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Posted by on Oct 12, 2014 in Legal Discourse | 0 comments

How Twitter Shaped Our Views of Ferguson

By: Alec Jalovec

Before the rise of social media, the Michael Brown killing may have gone relatively unnoticed by the rest of the United States.  However, the tremendous growth of social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter) in recent years has changed the way the nation receives its news.  Twitter typically only shows people one side of a story, which gives rise to more bias and extremism on both sides of a conflict.  In other words, people will not get full picture when reading the news on Twitter unless they actively seek it out.  On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was shot and killed by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson.  The killing sparked weeks of protests and outrage from Ferguson’s residents.  The Ferguson Police Department and town leaders were bombarded with accusations of racial bias and disparity.  A majority of Ferguson’s residents are black; however, the police department, which has fifty-three members, has only three black officers.

As the conflict in Ferguson progressed and the protests grew in size, the police brought in military-grade equipment.  Armored trucks rolled down the main roads, and police in riot gear were almost always present.  Fighting between the protesters and police ensued, but many major news outlets were not reporting much, if anything, about what was occurring during the first few nights of protests and fighting.  As a result, much of the nation flocked to Twitter for all the news, photos, and videos of Ferguson that it wanted.  Freelance reporters, Ferguson residents, and protesters provided updates on the fighting minute by minute.  Additionally, protesters and reporters quickly uploaded pictures and videos of the fighting online.  Thousands of tweets poured in each night about Ferguson and the progressing violence.

But, even with the massive amount of Twitter coverage on Ferguson, many people only saw one side of the conflict: the side that they agreed with.  Those that agreed with the police saw Tweets of Molotov cocktails seized, stores looted, and gunfire from protesters.  However, people who wanted to see information about police brutality viewed tweets about young children choking on tear gas, police pointing rifles at protesters, and police arresting innocent people for merely walking down the street.

The inherent “nature” of Twitter is that it allows you to follow people and organizations that you agree with or like; but, as a result, Twitter users view conflicts and news through a warped lens.  People see what they want to see.  If a tweet is seen as supporting the other side, it is quickly dismissed as false.  Peoples’ views on an issue or conflict become more extreme the more they read because of the way the news on Twitter is viewed.  Inaccuracies go unchecked and objectivity goes out the window.  Of course there are always going to be false stories and misstated facts no matter how news is read, but the real problem arises when a substantial number of people actually begin to believe those falsities.

There is no question that Free Speech is a tremendous thing, and it is something that should always be fought for.  Unfortunately, little effort is typically taken to address blatant falsities that pop up on social media websites.  That begs the question: how do we address false stories and biased articles?  Some would say the Court system is the proper way to do so.  However, unless a harmed individual actually brings a defamation or libel suit, little will be done to correct errors on social media.  Moreover, the law is still in developing stages in regard to dealing with issues of social media and new technology.  Therefore, the idealistic solution to ending the bias and extremism is for every person to learn the facts and seek the truth.

As a nation, we have to take what we see on social media with a grain of salt.  We are at a point in our history where radicalism and extremism seem to be the norm rather than the exception.  Not everything is “us v. them,” nor is every conflict about picking sides.  We have to be able to see the good and the bad in everything.  Unfortunately, outlets like Twitter typically restrict what we see because of the way Twitter operates.  Most people only look at people and organizations that they like and agree with.  But the problem isn’t with Twitter, it’s with us as a society.  There are always two sides to a story–o take the time to read and understand both sides.  Follow accounts that you typically wouldn’t agree with, and actively search for the other side of a story.  It is always possible that both sides of an issue are right.