Young African Americans in Ferguson, Missouri, harnessed a new and more visual Twitter to spread the news of the police shooting of a teenager around the world long before cable TV networks’ sateillte vans came trundling into town.
The story of the Ferguson protests was told first on the messaging platform with almost 1m tweets sent before CNN had spent a single minute reporting them, according to the Pew Research Center’s examination of primetime TV coverage.
Using the hashtag #Ferguson, people shared images and videos of heavily armed police, wounds from plastic bullets and tear gas, and a community in uproar over the tactics of local law enforcement. The power of these images – now central to Twitter after several design changes– showed social media intruding even further into the traditional territory of TV.
Paul Hitlin, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center’s journalism project, said the tweets had spread much faster than in the case of the Trayvon Martin story in 2012, another incident where a young black boy was shot and killed, on that occasion by a Hispanic neighbourhood watch co-ordinator.
“Twitter helped keep the story alive for several days before the cable networks started devoting a lot of time to it,” he said.
Zeynep Tufekci, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina who writes about social media, said Twitter had played a “major role” in taking the story international with a “huge upside in tweets”.
“Two groups are disproportionately represented on Twitter – one is black people and the other is elites, the journalists, gatekeepers. It is a very interesting juxtaposition of black people and elites in the same place, an intersection which makes Twitter more powerful and effective.”
A greater proportion of black internet users in the US than white use Twitter, which became best known for its 140-character tweets but has recently pushed into more multimedia. Some 22 per cent of online African Americans use Twitter, compared with 16 per cent of white Americans. This rockets to 40 per cent of 18 to 29-year-old online African Americans, compared with 28 per cent of young white people.
Even after the protests began gaining mainstream media coverage, traditional journalists tweeting about being arrested and harassed by police fuelled more conversation on the network.
Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s co-founder, was an unexpected presence at the protests. Mr Dorsey, who has 2.6m followers, went back to his home town of St Louis to take to the streets with his parents. He spent several days and nights at the protests, documenting what he saw on his Twitter feed with photos and six-second videos called Vines.
“I’m not from Ferguson. I was proudly born & raised in St Louis City. All of St Louis should come together as one for #Ferguson,” he tweeted.
In a video interview with Yahoo News, he said people in Ferguson had taken to Twitter, as at other live events, because it made the world “feel very small”.
“People want to feel like they’re there, and they want that sense of connection, and it doesn’t matter if there’s a geographic boundary at all any more,” he said.
Ms Tufekci said Mr Dorsey’s tweets could help build a bridge between the “largely white technology industry in Silicon Valley and this problem [suspicion and resentment of police officers] which disproportionately affects black people”. The technology industry has recently been pressed by campaigners including Jesse Jackson about how few black people it employs.
She said it was good for the platform’s founders and designers to get a “feel on the ground of how important these systems are to 21st-century [civic activists]”.
David Sklansky, a law professor at Stanford University, said the police in Ferguson had failed to engage with the community through social media. “Law enforcement have been absent from this conversation,” he said, adding it was a “missed opportunity” both to get their point of view known and to listen to the locals.
“Social media can do for police actions what it did in TV in a slower way for some police actions decades ago,” he said. “The TV coverage of police brutality in the civil rights protests in the 1960s obviously carried a lot more impact because of the visuals.”
But while Twitter celebrated its role by painting #Ferguson on a wall in its San Francisco office, some social media watchers were suspicious about how little commentary on the protests was showing up in their Facebook feeds. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment.
Ms Tufekci said Facebook’s algorithm did not allow for the discussion of “serious and sober” topics as it forced users to “like” something to show an interest.
“The algorithm has not been playing up Ferguson posts. I just see them when I look for them on my friends profile,” she said. “A ‘like’ is a weird signal or comment – how do you like a post about such a depressing topic, a young boy killed by police?”
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