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Did Social Media Help Ease Tensions After Zimmerman Verdict?

July 16, 2013

By Elise Hu

Trayvon Martin supporters sit in New York City's Times Square on Sunday after marching from a rally for Martin in Manhattan.

Trayvon Martin supporters sit in New York City’s Times Square on Sunday after marching from a rally for Martin in Manhattan.

Calm largely prevailed after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman Saturday night in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Law enforcement and community leaders had prepared for potential unrest, and riots had been feared for months. Slate’s Dave Weigel sums up the fears:

” ‘The public mind has been so poisoned,’ wrote Pat Buchanan last year, ‘that an acquittal of George Zimmerman could ignite a reaction similar to that, 20 years ago, when the Simi Valley jury acquitted the LAPD cops in the Rodney King beating case.’ In fringe media, like the Alex Jones network of sites, it was taken for granted that a Zimmerman acquittal would inspire a race war. The only dispute was about the scale.”
But when people took to the streets Sunday to express anger and heartbreak over the verdict, they didn’t riot.

There are many explanations for the gap between expectation and reality. The assumption that protests would turn to riots was wrong and “obscene” in the first place, as many writers have noted. The case actually going to trial, which was in question last year, also helped release some pressure.

“More than one person [in Sanford last year] fretted about riots if Zimmerman wasn’t put on trial,” Weigel says. “Once he was put on trial, the tenor of the outrage changed for good. Sanford itself was peaceful [Saturday] night.”

And then there are social media, which have been playing an outsize role in the public debate about Martin and Zimmerman all along. In the aftermath of the verdict, Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr gave everyone who felt something about the verdict a place to vent, or bicker, or celebrate.

On Twitter, there was no shortage of angry sentiments, and even the mentions of potential violence to come: New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz tweeted shortly after the verdict that Zimmerman “won’t last a year before the hood catches up with him.” (He has since apologized.) They were visceral responses, to be sure, but in a mediated space.

“Rioting comes from people who don’t have any other mechanism for response, so other mechanisms for response may reduce the use of [rioting],” says Clay Shirky, author, New York University professor and Internet thinker.

If they did help in acting as a mediator, social media wouldn’t be alone in working as a proxy platform for potentially violent battles. Up until modern times, European football, or, soccer, became a way for countries to show their national pride, expressing festering resentments by battling each other on the field rather than going to costly war.

“The World Cup used to be a festival of geopolitics,” writes Simon Kuper, author of Soccer Against the Enemy.”The tournament began in 1930, just as fascism was getting going. Then, after a decent interruption for World War II, the World Cup resumed in an era of hysterical nationalism. Postwar European countries still nursed resentments — chiefly, against Germany — that came out on the turf.”

In other situations of unrest, social media can do the exact opposite and fuel disorder. Sociologists who studied the 2011 London riots believe social media were “instrumental to the [riots’] organization and proliferation.” The Economist wrote in 2011:

“The communications tool of choice for rioters has been the BlackBerry. It has 37% of the teenage mobile market. Young people like its BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) feature, which allows users to send free messages to individuals, or to all their contacts at once. It was used to summon mobs to particular venues. … The rioters use BBM against the police.”
Communications technology is just one variable to consider in why communities riot — or not. There’s no way to isolate the role of today’s social media “turf” as its own variable in preventing aggression in real life. Read the rest of the story at NPR.

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One Comment
  1. The idea that riots may happen is not obscene if you look at the lynch mob of Trayvon suppoters last year. The tensions and anger were so high they may have rioted then. When they didn’t get their lynching the other day, it would be dangerous for the Police to just assume they would react differently than they did the year prior. Especially when there were thousands of pieces in the social media universe with threats of violence. Alas, potential rioters knew there would be a heavy police prescence. If that police prescence fades, we will see if the uglier elements strike.

    Social media did give people an outlet for their proclaimed anger. It also gave them a way to get an immediate ego stroking with feedback. That is why most people protest. It is all about others opinions of them. They want affirmation of how they are such great caring people. So superior to those who don’t share the same opinion. Pompous bullying…

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