“It was the best of Twitter. It was the worst of Twitter,” wrote New York Times technology writer Nick Bilton (8/27/14). “No one will argue that Twitter played an imperative role in ensuring that the events in Ferguson led to an international debate about police violence and race in America. But it was also responsible for creating and perpetuating numerous falsehoods.”
Using Twitter to follow the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, after the fatal police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown, Bilton said he saw “thousands of one-sided accounts, many of which were grossly inaccurate.”
Now, you should definitely be skeptical of news you get from social media; like all media produced by humans, it’s subject to human error. But when you hear such warnings from old-fashioned corporate media, there’s usually an implicit “unlike us”–as if you can always trust news that comes with a brand name like, oh, “New York Times.” If you believe that, I’ve got some WMDs in Iraq I’d like to sell you.
Most of Bilton’s examples of these “numerous falsehoods” seem less “grossly inaccurate” than murky and debatable–mixing up details as you would expect bystanders reporting on a chaotic situation to do. For example, he writes:
Matt Pearce, a national reporter for the Los Angeles Times, noted that a series of tweets on August 17 claimed that protesters had looted a McDonald’s for containers of milk to alleviate eye pain from police tear gas.
But that didn’t happen…. Mr. Pearce said that the windows at that McDonald’s had been broken earlier by people with children trying to seek shelter from tear gas, and that store employees had actually handed protesters the milk.
How different are these two versions of events, really? In both, protesters are forced to damage the fast food restaurant to get relief from police tear gas–whether in the form of milk for eyewash or simply as shelter; their apparent destructiveness turns out to be motivated by necessity. The tweet Bilton links to just says, “Protestors broke into McDonalds to get milk for tear gas victims”–which is not inconsistent with protesters being handed milk by employees. Is this really one of his best examples of the many grossly inaccurate falsehoods he saw amidst thousands of Twitter feeds?
Later, Bilton writes: “In moments when the news was clearly wrong, and journalists on the ground corrected it, some in the echo chamber of Twitter didn’t want to believe the reporters.” To back this up, he cites “David Carson, a photographer with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch who was embedded with the police”: “When he said he had GoPro footage of protesters firing bullets at the police, naysayers said it was simply fireworks.”
Well, here’s some GoPro footage from Carson (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 8/20/14). At the 2:45 mark, you can hear a few pops coming out of the distant darkness, followed by the police shooting off a barrage of tear gas, which they had already been planning to deploy. Though you can hear one officer remark “shots fired,” the police don’t seem to behave like people who think they’re being shot at: They’re firing tear gas in all directions, not taking cover. If someone said this was “simply fireworks,” it’s not at all obvious that they would be “clearly wrong.”
But perhaps Bilton is referring to a different incident? That footage is identified as being from August 18, but on August 14, Carson posted on Twitter: “#Ferguson shots fired Lang and Gage heard ricochet down street.” He later elaborated: “#Ferguson crowd did not notice shots for the most part continuing to party on W Florissant, several people came running down Gage, fleeing.”
But as documented by the conservative website Twitchy (8/14/14), other Twitter users, citing firsthand accounts, the police scanner and other news reports, insisted that these “shots” were actually, yes, fireworks. After numerous people weighed in, Carson seemed to back off:
#Ferguson People on twitter are saying fireworks, maybe I was wrong about gun fire, but it had my heart racing, it was close & sounded real
— David Carson (@PDPJ) August 15, 2014
It’s possible that Carson is able to discern gunshots that other people miss. It’s also possible that he has a tendency to mistake firecrackers for gunshots, particularly when his heart is racing. But Bilton simply seems to assume that Carson, a fellow newspaper professional, is right and the “naysayers” are wrong. It seems to bear out what Bilton himself writes: “It doesn’t matter what the facts are, people are going to find the tweets that support their viewpoint.”