Amid protests, social media's role is praised and scrutinized

Amid protests, social media's role is praised and scrutinized
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Protests around the country following the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and others have been amplified by the use and ubiquity of social media. 

Platforms such as Twitter have been hailed as a boon for activists while some have criticized them as rumor mills that have heightened tensions. 

The issue gained increased attention this week following the targeted killing of two police officers in Brooklyn, N.Y., over the weekend. The perpetrator, it was later discovered, had issued threats against police on social media in advance of the shooting.

Activists say the speed at which information flows has made platforms including Twitter into effective organizing tools, while also giving people a sense of a collective, uncensored voice. 

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Law enforcement in Missouri and New York have made broader use of the tool, while realizing the importance of choosing their message carefully. 

"Many of the protests that have happened around the country have been organized by individuals or small groups of people with very limited resources," said Hannah Roditi, executive director of Social Movement Technologies, a nonprofit that advises groups on how to effectively use social media.  

"With the megaphone of social media they can reach thousands of people who feel the same way," she added. 

More than 3.5 million tweets were shared in just a few hours following a St. Louis prosecutor's announcement last month that a grand jury had decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Brown. The decision — and its dissemination via social media — set off nationwide protests. 

Groups such as the Ferguson National Response Network have maintained an up-to-date Tumblr page listing protests taking place around the country — from Madison, Wis., to Philadelphia, Pa. 

Activists emphasize that it is important not to exaggerate the differences between previous eras and now. There were fast, spontaneous responses to shootings or other dramatic events before social media existed, they note. Examples include the uproars that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968 or, a generation later, the acquittal of Los Angeles Police Department officers in the beating of Rodney King.

"But social media is certainly spreading information faster and in the case of recent events, probably giving hope to the hopeless that change could happen if they take joint action," Roditi said. 

Joshua Tucker, a professor at New York University who focuses on social media, pointed to his recent op-ed in the Washington Post describing how platforms like Twitter can be used as a tool to expand protests. 

He said social media can facilitate protests by making it easier for people to get information and appealing to their feelings of anger, injustice and group identity. 

But it is a double-edged sword, he noted: Some information can motivate people to stay away. His findings from past case studies suggest social media is doing more than just providing the same information and motivation that people could get from other places, partly due to its speed and self-filtering.  

He added that it is too early to reach a concise conclusion about social media's effect on the police protests. 

"While we are in the process of collecting data to try to answer these questions in the future, we have not yet begun any of the analysis necessary to provide answers yet," he said. 

Last month, St. Louis prosecutor Robert McCulloch chastised social media and the endless news cycle as roadblocks to law enforcement's investigation of the Michael Brown killing. 

"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," he said, during the news conference announcing Wilson would not be indicted. "Following closely behind were the nonstop rumors on social media."

Roditi sees the inaccurate reports on social media and some of the more hateful comments as outliers that are not the source of tension between the public and law enforcement. She said social media actually gives law enforcement a tool to gauge priorities and address problems "before they fester and escalate further."  

The case of the two police officers who were killed in New York has spurred law enforcement to take other online threats seriously.

For example, a Massachusetts man faces charges after writing "put wings on pigs" on his Facebook page following the shooting.  

New York City police department officials have received training on social media in the past year, and its use has grown exponentially. 

Realizing the influence of the platform, police department chief James O'Neill reportedly instructed officers to limit their posts about the recent shooting to condolences only.