On August 9th, Michael Brown was fatally shot by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri. Within a few days, this town of a little over 20,000 people was at the center of the national stage. The shooting would then go on to draw attention to two other stories as well: the death of Eric Garner on July 17th, and the shooting of Tamir Rice on November 24th. How did this happen? Unfortunately, the story of Michael Brown is not unusual. Looking at Twitter data, we found that the conversation about the Ferguson incident spread mostly through personal users rather than traditional media outlets, with many individuals wielding their social media influence to draw the wider public's attention to the issue.
Note: there are two y-axes with different scales. All data except for that relevant to Ferguson is plotted against the left axis. This is because the volume of the Ferguson conversation is approximately 15 times greater than any other.
• July 17th: Eric Garner, 43, is killed by a chokehold by Daniel Pantaleo in Staten Island, New York
• August 9th: Michael Brown, 18, is fatally shot by Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri
• November 22nd: Tamir Rice, 12, is fatally shot by Timothy Loehmann in Cleveland, Ohio
• November 24th: A county grand jury announces their decision to not indict Darren Wilson
• December 3rd: A grand jury decides not to indict Officer Pantaleo
In the weeks following Garner's death in July, Twitter activity about the incident was minimal. On the other hand, the Ferguson death, and subsequent protests, caused a drastic spike in volume of relevant Tweets. After this wave, when the Garner story resurfaced on December 3rd, it generated another significant spike in Tweets. The Ferguson story propelled all other relevant conversations onto a national stage, making them trending topics on Twitter.
The high volume of Twitter conversation surrounding Ferguson is unusual, especially given the fact that Garner's death had occurred prior and in New York, a social media hot bed. How did the Ferguson story spread? Let's look at the most retweeted content from this story.
Both these posts are not about the incident itself. They are about what happened after. The protests were extremely successful in sparking a national conversation on social media, particularly because they were handled by local police with such an aggressive response. This growing conversation was driven by personal accounts, as supposed to journalistic coverage. People shared their stories of the protests, often providing a more real and engaging narrative than media outlets.
Following the decision to not indict Officer Wilson, Chris Rock joined the conversation, and was powerful in reigniting it.
On December 3rd, shortly after Chris Rock's tweet, a grand jury decided to not indict officer Pantaleo for the Garner homicide. This was a little over a week after the decision to not indict Darren Wilson. The timing, combined with the seemingly damning evidence against Pantaleo, incited national outrage. Here is some of the most shared content from the Garner conversation:
It is noteworthy that although celebrities were now beginning to join the debate, the most engaging content still often came from personal accounts and smaller media outlets. Even the breaking of the story on Twitter was not dominated by large national media, as would normally be expected.
Looking at the Tamir Rice story, we see a similar pattern, with private accounts driving the conversation and posting the most engaging content. In fact, news outlets often only appeared when an inadequate response was criticized. This was one of the most retweeted stories from the days after November 23rd, when Tamir Rice was shot.
News Channel 9 received a similar reaction after it reassuringly announced: "Don't worry, Dancing with the Stars will be back on after the special report #Ferguson."
Large media outlets, we can safely say, have been decidedly disengaged with these stories on social media. Ferguson is a very small town, and given the media's reluctance to properly cover the story, the recent unrest could not have received national attention without people sharing their stories on Twitter. Thanks to the public's reaction, however, more stories about police violence have surfaced, sparking what is surely a healthy debate.