TPM Cafe: Opinion

Why #BlackTwitter Was Essential to Media Outrage Over Ferguson

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AP Photo / Robert Cohen

This Wednesday, I opened my morning by working on a book review for a colleague of mine on social media. His piece cited a Pew Internet and American Life statistic that gave me literal pause: while Twitter is a less commonly used social media platform than Facebook within the general population, it is used significantly more by black youth than white (31 percent of black youths in 2011 and 39 percent in 2013, versus 12 percent in 2011 and 23 percent in 2013 for whites). I had no idea how vividly that divide would play out later in my day, as I sought counsel and information from voices on Twitter about the unfolding unrest in Ferguson — mostly black voices. When I expressed concern about the lack of coverage by mainstream media at that time, I was instructed by a fellow black colleague to “Stay engaged on Twitter like with everything else.”

As a heavy Twitter user in a predominantly white work environment, I understood the sentiment but couldn’t help but think about the relative silence that my non-tweeting Caucasian counterpoints were surrounded by as a result. The question that consumed me, as I watched the horror play out through automatic refreshes, was why? With the ubiquity of other platforms like Facebook or Instagram, why has Twitter become the place for the African-American community to have these conversations?

Speed

First, foremost, and most necessarily, Twitter is fast. Crafting a 140-character message is a quick task, and such short statements on other platforms can get lost in a sea of cat memes or videos of cascading ice water. Twitter is also fast in its refresh speed; little is required of those wishing to follow breaking news like this — automatic refreshes and notifications of new messages come quickly. It is this breakneck pace of information sharing that led briefly apprehended Washington Post journalist Wesley Lowery, one of the two journalists arrested that night, to tell a colleague in the moment after he was slammed against a soda machine, “Tweet that they’re arresting me.”

Short Reporting Structure

Wesley Lowery and Huffington Post reporter Ryan Reilly’s ability to share their own stories in their own words is another strength of Twitter. Not only could “regular folk” concerned about Lowry’s status share their worries with him personally, but he was able to respond. Twitter’s ability to connect the disenfranchised with voices of power in their communities (revered and respected activists and journalists such as Al Sharpton, Don Lemon, and Roland S. Martin routinely respond to messages that “mention” them) means that otherwise silenced voices are magnified in real time. Similarly, news outlets and others with a responsibility to speak out on issues of concern have more access than ever to those who critique their work. David Weigel’s Slate piece on laying of blame says as much:

Decades ago, when unrest and police responses broke out in cities, the measurable civilian response was limited to what the media could capture. Local Philadelphians talked to reporters about what it was like to live near the MOVE siege; residents of Cincinnati did the same when their neighbors protested the killing of Timothy Thomas. The reaction to Ferguson (or #Ferguson) is happening on social media, everywhere, shaped by conservatives who want to blame Democrats, police state critics who want to talk about militarization, and foreigners who wonder what the hell is wrong with America.

Despite a drastic change in tone over the past week, there has rightfully been no shortage of strong opinions as this story wears on. A short line to the people in power means those strong opinions are far louder than ever before.

Ease of Use In a time when Facebook is arousing outrage for its seemingly convoluted and superfluous Messenger app, Twitter is astoundingly welcome in its simplicity. Messages can be sent quickly via the app, access in your browser, or — if you are sans smartphone — text message. The accessibility of the platform via mobile technology makes it ideal for low income areas such as Ferguson that could have residents affected by the digital divide that persists between blacks and whites (the digital divide between blacks and whites ranges between seven and twelve percentage points, but is considerably more even when assessing mobile phone usage). The result is the ability to have a voice in a potential revolution, irrespective of if your phone has had its much needed OS updates.

Egalitarianism

Although Facebook is a more widely used social media platform than nearly any other competitor in its wake, its use of algorithms to prioritize certain types of content hurts it in a 24-hour news cycle. Even with trending topics on the top right sidebar, these topics are generally links to coverage of events by major news outlets. The unrest in Ferguson is far from the first time that #blacktwitter has had the power to change media conversations:

As far as back as 2009, Black Twitter was responsible for a campaign that got the canceled show "The Game" back on the air. That happened following an online protest

over how few good programs there are about black life. More recently, when one of the jurors in the Trayvon Martin case was given a book contract, Black Twitter erupted in anger, and the publisher canceled the deal. (“In Hashtag Protest, 'Black Twitter' Shows Its Strength“)

Twitter’s lack of algorithms to control the display of content means that posts are elevated in popularity only by the people who favorite, Retweet, and share screen captures of impactful or informative messages. Such a structure allows the insight of the obervant but relatively unknown amateur, alongside high-profile and highly educated (another population that uses Twitter in high volume), to stand alongside one another. This egalitarian information sharing model is welcome for historically disenfranchised populations. This could be key for its popularity with other minority groups such as Hispanics. Its use among African-Americans continues to rise, as does the increasing use of Twitter as a credible means to gauge public opinion and the newsworthiness of given topics.

The tragedy of Ferguson is only the latest example of the power that this medium has given this community to effect their own change. The outcome of the turmoil in Ferguson is yet to reach its conclusion, but #blacktwitter will guarantee that the revolution will be Tweeted.

Amma Marfo is a writer, higher education administrator, and popular culture enthusiast dedicated to the idea that our leisure pursuits can inform and enrich the work we do. She writes often for her own blog ("The Dedicated Amateur") and is a contributing editor to the Niche Movement. Her first book, THE I'S HAVE IT: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs, was released in January 2014. Her other interests include running, yoga, surfing, trivia, comedy, and gluten-free cooking/baking. You can follow her on Twitter @ammamarfo.