The Whole World Is Tweeting: Social Media and Social Justice

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In 1968 outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, all hell broke loose. Antiwar protesters had gathered outside the Hilton Hotel, but what was a peaceful demonstration turned violent when police arrested and even beat some of those being arrested, all while TV cameras were trained on the scene. As they were being loaded into police vans, protesters chanted "the whole world is watching."

Sound familiar?

With the dawn of live TV in the 1960s and the advent of better, more portable videocameras and recording technology, the average American was, for the first time, able to put moving pictures with words. From Chicago to the south where police unleashed dogs and fire hoses on blacks to images of body bags brought home from Asian battlefields, these powerful visual images shocked a nation, helped bring an end to the war and even altered the state of race relations in the country.

Today, we have Twitter...and Facebook...and YouTube...and Instagram. And, in Ferguson, home to the the most recent and disturbing social unrest in America, the world is once again watching.

Of course, we watch from our phones and tablets and laptops rather than our TVs. We seek reliable information on what is going on in Missouri from trending topics, tweets, videos, photos and words posted from the scene. This is not only a wonderfully convenient way to access information, but apparently necessary as the FAA has banned aircraft under 3,000 feet in the area (no news choppers) and amid reports police in Ferguson smashed cameras and demanded protesters and media turn off recording devices.

Read about the HSPVA student who gained national fame for his #IfTheyGunnedMeDown Tweet in response to the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson. But it goes so far beyond that. Social media services have become not only the de facto media wires where we learn about such things, but the place where we engage with each other about these events. It is our news ticker and our town hall all rolled into one.

When Twitter was created, not even 10 years ago, it was largely dismissed by many. It continues to be marginalized by those who think it is nothing more than a repository for our daily, boring musings, yet every news outlet uses it to break news and receive viewer/reader feedback. In the Middle East, it and Facebook helped to coordinate efforts that would take down dictators.

Like television, a tool that has been praised for how it has exposed corruption and tyranny, and derided as a vehicle for the fall of Western Civilization, our relationship with social media is complicated. We sometimes forget it is a tool, a hammer that can be wielded for good and evil. The same tool that drove Robin Williams' daughter to abandon it because of the hateful responses of fellow users helped to free countries and expose injustice. The events in Ferguson, it could be argued, might never have been exposed without it.

And what makes it so powerful is the ability to affect change as a result. Politicians know what is trending on Twitter. News outlets report on powerful Instagram images and lead with YouTube videos. Social media has changed the way the news is reported for the better and sometimes the worse. For every illustration of Darth Vader riding a unicorn, video of a cat falling off a table and running commentary on American Idol there are real news stories, protest movements and investigations filling the social media feeds, many initiated not by corporations or media outlets, but by everyday people.

The whole world isn't just watching any more, it's participating.

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