The Crisis in Ferguson and Why a “Free” Press Needs Social Media

Watching live streams of what’s been happening in Ferguson, Missouri, this week might make you question the worth of pretty much everything — not least writing about art and culture. Seeing a town of 20,000 people devolve into something that looks like a war zone is terrifying, as are the visions of the city’s police force pointing weapons at unarmed men and harassing journalists. Meanwhile, the rest of the country is dumping ice water on its head and playing the Kim Kardashian game. But if there’s anything remotely positive to come out of Ferguson, it’s this: the ubiquity of social media, and of cameras in the hands of citizens, means that events like this can no longer happen in a void.

As many people have pointed out, what happened to Michael Brown happens wayyyyyyyy too often in America — a widely cited statistic is that a black man is killed every 28 hours by police, security guards, and vigilantes. (The statistic comes from this study, which was published last year and makes for compulsory, if depressing, reading.) The difference, of course, is that these deaths weren’t captured on camera — they were relegated to the margins of history, just more faceless black men killed by a society that has been hostile to them for centuries. So it would have gone with Michael Brown, too, if it wasn’t for the protests that followed his killing, and the reaction of the police to those protests. Because we can see them.

Cameras create history. The LAPD have beaten countless black men for alleged infractions over the years, but we remember Rodney King, because we saw what happened to him. We saw it again and again. It’s not always video, of course — as I wrote last year after the Boston bombing, many events are defined by a single photo. That may well be the case with Ferguson — this image by AP’s Jeff Roberson is genuinely shocking, and it has a way of burning itself into your memory.

But I think it will, instead, be defined by a multitude of blurry photos and shaky eight-second videos. Roberson’s startling photos are well composed and professional. But it’s the flood of amateur images on Twitter that give a sense of the confusion and terror of being caught up in a situation that’s rapidly spiraling out of control. (Not, I should add, a “riot,” which is a word that gets tossed around a lot in these situations, and has all sorts of unwelcome pejorative connotations.) And these are almost all being taken and uploaded by ordinary people.

There have been events that have hammered home the power and pitfalls of new, “citizen” journalism before, of course — the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, the Reddit fiasco in the aftermath of the Boston bombing. But all of these events happened on a scale that the media would have been unable to ignore. They were big news stories. The death of yet another black man at the hands of police, a killing that took place in a small town in Missouri, and the unrest that happened as a result? The media was doing a pretty great job of ignoring it until a couple of days ago.

And even if mainstream sites had turned their attention to the unrest in Ferguson without the prompting of Twitter, would they have been able to cover the story effectively? We’re talking about a place, after all, where the police are arresting journalists and firing teargas canisters at camera crews. It’s outrageous, of course, that this is happening in a country where the First Amendment guarantees the freedom of the press and the right of citizens to assemble peacefully. But really, it only serves to emphasize the restrictions that the media runs into every day in other parts of the world — freedom of the press is no use if it can be countermanded at will by thugs in uniforms. When those in power can act without oversight or accountability, they invariably abuse that power, and that’s as true in America as anywhere else.

It’s meant to be different here in the land of the free, because the police aren’t supposed to be able to act with impunity, but this week’s events have shown that, no, of course it isn’t. And if this had happened, say, 30 years ago, that would very likely be it. No photos. No reports. No journalism. There’d be debate about the First Amendment, of course, and vehement denunciations of the police by civil liberties advocates. But then, if there were no Twitter or Vine or Instagram, we’d never have seen what’s happening in Ferguson. We’d never have seen the tear gas and the terrifying riot gear, the APCs, the harassment of journalists. We’d have heard about them, eventually, perhaps. But that’s not the same. The cliché about a picture being worth 1000 words doesn’t exist by accident.

Citizen journalism is a concept that’s as idealistically appealing as it is flawed in practice, of course. The Reddit witch hunt after the Boston bombing proved the limitations of an unfiltered, unverified avalanche of news — it’s impossible to sort the truth from the fiction, the facts from the hysteria. But in cases like this, where those in authority are actively trying to prevent coverage of what’s happening, it’s vital. It’s critical. It’s through the bravery of ordinary citizens that we’ve seen what’s been happening in Ferguson. It’s through their cameras and their smartphones that we’ve been informed. And it’s because of social media that the story has spread.

Similarly, the disinclination of sites like Twitter to police themselves in any way also creates a host of problems. It can be their worst feature. But it can also be their best. Imagine if some sort of hypothetical cyber watchdog were able to shut down Twitter — a US-based company, let’s not forget — on the basis of, say, “inciting public disorder.” Would you trust them not to? I wouldn’t — not after seeing the way police in Ferguson have behaved over the last couple of days.

In a way, the flood of images and videos on social media represents a neatly ironic inversion of the Bush doctrine that if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to worry about — if police are comporting themselves properly, they should have no problem with being filmed. If not, and they want to cover up their actions, then of course you can see why they’d prevent any record being made of their conduct. This stuff isn’t rocket science. It’s not exactly shocking that when the California city of Rialto introduced legislation requiring cameras to be worn on officers’ uniforms, use of force fell by 60 percent in a year, while complaints against police fell 88 percent.

Sure, our 24/7 stream of information raises as many questions as it answers — but one thing it ensures is that our screens will never, ever go black. On balance, that’s something for which everyone should be thankful.

Top image via Mike Brown’s Livestream.