The Meaning Of #Ferguson

by Dish Staff

Over the weekend, David Carr marveled at how well Twitter has matured as a tool for journalism:

For people in the news business, Twitter was initially viewed as one more way to promote and distribute content. But as the world has become an ever more complicated place — a collision of Ebola, war in Iraq, crisis in Ukraine and more — Twitter has become an early warning service for news organizations, a way to see into stories even when they don’t have significant reporting assets on the ground. And in a situation hostile to traditional reporting, the crowdsourced, phone-enabled network of information that Twitter provides has proved invaluable. …

In and of itself, Twitter is not sufficient to see clearly into a big story; it’s a series of straws that offer narrow views of a much bigger picture. But as a kind of constantly changing kaleidoscope, it provides enough visibility to show that something significant is underway.

Along those lines, Amma Marfo focuses in on how important Twitter has become to the black community, particularly over the past week:

Twitter’s lack of algorithms to control the display of content means that posts are elevated in popularity only by the people who favorite, Retweet, and share screen captures of impactful or informative messages. Such a structure allows the insight of the observant but relatively unknown amateur, alongside high-profile and highly educated (another population that uses Twitter in high volume), to stand alongside one another. This egalitarian information sharing model is welcome for historically disenfranchised populations. This could be key for its popularity with other minority groups such as Hispanics. Its use among African-Americans continues to rise, as does the increasing use of Twitter as a credible means to gauge public opinion and the newsworthiness of given topics.

But it’s worth noting that the overall social media ecosystem is not always like this. Last week, Zeynep Tufekci pointed out the difference in following the Ferguson protests on Twitter, which shows you all the tweets from whoever you follow in real time, and Facebook, which uses an algorithm to determine both what you see and when you get to see it. To highlight the frenzy of Ferguson tweets last Wednesday night she flagged this graph:


But when she checked her Facebook feed during that spike, there was nothing at all about the story, not until the next morning:

Overnight, “edgerank” –or whatever Facebook’s filtering algorithm is called now — seems to have bubbled [the Ferguson items] up, probably as people engaged them more. But I wonder: what if Ferguson had started to bubble, but there was no Twitter to catch on nationally? Would it ever make it through the algorithmic filtering on Facebook? Maybe, but with no transparency to the decisions, I cannot be sure.

Would Ferguson be buried in algorithmic censorship?

And as she goes on to note, Twitter already does use an algorithm to determine what topics trend nationally, which may have partially delayed the onset of Ferguson’s social media attention last week. Also, it looks like Twitter is now messing even further with what their users see, as Jay Yarow explains:

Until now, your timeline was filled only with tweets from the people you follow, or retweets from those same people. In other words, you got only the content for which you opted in. [The new policy] opens up the possibility for Twitter to start putting tweets from people you don’t follow in your feed.  … By doing this, Twitter makes its timeline more like Facebook’s News Feed, which populates based on algorithms that measure likes and interests.