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December 5, 2014

GOLDFINE | Virtual Justice: On Social Media and Ferguson

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“The most significant challenge encountered in this investigation has been the 24-hour news cycle and its insatiable appetite for something, for anything, to talk about. Following closely behind were the non-stop rumors on social media,” said Ferguson prosecutor Robert McCulloch last Monday — the same day the decision that police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting of Michael Brown, was announced. In his statement, McCulloch targeted the role of social media in the case with pointed force, accusing social media users of misleading the public and rendering the investigation unnecessarily confusing and fraught.

As a follower of the tragedies in Ferguson, I find McCulloch’s reduction of the role of social media to “non-stop rumors” to be not only flawed, but alarming. His perspective speaks to a trend of fearful and censoring attitudes of authority and media figures towards social media. Such a perspective would serve to deny and devalue the crucial role social media played in making Ferguson a global issue: in allowing the events to play out uncensored for the country, in galvanizing community action, and in connecting a local injustice to a national dialogue. As actor Jamil Smith tweeted the same day, “If it weren’t for Twitter, millions may never have learned Michael Brown’s name.”

McCulloch’s attitude towards social media appears to the modern reader to be strikingly outdated. While the role social media played in Ferguson is remarkable, it is not particularly radical. It has been nearly four years since the Arab Spring revolutions began, and social media’s capacity to facilitate social justice, especially when traditional media fails, established it as a tool of liberation and empowerment. It seems somewhat common knowledge that social media has become a resource of modern democracy, which is partly why the implications of McCulloch’s statement, and the reasoning he invokes, are so unsettling.

Perhaps I’m in danger of inflating his statement; McCulloch did not call for censorship of social media — a policy by no means unheard of in other nations also undergoing messy social and political progress. In China, hundreds of social media users have been intimidated or imprisoned for their critical political commentaries expressed on social media, accused of posting of “false” information. Reprimanding social media users who created dialogue surrounding the events in Ferguson for their circulation of “rumors” might not seem particularly extreme in comparison to this, however, both reactions speak to the same government hostility and anxiety towards arming citizens with this technology of expression.

The brand of blame that McCulloch casts on social media in its engagement with the justice system, and his dismissal of that power, sheds light on a destructive false dichotomy between social media and functions of justice. For surely, rather than obstructing it, social media has called for justice, ensuring that Michael Brown’s death could not be dismissed as an isolated incident, instead recognizing it as urgently symptomatic of something much larger. Social media made Brown’s death one with repercussions.

As Sarah Seltzer wrote for Flavorwire, “Social media has… [created] a pipeline between localized instances of injustice on the ground and the national dialogue.” Ferguson is prototypical of this capacity of social media, and McCulloch’s dismissal of that power because it “complicated” the investigation is untenable.

It seems clear that the investigation in Ferguson and the decisions of authority figures running it should have been made complicated. James Poniewozik wrote in Time, “I suspect part of what’s behind the frustration of people like McCulloch is that social media makes everyone a critic.” For a case like Ferguson, which fraught from its inception — with the appointment of a prosecutor who has deep ties to law enforcement and is the son of a police officer killed by a black man, to prosecutors’ failure to thoroughly cross-examine Darren Wilson’s testimony, to the St. Louis County Police Department’s bogus reporting on nights of protesting (that it was deploying merely smoke and not tear gas) — social media as an agent of criticism was more than merely appropriate, it was necessary. In a criminal justice system like America’s, making people with power, like prosecutors and police officers, subject to the scrutiny (however remote) of the communities who understand and feel the affects of their decisions is a radical act of social justice. It demands accountability of the powerful, and thus, caution.

Making McCulloch’s statement even more troubling are the implications of whom the rejection of social media as a valuable voice in political dialogue, excludes from the conversation. Social media offers a loud voice to participants in the American political system who rarely have one in mainstream media. It costs a lot — connections and a college education, to start — to write an op-ed for The New York Times. It is free to tweet a response to an event or a legal decision or a politician’s speech, even though those 140 characters can be just as powerful as the column. Social media is not subject to the gatekeeping systems (like education or income) of mainstream journalism, which often serve to whitewash and limit the breadth of its voices. This, perhaps more than anything, makes it an indispensible tool for truly progressive political change.

Social media, of course, has inherent limitations. For instance, as Jay Caspian Kang writes for The New Yorker, outlets like Twitter and Facebook reward “volume, frequency, and fervor rather than nuance, complexity and persuasion,” sacrificing depth for the potent rhetorical stickiness that marks viral content. The symptoms of these limitations are visible in the vast assortment of social media content that is, indeed, absolute sensational garbage. However, refinement is not always a mark of validity in conversation, and those who think like McCulloch uphold an insidious brand of media respectability politics that inherently excludes a number of groups from conversations to which their voices are crucial.

I cannot argue that social media is conclusively good or effective. The toxic click-bait and sensational propaganda that corrupt my newsfeed are proof of just the opposite. Social media rhetoric and activism can be painfully impotent, self-congratulatory and dogmatic, across political lines. And because we see the posts and news of the people and organizations that we choose to, those we follow or friend, social media spaces can become echo chambers of said dogmas.

However, I am optimistic. If we examine the powerful force of community expression and empowerment that social media has been — from mobilizing networks of young voters, to forcing national recognition of issues of sexual assault and rape culture, to supporting Wendy Davis’s fight against the closing of abortion clinics in Texas, to inspiring Asian-American women to voice social frustration through the #NotYourAsianSidekick campaign, to the expression of millions’ opinions on the Supreme Court’s deliberations on marriage equality with the Human Rights Campaign’s red equal sign graphic — it is clear to me that this is a force our world needs. Social media networks might “complicate” neat headlines, but they need to be left free, open and public; and their productive use encouraged, not shamed.

Social media is not without its limitations or growing pains, but the role it played in Ferguson is a testament to its critical democratic function.

Jael Goldfine is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at jgoldfine@cornellsun.com. Objectivity Bites appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

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