Crowd-powered journalism becomes crucial when traditional media is unwilling or unable

Amid all the trolling and celebrity hoo-ha that takes place on Twitter (s twtr) and other social-media platforms, occasionally there are events that remind us just how transformative a real-time, crowdsourced information platform can be, and the violent response by local police to civil protests in Ferguson, Missouri on Wednesday is a great example. Just as the world was able to see the impact of riots in Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring, or military action against civilians in Ukraine, so Twitter provided a gripping window into the events in Ferguson as they were occurring, like a citizen-powered version of CNN.

The unrest began after police shot and killed an unarmed black man, 18-year-old Michael Brown, in the middle of the afternoon, after what some reported was a scuffle of some kind. Mourners gathered, and so did those protesting what they saw as police racism, and there was apparently some vandalism. The response from the authorities was to send in armored personnel carriers and heavily-armed riot squads, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds.

Just as it did in Egypt and Ukraine, the stream of updates from Ferguson — both from amateur or non-journalists, eyewitnesses and professional reporters for various outlets — turned into a feed of breaking news unlike anything that non-Twitter users were getting from the major news networks and cable channels. Most of the latter continued with their regular programming, just as media outlets in Turkey and Ukraine avoided mentioning the growing demonstrations in their cities. In a very real sense, citizen-powered journalism filled the gap left by traditional media, which were either incapable or unwilling to cover the news.

Lines blur between citizen and journalist

Eventually, several reporters from mainstream news outlets — including @WesleyLowery from the Washington Post and @RyanJReilly from the Huffington Post — were detained or arrested by police while they worked in a local McDonald’s franchise, and that sparked the attention of not just the Posts but other news entities as well (the two journalists were later released without any formal charges). Up until that point, however, Twitter was one of the few places where you could get real-time coverage of the incident, including the attacks on the media.

Especially in cases like Ferguson, the ability to have those real-time news reports — both verified and unverified — available for free to any user of the network is important not just because it allows us to see what is happening to the protesters and their civil rights, but also because it reveals First Amendment abuses like the dismantling of cameras and other equipment used by media outlets, or the arrest of people for recording the activities of police, which as my colleague Jeff Roberts points out is legal, despite what police forces across the country seem to believe (or want to believe).

Although he didn’t specifically mention Twitter as a tool for reporting, First Circuit Appeals Court judge Kermit Lipez gave one of the best defenses of citizen journalism and why it must be protected by the First Amendment in a decision he handed down in 2011 that found the police in Boston guilty of infringing on the rights of a man who video-taped them assaulting a protester:

“Changes in technology and society have made the lines between private citizen and journalist exceedingly difficult to draw. The proliferation of electronic devices with video-recording capability means that many of our images of current events come from bystanders [and] and news stories are now just as likely to be broken by a blogger at her computer as a reporter at a major newspaper. Such developments make clear why the news-gathering protections of the First Amendment cannot turn on professional credentials or status.”

Citizen media reporting attacks on media

In Ferguson, Twitter users were able to see photos and video clips of Al Jazeera’ cameras and other equipment being removed after police fired a tear gas canister towards the news crew (police have since said they were just relocating the media to a safer area) , and they were able to see Lowery being detained by police, and follow along in real time as he described having his head slammed into a soda machine, and reported how his requests to get the names and badge numbers of the police were repeatedly denied. In the absence of any other witnesses to that kind of behavior, Twitter becomes a crucial check on the power of the authorities.

In a blog post about the power of social and citizen media, former hedge-fund analyst Conor Sen gave a fairly plausible description of what might have happened in Ferguson before Twitter: namely, anchors and celebrity reporters from the major cable networks would have shown up long after the news was out, and would have gotten a fairly restricted view of what was happening, since their access to the area and to witnesses would be made as difficult as possible:

“Anderson Cooper flies in on Monday. The Ferguson police department and local government know the rules of television — keep cameras away from the bad stuff, let Anderson do his report with a police cruiser in the background. Anderson does some interviews, gets a segment on Monday night cable news… the public loses interest, the cameras go away, the police secure the town and the story’s dead in 3 days.”

As sociologist and social-media expert Zeynep Tufekci has written about social-media powered protests and other activity in Turkey, the fact that Twitter allows such information to circulate — and theoretically makes it easier for those outside of a given conflict to know that the authorities are misbehaving, and to collaborate on a response — doesn’t necessarily mean that anything substantive will happen as a result (she has also noted the impact of algorithms on determining what we see and don’t see through social platforms like Facebook).

But regardless of the probability of some larger impact, getting a live perspective on such events is certainly better than not having that information in the first place — or not getting it until much later — and at the moment Twitter (and social media-powered tools like Grasswire and Storfyul) are about the best equipment we have for making that happen.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Getty Images / Scott Olson