Twitter vs. Facebook: Ferguson Edition

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.

On Twitter

The first Ferguson-related tweet I saw last night.

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.)

On Facebook

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?

Content Filtering

This tweet appeared in the NPR article; it summarizes exactly what I observed last night.

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

This tweet promoting Wenatchee appeared in the middle of a long string of tweets about burning cars, vandalism, and an injured journalist. The first word I think of when I see this tweet in that context: uncaring.

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.

I wasn’t the only person to notice the problem with scheduled tweets.

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.

A U.K. Twitter user doesn’t think too highly of what’s going on here.

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.

Jim Henson is probably rolling in his grave.

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.

4 thoughts on “Twitter vs. Facebook: Ferguson Edition

  1. I do think what you’re finding is interesting.

    I use and post to Facebook and Twitter in very different ways (and also Instagram).

    — Facebook is my more private personal, fun site. I belong to knitting groups, web design groups, cooking groups there and other interests, I find out what my friends are up to, and more. I do follow various news sources there, too. I also follow companies for product info, coupons, etc.

    — Twitter for me, OTOH, is more for news and info, companies and product info and coupons, and I do see what friends are up to there while I share very little about my personal life there since it’s public. I turn to Twitter for late-breaking news especially — like the Ferguson situation, for example.

    — I’ve only recently started posting to Instagram, and for the moment that’s mostly with my knitting-related friends, a few cooking things, photography, and a few others.

    So, for me at least, I use, post, and follow them in different ways and for different reasons.

    And BTW, one of my Facebook friends is a former 30-year + local photojournalist (BTW, he was with our news helicopter whenever they were in the air, while he did tons more than that), and he and a bunch of us discussed the Ferguson situation on his wall for awhile last night.

    So, for me, I guess I’ve found what each of these social media sites seems to do best… at least for myself… and I use them accordingly. They each have their great features as well as the silly stuff that I just block, filter out, avoid, or scroll past.

    • I think you’re right — there’s a definite difference in not only the kinds of people who use Twitter vs. Facebook but the things these people use it for. So that may account for the difference in what I saw last night.

      I generally cross-post, meaning I often post the same thing on Twitter and Facebook. I think that in my heart, I wish Facebook was more like Twitter — a good source of real information. But it’s not. And Facebook disappoints me regularly.

      But I really do think part of the problem is Facebook’s filtering of what we see and the order in which we see it. I simply don’t like the fact that my Facebook newsfeed is never quite complete. I don’t need content curated by an algorithm. I can curate for myself by choosing who I want to follow. Twitter knows this (so far).

  2. When Wendy Davis was fillibustering in Austin, I was freaking glued to twitter. And then the security started making noise about “electronic devices.” Facebook is for cat videos, Twitter is a live news stream for me.

  3. I don’t follow twitter, and unless something drastic happens to change its basic format I never intend to start. We are all constantly battered with a relentless torrent of information constantly crying out for our attention, usually trying to sell us something. The absolute LAST thing I need in my life is an unfiltered, 24/7 firehose of ephemeral trivia, fed exclusively from the shallowest possible sources. I don’t now, and never will, ever need or want to know which celebutard had what kind of “wardrobe malfunction”, no matter how much it’s “trending”.

    That said, there may be some value in the metadata available from services like Twitter. When ten people in Lower Podunkberg complain of a sudden coughing fit, it’s a statistical blip. When a thousand tweets in the area pop up all saying the same thing, it might be a chlorine leak from an unreported train derailment. When a dozen people in the neighborhood next door are telling all their friends about the awesome funnel cloud they just saw, I definitely want to know about that. There is value tucked away in all that diffuse crowdsourced data, but I really, sincerely, don’t care how many of them just figured out that they like pie.

    And as to the Ferguson situation, I’m pretty sure we’re all going to be thoroughly sick of hearing about it when the media vultures finally move on to the next carcass. The fact that I didn’t know about the fires and rioting the instant they happened doesn’t bother me one bit. I don’t live there, and I don’t need to know instantaneously which store has been looted and where the tear gas is headed. What’s far more important is the lessons we take from the situation as a whole, and if nothing else Ferguson has served as an ugly wake-up call. There are some serious attitude problems that have crept into our law enforcement agencies, at all levels, that we need to address before they get any worse.

    First off, we need to reverse the unnecessary and unwarranted militarization of our domestic police forces. Every small town police department now seems to think they “need” a hair-trigger SWAT team bristling with machine guns, and probably an armored vehicle too. This isn’t just bullsh!t, it’s dangerous bullsh!t and it’s got to be stopped and rolled back. No police department, anywhere in the U.S., ought to automatically roll out to a civil disturbance in a surplus MRAP. Not only is this a dramatic and unwarranted escalation of force, it’s counter-productive to their main mission. Which should be DE-escalating the situation, not amping it up with thuggish tactics. We need to put the brakes on the SWAT mentality and elect law enforcement leaders who will emphasize community policing and community involvement instead.

    It’s also pretty obvious that we’ve still got some pretty serious issues with race, at least in some parts of the country. I don’t consider myself qualified to speak with any authority on the problem, and I don’t have any easy answers. A good start might be for the residents of the affected communities to stop automatically rioting and burning down their own neighborhoods every time they hear something on the news they don’t agree with. Rioting and looting have never, in the history of the planet, ever made a situation calmer and more amenable to reason. It’s certainly not making their relationship with the law enforcement community any better. I will say with a degree of certainty that any workable solution is going to have to come from BOTH sides of the divide on this one.

What do you think?