Post-Ferguson protests are now viral, a hybrid of old school and new wave that can skitter in unpredictable directions.
On Friday, the fourth day following a grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, demonstrations are expected in cities nationwide. Some activists have been pushing for a boycott of the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday sales day.
Some demonstrations to date, such as a Tuesday evening rally at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, have been marked by public prayer and song. Others have been more kinetic, in cities such as Oakland, Calif. Taken together, all reflect the varied face of 21st-century social protest.
“When you see people kneeling down on the highway, they’re trained to do that … it is just straight-up tactics from the civil rights movement,” James Peterson, director of Africana Studies at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pa., said in an interview Wednesday. “But social media certainly has been a great tool.”
Twitter, the popular micro-blogging service, has been flooded with Ferguson-related postings. Between Tuesday and Wednesday, 580,000 tweets citing Ferguson were counted by the analytical service Topsy. One targeted hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, was included in 72,000 tweets in just one day.
Underscoring the reach of social media, prisoners at Boston’s South Bay Detention Facility held up signs reading “BlackLivesMatter” to high-security windows. Other social media venues, such as Facebook, have likewise been aflame with Ferguson news and commentary. One page alone, called Justice for Mike Brown, had accumulated 43,934 “Likes” as of Wednesday.
“So many people are getting information from their friends or circles of people they know,” Frank Sesno, director of George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs and a former CNN Washington bureau chief, said in an interview Wednesday. “What’s changed is word of mouth is much faster, more powerful. The amplifier role of social media has gotten bigger and louder.”
Traditional media, too, has fanned the flames of the Ferguson story, though some outlets have been more aggressive about it than others. CNN, for one, has had Ferguson updates on constant rotation, while Fox News has spread its attention more liberally across other topics.
Sesno said that traditional network and cable television are doing what they always do, “which is to amplify and project.” Particularly among the cable networks, new studies have confirmed, the different approaches to coverage can amount to preaching to the choir.
On Wednesday afternoon, Fox News reported on Ferguson developments above the summing-up phrase, “Number of protests this week centered on bashing capitalism.” Simultaneously, CNN was running a spot above the phrase, “Brown’s parents: ‘We don’t believe Officer Wilson.’ “
Peterson traced the marriage of social media and civil rights demonstrations to the 2006 “Jena Six” case, in which six African-American Louisiana high school students were charged with attempted murder for allegedly beating a white classmate.
The severity of the charges against the teens was chronicled by the black blogosphere, which helped drive large national protests over the case and attracted the attention of the national media, Peterson said.