How social media galvanized the community in Ferguson

Street protests have always been part of American democracy. But after the fatal police shooting in suburban St. Louis, protesters took not only to the street - they took to the Web.

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Students at Howard University in Washington, D.C., hold up their hands in a protest in support of demonstrators in Ferguson, Mo.
Ikenna Ike, Howard University Student Association

There's nothing new about the racial tension underpinning the events in Ferguson, Missouri, nor in the power of an image to rouse people to action.

But what is new about Ferguson is the role of social media in spreading the message wider and more quickly, particularly for African-Americans.

Could the community have been galvanized in such a way before social media?

"It could have been, but not this quickly," said Andre Fields, a 27-year-old political aide.

There have been somewhere near 6 million tweets related to the Ferguson shooting since Saturday, when a white police officer killed an unarmed black teenager. Many of the tweets have been organized around hashtags like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, in which African-Americans post two pictures of themselves - one they feel plays into stereotypes and one that doesn't - and ask which the media would use.

"It's bringing awareness, to say, 'Hey, you need to tell the whole story,'" Field said.

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CBS News

While more whites than black use the Internet, the disparity disappears when it comes to overall use of social media. In fact, 6 percent more African-Americans aged 18-29 use social media than whites, 12 percent with Twitter alone.

Kwame Opam covers social media for the online magazine The Verge.

"The digital divide is such that having access to broadband Internet is lesser in poor communities, urban communities, so access to a smart phone gives the chance to use the Internet in a way that other people might not have," Opam said.

Smart phone are more social media driven.

"If you are accessing Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, you are just going to jump on them because that's what you are holding in your hands," he said.

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CBS News

This picture of police dogs in Alabama was taken of May 3, 1963. Of course, no one saw it until May 4, when the newspaper came out.

Now it takes seconds for social media to rocket images from Ferguson around the globe, shaping people's sense of the story as they go.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.

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