Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Blame the Messenger: Ferguson and Social Media

I got a surprise today when a friend of mine, a United Methodist minister in Texas, told me that my name had appeared in the Washington Post. It turned out to be in an article on the criticism of social media by the St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, during his announcement of the grand jury decision not to indict the Ferguson, Missouri, police officer who killed an unarmed black teenager. I had reacted by tweeting, "So a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager six times, and it's Twitter's fault?” My remark was retweeted over 2,800 times and favourited over 800 times, so many people agreed with it.

I, of course, didn't mean that McCullouch had said that Twitter and its users were responsible for Michael Brown's death. I was reacting as the only blame he could find in the aftermath of the killing, the protests and the heavy-handed response of the police, was not with the police officer who fired 12 times; not with a militarized police force that treats citizens like subjects of an occupying power and acts as a fundraising arm of the municipal government by extorting money from black citizens through fines; not with the system that has seen police kill 461 people in the US in the last year for which statistics are available (compared to eight in Germany, and none in the UK and Japan) - but with social media.

McCulloch blamed the messenger as he tore into Twitter, saying that "within minutes various accounts of the incident began appearing on social media" and "non-stop rumours" followed, "filled with speculation, and little, if any solid, accurate information." Certainly speculation and rumours were part of the social media focus on Ferguson - as they were part of broadcast media coverage (listen to talk radio discussions of Ferguson, and TV panels, to hear more speculation, rumours, and inaccurate information that can be crammed into 140 characters on Twitter). I learned more about what was going on in Ferguson last night from Twitter than from the confusing CNN broadcast. Social media was most important in creating an alternative narrative that shone a light on injustice, and allowing black voices to be heard which would have been silent or muted in broadcast media.

Don't blame the messenger when a police force armed to the teeth with surplus military equipment uses state violence on peaceful protesters. Don't blame the messenger when the authorities keep tensions high and then release the grand jury decision at night, a move anyone could see would be provocative. Blame institutionalized racism. Blame the militarization of North American culture. Blame sin, because that is what this is.

1 comment:

Deb said...

Wow, excellent post, Dan.