shot.

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That said, almost all of the evidence and testimony confirms that Brown was shot more than 10 times, and that he was unarmed — and that he was at least 30 feet away and probably more when the final shots were fired and he collapsed in the street and died. In other words, for many the central truth of the case has been proven: Wilson shot and killed an unarmed black teen even though his life didn’t appear to be in imminent danger.

More info is better

In an earlier time, much of the information about the case would only have come to light months or even years later, as a result of leaks from the prosecutor’s office or interviews with eyewitnesses and jurors — if it ever came to light at all. Were things better then? It’s likely that police departments and district attorneys think so, but it’s not clear that this kind of freedom of information (both correct and incorrect) has been a net negative for society.

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As it has with so many other events, such as the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt or the more recent demonstrations in Turkey and Ukraine, social media connects us to others who are experiencing things we may know nothing about, and allows us — if we want to — to gather much more information than we would have had before, and to come to our own conclusions about who is right and who is wrong.

That may take effort, but it is more possible than it has ever been. And while it may make it difficult for grand juries or police departments, as the Ferguson prosecutor argued in his speech, in the long run more information is almost always better — especially when it comes from people who are the closest to the situation. What we choose to do with that information once we get it is up to us.

8 Responses to “Did social media make the situation in Ferguson better or worse?”

  1. Ian Gertler

    Very subjective question, but at the end of the day it is really based on the factors being used to judge this. Some may think that the reports serve as a prompt for certain behaviors, while others value the importance in knowing what’s happening in real-time directly from sources. Like anything, there will be pros, cons and opportunity costs. I do hope we can start working together better and respecting people’s differences, rather than punishing for them. We can all improve. **Optimistic, yet realistic.**

  2. Twitter is a popular tool for conjuring leftist outrage in America the same way it stirred up the Arab spring and gave rise to worse actors than already existed in the middle east like the muslim brotherhood and ISIS. Fergusson is a perfect example of how activists and community organizers use social media to stir civil disobedience and justify vengeful ‘social justice’ over targeted political issues like police ‘brutality’, but they diminish and completely ignore even trivialize the much bigger problems of inner-city, black on black and gang violence. In this case it’s just another way socialists keep African Americans angry and hopeless with lies, jet puffed historical revisionism and contention.

    • Khalil H. Bey

      You seem well-meaning enough. Where shall we start….
      + Ferguson is firmly suburbia, not inner-city. (That’s why it’s not called St Louis.)
      + Ferguson doesn’t have a gang problem… at least not one the PD has mentioned.
      + “Socialists” are not the Pied Pipers of Black People. We actually have minds.
      + Sure you can blame Twitter for ISIS. You can also blame the Walkman for the Ayatollahs. (Look it up.) But blaming the Arab spring is sorta like blaming Thomas Paine for the Napoleonic Wars.
      + Muslim Brotherhood was est’d in 1928 (hint: pre-Twitter) and rules exactly zero countries today.

      In all seriousness, please show me which old media outlets are doing this superior job of covering “the much bigger problems of inner-city, black on black and gang violence.” I’m quite certain I’ve not been watching the same TV channels you have. The only recent coverage of gangs I’ve seen in national media was an Al Jazeera piece linking an increase in deportations of LA gang members with this summer’s border crisis.

  3. Gail Gardner

    While some prefer to keep occurrences like this quiet, it is important for Americans to realize how common it is for people to be tazed, beaten and shot at the hands of police. Most concerning is that unless the injured parties can afford to pursue legal action, no punishment for excessive violence is typically invoked. Many have no idea how much we are all at risk. The more militarized the police become, the greater the danger that you, your children, or your family and friends will end up dead or seriously injured.