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Who guided the national debate on Ferguson?

01/12/16 - BOSTON, MA. - Sarah Jackson and Brooke Foucault Welles pose for a portrait on Jan. 12, 2016. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Photo by Adam Glanzman/​Northeastern University

The fatal shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, in Fer­guson, Mis­souri, set off a national wave of dia­logue and protests, from the streets to social media, as people nation­wide grap­pled with myriad com­plex issues, including police use of force, race rela­tions in America, and crim­inal jus­tice reform.

Now, new research from two North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sors shows that in the days fol­lowing Brown’s shooting, everyday citizens—not politi­cians, celebri­ties, or other promi­nent public figures—were the ones who, using Twitter, shaped the national con­ver­sa­tion. African Amer­i­cans with close ties to the Fer­guson area, they found, played a par­tic­u­larly influ­en­tial role on the day of the incident.

Sarah Jackson and Brooke Fou­cault Welles, both assis­tant pro­fes­sors of com­mu­ni­ca­tion studies in the Col­lege of Arts, Media and Design, exam­ined 535,794 tweets from Aug. 9 to Aug. 15, 2014, that included the word or hashtag “Fer­guson.” They iden­ti­fied the top 10 tweets each day that were most retweeted or men­tioned and then ana­lyzed how these Twit­ters users—who they described as “early ini­tia­tors” and “crowd­sourced elites”—drove the dis­cus­sion in the days fol­lowing Brown’s killing.

Twitter, they argued, cat­alyzed the national response. The first week of “Fer­guson” tweets, from the time of Brown’s death up until the national media cov­erage and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s public address—illustrated the power of social media to allow everyday cit­i­zens, par­tic­u­larly those in mar­gin­al­ized groups, to influ­ence larger public debates, they said.

The research was pub­lished online in the journal Infor­ma­tion, Com­mu­ni­ca­tion & Society on Dec. 29.

Jackson and Welles noted that on the first day the most influ­en­tial person was an African Amer­ican woman from Michael Brown’s neigh­bor­hood using the Twitter handle @AyoMissDarkSkin, who had two-​​and-​​a-​​half times more retweets and men­tions than the next closest Twitter user. They noted that she described Brown as “unarmed” and as having been “exe­cuted” by Fer­guson police, who “shot him 10 times smh.” In their paper, the researchers con­trasted this tweet with another from The St. Louis Post-​​Dispatch (@stltoday), which reported “Fatal shooting by Fer­guson police prompts mob reaction.”

The woman’s tweet, they noted, was sent within min­utes of the shooting. It gar­nered 3,500 retweets before “Fer­guson” or “#Fer­guson” became widely used and was retweeted or men­tioned three times more than the newspaper’s tweet.

“How she tells the story in that tweet sets the tone for how the story is framed in many of the rest of the tweets about it,” Jackson said. “From my per­spec­tive, what’s sig­nif­i­cant is that Twitter can allow everyday people who oth­er­wise have little social or polit­ical power to shape a nar­ra­tive about their expe­ri­ences and what mat­ters about those experiences.”

Here are some of their findings:

• On that first day, Aug. 9, all but one of the top 10 early ini­tia­tors were African Amer­i­cans with per­sonal con­nec­tions to the Fer­guson area. “What is notable about this group of ini­tia­tors is the cen­trality of black voices,” Jackson and Welles wrote. “In fact, @stltoday is the only account that does not directly reflect an African Amer­ican voice or target an African Amer­ican audience.”

• Of the first-​​day ini­tia­tors, only one—Antonio French, a St. Louis-​​based alderman whose dis­trict bor­ders Ferguson—was among the “crowd­sourced elites” in the fol­lowing six days. Mean­while, these elites came to include activist col­lec­tives like Anony­mous, blog­gers, and tweeters without per­sonal con­nec­tions to the area as well as more local and main­stream news sources.

• African Amer­ican com­mu­nity mem­bers appeared among the crowd­sourced elites for the entire week, even in the face of increasing com­pe­ti­tion. Jackson and Welles pointed to one “elite,” a St. Louis-​​based col­lege stu­dent, @Nettaaaaaaaa, who was among the most widely retweeted and who later became well-​​known in the #Black­Lives­Matter move­ment. Another, @natedrug, tweeted from within the ranks of the Fer­guson pro­testers, though this user has kept a much lower pro­file since then.

• National main­stream news orga­ni­za­tions played a min­imal role in the net­work, with only one—CNN—gaining elite status on the last day of the first week. “Instead,” the researchers wrote, “the most vis­ible media throughout the first week of the Fer­guson net­work were main­stream local out­lets and pho­tog­ra­phers and main­stream national journalists.”

• Beyond jour­nal­ists, few polit­ical or enter­tain­ment fig­ures achieved elite status in that first week. The only politi­cians’ Twitter han­dles that appeared were Pres­i­dent Obama and Mis­souri Gov. Jay Nixon, and only “because so many Twitter users were tweeting at them with var­ious pleas and crit­i­cism about the events unfolding there.”

From my per­spec­tive, what’s sig­nif­i­cant is that Twitter can allow everyday people who oth­er­wise have little social or polit­ical power to shape a nar­ra­tive about their expe­ri­ences and what mat­ters about those expe­ri­ences.
— Assis­tant pro­fessor Sarah Jackson

Jackson and Welles explained that they focused on the first few days of Twitter activity in order to under­stand who the early influ­encers shaping the nar­ra­tive were, rather than who became the most influ­en­tial over the long term.

As Welles put it, looking at a larger time period “tells us who becomes influ­en­tial once some­thing is a national news story, but it doesn’t tell us why cer­tain things become national news sto­ries and how those sto­ries get told from the get-​​go.”

Jackson’s research cen­ters on how social and polit­ical iden­ti­ties are debated in the public sphere, with a par­tic­ular focus on how race and gender are con­structed in national debates on cit­i­zen­ship, inequality, and social move­ments. Welles—a member of Northeastern’s Net­work Sci­ence Insti­tute and NU Lab for Texts, Maps and Net­works—studies how social net­works shape and con­strain human behavior.

The Fer­guson project builds upon their pre­vious work on hashtag activism. In a paper pub­lished in November 2015, the pro­fes­sors exam­ined how Twitter users hijacked the hashtag “myNYPD” fol­lowing a police depart­ment public rela­tions cam­paign, using it instead to pro­mote coun­ter­public nar­ra­tives of racial pro­filing and police misconduct.

“That paper spurred our move to this research,” Jackson said. “We found that Twitter allows everyday cit­i­zens to influ­ence public con­ver­sa­tion. Everyone saw how Fer­guson unfolded and how social media drove that story, so we wanted to see if what we observed before was also the case here too.”