The small city of Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis, has been all over the news ever since Darren Wilson fired six shots into Michael Brown, leaving the seventeen year old lying face down on the pavement in broad daylight. Residents gathered at the site of a the incident soon after, and the protests, riots, and looting have been playing out ever since, with protesters on the streets since August 9th. For the first couple of days, the news unfolded primarily on Twitter, through vines posted by St. Louis alderman, @antoniofrench and others who live tweeted information, pictures, and video from the scene. The local media also covered the events early on, including Fox 2 Now (KTVI) who had a live feed as well as frequent Twitter updates.
As the story of what happened on that fateful Saturday afternoon developed, and the protests continued to play out on the streets of Ferguson, the mainstream media began to arrive in the St. Louis suburb to cover the story from the ground. Ryan J Reilly of the Huffington Post, Wesley Lowery of the Washington Post, and Julie Bosman of the New York Times were some of the first mainstream sources on the ground, writing articles about what was taking place for a larger audience while also providing up-to-the-minute live-tweeting on their Twitter accounts. On Wednesday August 13th, the police escalated their response, and Reilly and Lowery were assaulted and arrested in a McDonald’s after taking pictures of the police, refusing to show their identification, and not packing up fast enough. The news first broke through their Twitter accounts:
SWAT just invade McDonald’s where I’m working/recharging. Asked for ID when I took photo. pic.twitter.com/FOIsMnBwHy
— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) August 13, 2014
Soon, the world was watching as they both called into MSNBC with the accounts of their arrest. Al Jazeera America was also in Ferguson, and posted a video of the police shooting tear gas at them and then taking apart their equipment before they left:
— Brandon Wall (@Walldo) August 14, 2014
Ferguson has been called the first post-television news story, as the major events have been breaking on Twitter, through live-tweets with pictures and vines, as well as links to YouTube videos and livestreams from citizen journalists. As the 24-hour news networks like CNN and MSNBC began to pick up the story, their footage was comprised of many of the same videos and pictures which were first seen on Twitter. This dynamic is not new, as the news about Occupy also initially spread through social media, with the news picking up videos which were first posted as tweets, like the female protesters who were pepper sprayed by Tony Bologna:
Looking at these events supports the argument that without individuals covering the events live on Twitter, it is possible that these stories wouldn’t end up appearing on CNN and MSNBC, as the initial buzz is comprised of tweets, mentions, and hashtags. Having social media outlets like Twitter is essential for increasing the visibility of stories which might otherwise be ignored by major media outlets. Zeynep Tufekci wrote an article called “What Happens to #Fergeson Affects Fergeson “, which makes the argument that net neutrality must be preserved to keep stories which feature marginalized voices, like the events of Ferguson, from being buried in favor of tweets or Facebook posts which are less contentious. In fact, on the first night of the Ferguson protests, many observed their Twitter feeds being blown up with live coverage from the streets, while the events were completely absent from Facebook news feeds until the next morning. While Twitter plays an essential role in spreading news stories with live updates, I want to examine how the social network can be used to organize decentralized protests, like Occupy in 2011. Last Thursday, there were large protests in cities around the country demanding justice for Mike Brown, as well as an end to police brutality, murders of minorities, and police militarization. How were protests organized in over 100 cities less than a week after Mike Brown was shot in Ferguson? The answer is: #nmos14. This hashtag, which stands for National Moment of Silence 2014, was organized by @feministajones, a blogger and activist who used her diverse Twitter network to organize activists all around the country in a very short time period. It all started with a series of tweets by @FeministaJones:
— #NMOS14 (@FeministaJones) August 10, 2014
It is a small gesture, IMO, but one that could tangibly unify us, ALL of us, as a launching pad for further action #NMOS14
— #NMOS14 (@FeministaJones) August 10, 2014
Due to a combination of her popularity on Twitter, with over 34,000 followers, her entrenchment in activist networks, and the energy and emotion behind the Ferguson protests, people quickly began to answer her call:
— Ashley. (@fashionfwd_ash) August 10, 2014
— Kim Moore (@SoulRevision) August 10, 2014
Soon after, Facebook events for #NMOS14 in different cities were created and shared through tweets by local activists:
— Francia N. Brito (@FrancianB) August 11, 2014
— You, Me and He (@marvel_girl88) August 10, 2014
— Thot Provoking (@unbtheredblkgrl) August 10, 2014
While Twitter was essential in the initial organizing for #NMOS14, these linked Facebook events provided communicative spaces which were focused on events in specific locations. The public walls of these pages were used to plan the specific event, share information about additional events, and discuss strategies for mobilizing supporters, which is instrumental in building movements. Also, according to the Pew Internet Project’s social networking research, as of September 2013, 71% of online adults use Facebook while only 19% use Twitter. Thus, using Facebook as a medium for organizing these events opens the potential visibility to a much wider range of individuals who aren’t familiar with the hashtags and mentions of the Twitter environment.
