Over the past ten days images of civil unrest across the Atlantic in Ferguson, Missouri, have served as a reminder of the huge power social media as a source of broadcasting news.
Scenes on the streets of the St Louis neighbourhood – which were fuelled by a police officer killing unarmed 18-year old Michael Brown with six gunshots – were largely consumed not on television news channels or news websites, but via Twitter, Vine and Facebook.
These social channels helped people share news of the mayhem in Ferguson to a global audience, with Twitter co-founder and St Louis native Jack Dorsey joining thousands of protesters promoting the action on the front line of the troubles.
Brown’s shooting – which itself was captured and shared on Twitter by a Ferguson hip-hop singer who witnessed the shooting outside his flat – sparked multiple nights of rioting, looting and reports of police brutality, as they resorted to using tear gas, smoke bombs and rubber bullets on protesters. Within minutes Twitter and Vine were awash with photos and videos of the protest, and there have been more than 8 million Tweets relating to Ferguson in the past week.
Yesterday a video emerged on social media of Michael Brown laying dead in the street, with the police officer accused of shooting him pacing up and down past his body. The resident who recorded and shared the video was interviewed on CNN, again highlighting the power social media has to bring events to the global mainstream, while also making instant momentary celebrities of users.
The instantaneous nature of social media means it is becoming an increasingly vital tool in modern society. While many cynics still question the need for it – and to be honest I don’t particularly care what you had for breakfast and nor do I want to see your video of your cat riding on the vacuum cleaner – there can be no arguing it is doing good in bringing issues like Ferguson to the attention of the global public.
Indeed this week David Karpf, assistant professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University, claimed: “Because of social media, the police don’t have control of this story. It’s opened everything up, changed how the media decides what’s worthy of coverage — and who to trust.”
It’s clear that the popularity of social media will continue to increase due to the power it has to broadcast issues and unite people all over the world. However, the immediacy and the manner in which these social platforms give anyone and everyone a voice will remain a cause for concern. The scenes in Ferguson bear heavy similarities to those we saw during the London riots three years ago – with politicians, journalists and the police suggesting that mobile phones and social media platforms played their role in fuelling public outcry in both of these events.