August 17, 2014
Twitter has become the way I keep up with what is going on in my field. Last week I realized it has also become the way I find out what’s happening in the world, which makes me wonder what that means when it comes to helping students learn about how information works.
I’ve spent the last week, like many people, in a state of raw unsettledness over what has been happening in Ferguson, Missouri, watching it unfold moment by moment: another young black man shot and killed by a police officer. A community already rubbed raw by routine police harassment taking their outrage to the streets. A police response that illustrated what can go wrong when the military and the Ministry of Fear turns small town police forces into well-armed if ill-trained paramilitary (dis)organizations. Days of jaw-dropping statements from officials who seemed simultaneously clueless and contemptuous. An unsettling sense that nobody knew who was in charge and a peculiar silence from major media outlets and from inside the Beltway until it couldn’t be ignored any longer.
It was a strange experience, following the news in real time from the ground and with a global audience. That make me rethink how the news works today. I have always appreciated the importance of good reporting, partly because my father was a journalist, largely because I'm a citizen and I know it matters. The past decade has been hard on the news business, but in spite of downsized newsrooms, good journalists have learned to not only gather news but report it in an environment when the deadline is now, when there's still a page A1 but also a Facebook page and hungry Twitter accounts to maintain. I don’t know how they manage to do all that and still write stories that narrate things in a manner fit to print. But many of them do.
Once I became aware of what was unfolding in Ferguson, I started to follow reporters from the LA Times and the Washington Post who hit the ground running, and it was interesting to see how their voices blended into others – people living in Ferguson, people who joined the protest, a local alderman who was everywhere, all at once, and sharing what he saw, a constant flow of images and videos and commentary and emotion being shared. In a weird sense, this wasn’t just crowdsourcing the news, it was crowd-editing and crowd-commentary, too. Historians provided context that illuminated why this happened in Ferguson. Scholars of race helped decode what we were hearing. The brilliant Zeynep Tufekci, whose first essay I ever read was about the contradictions of using social media for dissent when it also served as a mass surveillance tool, wrote about the implications of what we were experiencing through Twitter (but which was largely absent on Facebook).
It’s a clear example why net neutrality is a human rights issue; a free speech issue; and an issue of the voiceless being heard, on their own terms . . . I’m not quite sure that without the neutral side of the Internet—the livestreams whose “packets” were fast as commercial, corporate and moneyed speech that travels on our networks, Twitter feeds which are not determined by an opaque corporate algorithms but my own choices,—we’d be having this conversation.
This is an interesting repurposing of a platform that was shaped by the same assumptions about what motivates us as Facebook. It enumerates your followers and counts retweets as if fame is the reward you’re seeking. But it's relatively hands-off, no algorithms telling you what to read, no one manipulating what you see in order to study how to influence your emotional state more effectively. it turns out that Twitter is not just a place where scholars take notes publicly at conferences, it’s a medium that does a better job than most of including the voices of African Americans, and that matters. To a large extent what has been happening in Ferguson is the result of white folks' near-total deafness when it comes to the lived experience of being black in America. It’s where news breaks and is analyzed before the first news reporter is assigned. #Ferguson made the evening news almost before Ferguson did, because it trended on Twitter. One of the founders of Twitter even showed up to join the protest.
Newspapers have been called the first draft of history. It now seems they are the second draft, updated and corrected, though often missing the nuance and sometimes (when relying too heavily on official reports) missing the point.
What does this mean for us as academics, as librarians, as educators? How do we prepare students for a world in which the news is participatory and the medium matters?
We need to be critically aware of how these platforms shape social discourse and, in turn, affect what we know about the world. If we let the Internet depend on advertising as a model ("the Internet's original sin" according to Ethan Zuckeman), if we aren't aware of the double-edged sword that makes social media simultaneously a tool for resistance and a tool for the suppression of dissent, we may lose the chance to hear voices that are too often ignored. We also still need good journalists to be out there, gathering news. One of the first reporters to hit the ground, Matt Pearce of the Los Angeles Times, tweeted on August 12, “Please buy a newspaper tomorrow, or else I'm just out there eating tear gas for Twitter.” He and several other reporters did a good job communicating what was happening while also using Twitter to gather the news and (in some cases) notify the world that reporters were being taken into custody or having their movements restricted during an eventful five-hour curfew. It was remarkable to see reporters and the subjects of their stories giving one another a hand. When police told protestors to stop taking pictures Twitter users instantly reassured one another that the order was illegal. When an Al Jazeera news crew had a tear gas canister land at their feet and were forced to retreat, it was a citizen who filmed the police dismantling and confiscating their equipment.
It's going to be important for us to help students do more than look for answers in traditional peer-reviewed journals and write up what they find in pseudo-academic prose. They need to be prepared to how to participate in this world and in a world that keeps on changing. I have a feeling that in future, when i plan a class session in the the library, there will be a giant "so what?' hanging over me, always a valuable question to ask.
Meanwhile, some bright tech folks think reporters can be replaced by robots.One of those robot reporters recently assumed Little League phenom Mo’Ne Davis is a boy because . . . well, making assumptions is exactly what algorithms do.
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