The organizing of #NMOS14, which scheduled moments of silence for Mike Brown and other victims of police murders in over 100 cities, occurred mainly between August 10th and 11th.This highlights the strength of social media in organizing decentralized protests dispersed through many locations, a common feature of new networked social movements. It is important to note however, that the popularity of the Ferguson issue combined with the associated emotions, certainly sped up these processes. Replicating this organizing structure for other issues and causes will certainly be helpful in mobilizing supporters, but there are four factors to keep in mind:
- The public sentiment of the issue, which effects the willingness of people to organize and attend rallies.
- The public’s sense of urgency to quickly organize local events.
- The popularity of the Twitter accounts involved in the initial organizing and dissemination of the message.
- Preexisting local activist networks fighting for the issue who are connected via Twitter and Facebook.
#NMOS14 was the perfect storm, as #Ferguson has made police brutality against black and brown people a primary issue, many activists from around the country were already protesting police murders and institutional racism before the death of Mike Brown, and @FeministaJones is very popular on Twitter, with many local activists following her.
Another important aspect of the rapid pace of social media organizing was a central location for all of the planning to take place. In addition to the #NMOS14 hashtag, which in itself became a collaborative activist space, there was also a main Facebook page which was created on August 10th and consists primarily of links to the Facebook event pages for each individual vigil. This represents a network of networks, as users can join the NMOS2014 community page, and then also find their local event to join., both of which become a communicative space, where networks of weak ties can be formed quickly and solidified through collaboration and deliberation.
Additionally, each vigil had a simple, focused message with the same meeting time across time zones, and the moment of silence beginning twenty minutes later, at 7:20pm Eastern and 4:20pm Pacific. The flexibility and quick dissemination of decentralized organization was necessary for planning so many events in such a short time period but concurrently, the centralized virtual spaces on Twitter and Facebook, and uniform event plans were necessary so that the actions were easily replicable. For instance, each Facebook event used the same poster as a basis for promotion:
A Google Doc was also created which listed the locations for each city and town which was holding a vigil. This space represents yet another decentralized social networking tool, as even though one person created the initial document, others can edit the content, based on the permissions set by the creator. Thus, while it’s unlikely in this scenario that everyone was allowed to make changes, there was a group of organizers who had write permissions, and thus were able to add locations that other users would see in real time. While not a social network, decentralized document creation tools like Google Docs are useful collaboration platforms, utilized by members of both weak-tie and strong-tie networks.
Before the advent of social media, planning a nationwide event in four days would be almost impossible, and it certainly couldn’t have been easy even with Twitter and Facebook. This impressive mobilization was made possible through a multitude of social networking tools, all networked together to maximize visibility and participation. While the exact process of #NMOS14 doesn’t need to be followed to create a successful movement with unified protests across a multitude of locations, these examples provide a blueprint of a networked social movements, and the tools used to organize #NMOS14, when utilized correctly, can facilitate social change.
Sure, the revolution might not be tweeted, and hashtag activism alone can’t reform and recreate systems, but the networks formed through Facebook and Twitter can moblize decentralized protests and direct action, which indeed can have a transformative effect on our social world.