It could have just been a clinical police description. Instead, one of the first reactions on social media to the death of Michael Brown – an unarmed recent high school graduate who was killed following an altercation with a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August 2014 – came from a local resident.
“Ferguson police just executed an unarmed 17 yr old boy that was walking to the store. Shot him 10 times smh,” wrote the woman, who tweets as @AyoMissDarkSkin,” using a common abbreviation for “shaking my head” that often indicates surprise or disbelief.
In a matter of hours, his death would quickly become symbolic – first of the Police Department’s often-hostile relationship toward the city’s majority black residents. Then, the 18-year-old’s death came to represent a growing protest movement against police violence that drew national attention within days.
But as a national spotlight increasingly came to shine on the small city outside St. Louis, catapulting the nascent Black Lives Matter movement into prominence, local voices – some activists and other ordinary residents – stayed prominent online, chronicling the protests and police response as they occurred particularly on Twitter, two researchers from Northeastern University found.
“We hypothesized that people who got in early on who were not elites had an influence in shaping the story,” says Sarah Jackson, an assistant professor of communication who co-authored a paper looking at the Twitter networks spreading information during the first days of the Ferguson protests. It was published last month in the journal Information, Communication and Society. “They were talking about it from a perspective that acknowledges the roles police violence plays in African-American communities, and it was really not what we see in mainstream media, which is perspectives coming from the police or from elites."
How social media was used also played a key role. Professor Jackson and co-author Brooke Foucault Welles, also an assistant professor of communication at Northeastern, found that many users often deliberately retweeted particular messages – such as @AyoMissDarkSkin’s early reflection – that emphasized Brown’s death and the protests as related to broader concerns about police violence.
Retweets and mentions were used to draw attention to particular messages and individual users, including residents and some activists, who the researchers term “counterpublic elites.” Looking at more than 500,000 tweets, divided into seven networks for each of the days of the week immediately following Brown’s death yielded the discovery that residents and activists on the ground were among the most popular figures online.
"One of things that we pushed up against was [the tendency among researchers] to aggregate and look at statistical norms, which is kind of the standard in the field right now," says Professor Foucault Welles.
"If you aggregate of course you’re going to see media elites popping up, you have to parse it out and look at who those first people were, we intentionally divided it up and focused in on that first week, and who influenced change," she adds.
Some early participants, such as Johnetta Elzie, a college student who grew up in the St. Louis area and tweets as @Nettaaaaaaaa, posted widely retweeted updates on the protests that resulted in them being mentioned frequently in tweets as key chroniclers of the events as they unfolded.
While some of these counterpublic elites chose to keep a lower profile, Ms. Elzie became prominent as a public face of Black Lives Matter partly as a result of her role in the Ferguson protests, even as the movement has often said that it doesn't have specific leaders.
“There are also some political elites and mainstream media elites and they’re influential not because they said anything, but because they’re being called in, and that’s another interesting aspect of who has power to play,” says Foucault Welles.
She notes that as Ferguson police increasingly employed militarized vehicles and tear gas to violently repel the protests, many Twitter users increasingly called for aid from President Obama and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon.
While Black Lives Matter – like Occupy Wall Street before it – has sometimes faced criticism as a “leaderless” movement without concrete demands, and some dismiss activism that occurs online as “slacktivism,” the prominence of ordinary residents in addition to local and national activists made Ferguson unusual, the researchers found.
Previously, Jackson and Foucault Welles had looked at how local residents in New York had used Twitter to criticize police violence by “hijacking” the New York Police Department’s hashtag #myNYPD in April 2014.
In that case, the department had set up the hashtag inviting people to share images showing a personal connection with an officer – but users instead posted stark images of police brutality, generating a debate.
The researchers also point to the large number of African-Americans who use the service – often known collectively as “Black Twitter” – to share their views, exchange information and frequently challenge media portrayals of events such as Brown’s death.
“Fatal shooting by Ferguson police prompts mob reaction,” was how the local St. Louis Post Dispatch initially described Brown’s death on August 9. Many Twitter users quickly tweaked the tweet, posted about three hours after Officer Wilson drove up to Brown and his friend Dorian Johnson in his police cruiser.
“ ‘Mob’? You could also use the word ‘community,’ ” responded Antonio French, a local alderman who became prominent on social media as a key source of updates and information about events on the ground.
Outside of Ferguson, other users who reflected on the role of the media were widely retweeted in the hours following Brown’s death. “PAY ATTENTION as ‘teen’ becomes ‘man,’ ‘community’ becomes ‘mob’ and ‘murder’ becomes alleged shooting #Ferguson #medialiteracy,” wrote Midwestern user @lolitassaywhat on August 9.
Unlike the Arab Spring – where many activists have pushed back against characterizations of a “Twitter revolution” — Black Lives Matter has been more explicit about its use of online tools, particularly as a means to build a network and amplify its message about the toll of police violence.
That approach has sometimes been met with criticism by earlier generations of civil rights activists – writer Jay Caspian Kang notes that when Elzie and DeRay McKesson, another widely-followed activist, arrived at an anniversary event in Selma, Ala., last March, one older woman responded “Here comes social media.”
But the Northeastern researchers argue that the immediacy of many tweets, and the power of the stark images of the Ferguson protests that appeared in seconds on many users’ timelines also ensured that residents and activists remained in control of how the events were presented.
They point to other growing trends sparked by social media, such as an effort to raise awareness about female victims of police violence with the hashtag #sayhername that began after the death of Sandra Bland in police custody in June 2015.
“You could go back and say ‘Why wasn’t it Oscar Grant in 2008 in Oakland?’ We actually had a YouTube video of Oscar Grant being shot in the back. There’s no definitive answer, but I think by the time Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, there were several cases [that raised awareness],” says Jackson. “The way the police responded created a spectacle that was helpful for the mainstream media in telling a story, it was a specific moment in people’s familiarity with hashtag activism."
“I don’t want to say it was a perfect storm, because that’s awful," she adds, "but I think there’s a lot of factors that contributed to [Ferguson] being the straw that broke the camel’s back.”