In mid-July of this year, the nation was buzzing with stories from the streets of Portland, Oregon. Protesters were seen clashing nightly with federal agents during Black Lives Matter protests. 114 federal officers occupied the city for weeks, heightening tensions and garnering mistrust from protesters. They began withdrawing their forces last Thursday after negotiations with Oregon Governor Kate Brown. News of these incidents reached the public, and people were outraged about the new information. However, incidents of unmarked officers arresting protesters have been circulating on social media for over a month. Posts about situations like these and more have demonstrated social media’s ability to inform and organize, sometimes even better than traditional news outlets.
On June 5, a video surfaced on Twitter of a woman in San Diego, California, being thrown into an unmarked van by local undercover officers. In the 45-second video, men in plain clothes and black vests labeled “POLICE” are seen forcing her into the van, with one of them telling onlookers, “you follow us, you get shot, understand me?” Though they eventually identified themselves, bystanders were not given proof that their claims were true. The incident gained local coverage, but it was never reported on by mainstream media outlets.
Platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are what made it possible for the incident in San Diego to gain notoriety nationwide. Social media users are now using their platform to bring awareness to everyday issues and events. For example, informational threads covering concepts such as modern-day gaslighting and resources for ethical thrifting have increased the accessibility of progressive movements and ideas that once seemed too radical to consider.
During times of societal unrest and change, sharing knowledge is about helping others in similar situations. Undercover officers have been infiltrating Black Lives Matter protests so often that protesters across the U.S. have been able to identify them based on their outfits — along with the obvious handcuffs and bulletproof vests they often wear. By sharing these observations online, protesters are now able to identify unmarked officers and vehicles and warn others.
Though some of the capabilities of social media seem like minor details, they are invaluable assets for garnering public support. Informative posts allow people to understand why certain issues are so pressing. Petitions shared online to change many of these problems have organized thousands of advocates nationwide. These simple yet powerful actions are what have created power behind people’s demands.
How our generation consumes news has drastically changed within the last two decades. The power of social media in the digital age has made news more accessible beyond televised reports or print publications. Social media makes it easy for its millions of users to become on-the-ground reporters of sorts, and allows people to view more details of an incident rather than fully relying on the analysis of major news outlets. This was demonstrated when on July 28, plain clothes officers in New York were filmed aggressively arresting and shoving 18-year-old trans woman Nikki Stone into an unmarked van during a protest. The video went viral and drew sharp criticism across all social media platforms, even prompting city officials to demand a better explanation for the NYPD’s actions.
The grassroots nature of Black Lives Matter and other social movements has contributed to our desire for purposeful news. The decision to watch mainstream news sources is based on trusting the information shared. If people don’t trust that these outlets will cover things they want to know about or share enough information about them, they’ll turn elsewhere to learn more. Black Lives Matter supporters have criticized larger media outlets for exploiting protests by only covering them when riots occurred and abandoning them when they became peaceful again. This wide gap in coverage left many in the dark about situations like that in Portland until the conflict had reached its peak.
Criticism of mainstream media coverage is often associated with right-wing supporters. However, the frustrations of younger generations aren’t necessarily fueled by mistrusting news outlets’ accuracy of basic information. Instead, there is a burning desire to know more in order to do more — social movements progress quickly because of the urgency of their messages. To keep up with this, our perception of news has become more about relevance.
Through social media, people are seeking to educate themselves with information that they can apply to their lives. Social media creates a new forum for communication that makes knowledge more interactive, and details that may have been overlooked by reporters are now widely accessible. People are becoming more informed and more empowered because they can witness events through a video rather than hearing about them secondhand.
By Aminah Jenkins, Staff Writer