It’s exactly what others predicted and I expected.
Last night, I was relaxing with a glass of wine, watching Lara Croft: Tomb Raider on my big TV, when I happened to check Twitter to see what was new. The Grand Jury had just handed down its decision in the Michael Brown case: They were not going to indict Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him. There would be no trial, no punishment for the man who shot and killed an unarmed teenager.
— RVing5150™ (@RVing5150) November 25, 2014
The first inkling I had of this came in a retweet made by a friend that was timestamped 8:06 PM (Pacific).
I already knew deep down inside what the Jury’s verdict would be. I think we all did when we saw how Ferguson was preparing before releasing the news.
I scrolled backwards through my Twitter timeline and saw dozens of tweets, many of them with photos of the rioting going on in Ferguson: looting, burning cars — including police cars and businesses, tear gas smoke, national guard deployments. The situation in Ferguson had gone to hell quickly, fueled by anger and frustration. In other cities — Washington DC, New York, Seattle, Oakland — protesters were gathering. Journalists out in the crowds reported dealing with close calls, injuries, and thefts. Meanwhile, bits and pieces of the documents related to the case appeared in tweets with commentary. The President’s speech, which I also missed, was quoted a handful of times.
I only follow 193 Twitter accounts — many of which are product-related or not very active — and my timeline was packed with a never-ending stream of #Ferguson tweets, many of which were retweeted by NPR News. When I scrolled back to the most recent tweets, each time I refreshed another few tweets about Ferguson would appear. Intermingled with those were non-related tweets; more on that in a moment.
I turned off Lara Croft (who was enjoying a luxuriant bath after successfully destroying a robot in her own home) and tried to pick up “antenna TV.” No joy. (Note to self: get a decent antenna for the TV.)
I went to Facebook. It was like stepping into another world. Only one of my Facebook friends — a woman who lives in St. Louis — was posting updates related to Ferguson. The same updates appeared in her Twitter stream on my Timeline. On Facebook, however, she was the only voice talking about Ferguson among a stream of people sharing cat videos and blown out HDR photos and lists of Top 10 Spelling Peeves and links to link bait content.
Were these two social networks operating on the same planet?
Twitter vs. Facebook: my tweetstream is almost wall-to-wall with news from Ferguson. Only two mentions of it in my Facebook news feed.
— Mark_Hamilton (@gmarkham) August 14, 2014
The difference between Twitter and Facebook feeds did not really surprise me. Only hours before, I’d shared a link (on Facebook, ironically) to an NPR article titled “Silicon Valley’s Power Over The Free Press: Why It Matters.” The article discussed how the media has lost control of distribution by allowing social networks to fill a void they left by initially ignoring social media as a distribution method. The danger to the public is that social networks have the power to control what you see in your social network. Nowhere is that more apparent than when comparing Twitter, which doesn’t (currently) filter timelines, and Facebook, which does.
From the article:
Algorithms and protocols that run social platforms affect discourse, and the engineers behind those protocols don’t have to think about journalism or democratic responsibility in how news is created and disseminated.
A prime example of this is the first nights of the protests in Ferguson, Mo. If you were on Twitter, you saw an endless stream of protest photos and links. If you were on Facebook, you saw nearly nothing. All because engineers decide what news you see.
We already know that Facebook has manipulated our timelines in an experiment about emotions. Clearly, they’re also manipulating our timelines to filter news about specific topics. Does anyone actually think this is a good idea?
Back to Twitter
Tell us! What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about #Wenatchee?
— Wenatchee Center (@CoastWenatchee) November 25, 2014
One of the things I noticed — and I have to admit that it bothered me — was that among all the horrific news and photos coming out of Ferguson there were cheerful tweets — many of them “promoted” (i.e., ads) — pushing products or websites or Twitter accounts. They revealed social media marketing efforts for what they are: a completely detached, automated scheduling of advertisements aimed at whoever follows the Twitter account.
@RaeBeta Anyone who does social media work needs to take an immediate look at their upcoming scheduled tweets. Think about context.
— Jeff Eaton (@eaton) November 25, 2014
I wasn’t the only person to notice this. One of my friends retweeted a comment by another observant Twitter user who advised social media workers to check scheduled tweets. Did any of them do so? Who knows.
— Jonathan Davies (@ProfJSDavies) November 25, 2014
I fell asleep a while later, but woke up around 1 AM (as I sometimes do) and decided to check in on the Ferguson situation on Twitter, which seemed to be my best source. I think it was 3 AM back there and things were settling down. Many of the protesters had gone home. The U.K. was awake — I follow several people who live over there — tweeting about U.K. things. The few tweets about what was going on over here were not complementary. The world apparently sees the U.S. as a hotbed of racism.
And maybe it is. This morning, I was horrified to find an update, 10 hours old, with the image here at the top of my Facebook newsfeed. There were 11 likes. Needless to say, I don’t follow the updates of the person who posted it anymore — and am actually ashamed that he’s one of my real-life friends.