Social Media’s Role Defining Tragic Events

Social Platforms Defining New Role For Everyone

By Allison Leslie

The days of waiting for the 6 o’ clock news for breaking stories are over.

Social media’s has since taken over as a new form of breaking news. For the past couple of years
police-involved shootings have hit the spotlight on majority of social media outlets.

Many remember the media frenzy when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. In 2012 social media gave light to that tragic event and has since been booming in bringing public awareness to police-involved shootings. On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by police officer, Darren Wilson. Brown, who was unarmed, was shot six times during a confrontation with Wilson. The event sent Ferguson, Missouri into a riot.

The death of Walter Scott was another police-involved shooting that lit up social media. Officers shot Scott as he fled the scene of a traffic stop in April 2015.

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On April 12, 2015 Freddie Gray was arrested by Baltimore officers. During his transportation the van made four stops before reaching the police station. Gray requested medical assistance, but did not receive any. His spine was 80% severed at the neck according to the lawyer of Gray’s family. Gray died on April 19.

What does this have to do with social media?

Nearly, everything as the Black Lives Matter movement started on social media.  It started in 2012 after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of Trayvon Martin’s death. Created by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors, Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention. The movement has connected people all across the country while hosting national conference calls.

But without social media, this movement would not have been able to have the impact it has had. It’s changed the way the world views these events and how it reacts. From the news coverage, to those who want to support and not support the movements, social media has changed how the world gets it’s news today.

“To me [social media] has played a tremendous role, not just in the protests, but in response to the unfortunate police shootings that have occurred and the black lives matter movement itself,” Justin Brown, Assistant Professor in the Zimmerman School of Advertising and Mass Communications, said.

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With cameras and smartphones, viewers are able to capture pictures and videos and immediately post them out to social media outlets. Brown suggests this not only grabs people’s attention, but it becomes something that most social media participants can’t help but to look at. Even news stations are keeping up with the latest trending videos.

“I think to some extent mass media are now more gate watchers in the sense that they look to social media to cover some of these stories, because they are getting so much traffic and attention on social media sites.”

Unfortunately, there is a decent amount of misinformation that can occur during tragic events when following social media. Brown says that is something that everyone including news stations must keep in mind.

In 2015, there were misleading photos that circulated the Internet in the aftermath of the Paris attacks. One of the photos going around was an image of Parisians flooding the streets with signs reading “not afraid.” However, according to CNBC these photos were actually from a series of marches taken place earlier in the year after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

That same year and same incident, photos of the Empire State building being lit in red, white and blue colors surfaced on Twitter and was said to be lit in honor of Paris. However, according to the official Empire State Building twitter page, the building went dark on November 13, 2015 to honor Paris. The photo of the lit Empire State Building was an old photo from that year’s Veteran’s Day.
These are some of the more simple forms of misinformation. Like all things, there is a range for misinformation. It can be a bit more harmless but it can also be dangerous.

In a more recent event, the Dallas shooting had misinformation reported on the morning of the shooting. There were reports indicating there was more than one shooter in the event. Even after the Dallas Morning News changed their headline that Friday afternoon, the following sentence in the report read “Four Dallas police officers and a DART officer were shot and killed in a coordinated sniper attack that followed a Thursday night protest.” That report has since been edited and no such lines exist in it now.


“They [news stations] have to be very careful about vetting information, vetting sources [such as] whose giving them the video and where’s it coming from,” Brown says. “There are some professional standards that go into them deciding what to post and how to present it.”

But news stations aren’t the only ones benefiting in social media’s role in these situations. The sites themselves have benefited from the exposure. The deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were two recent examples of police-involved shootings that went viral and caused uproar on social media sites. Facebook Live was the site used to officially break the story of Philando Castile’s death.

“They [Facebook] benefited a lot. People quickly turned to Facebook Live. My understanding is that they took it down for a little while then they put it back up,” Brown said. “But that’s all traffic through Facebook and Facebook makes money through having people visit their social media site and app and collecting data and eventually selling that information for advertising purposes.”

With 1.65 billion users, per Bloomberg, Facebook is not hurting for money. Over half of those users log in every day making the corporation worth more than $100 billion. But Facebook has yet to put ethical guidelines into play.


“They’re a private company so they do have their own speaker rights. But at times they need to decide maybe I don’t want children to see something that is very violent or you want to put a violent warning before somebody looks at something live,” Brown said. “I do think there are some real ethical issues that need to be sorted out. And it’s not just Facebook, Periscope also has that capability.”

Yet social media’s role has quite possibly become bigger than just posting a video for likes and views. Social movements can now gain hold thanks to social media’s ability to have people more connected than ever. It seems silly that it starts with a simple hashtag but like the Black Lives Matter movement, it gives people a voice and outlet to express. This is how social movements are successful in the digital age according to Brown.

“I think you’re seeing a lot of people who can participate on the sidelines but also really get involved in organizing and having local events,” he said. “I think that’s one reason why you’ve seen movements like black lives matter really gain hold and be somewhat I would argue successful.”

Before social media, the public relied on broadcast stations and networks to get attention for a worthy event. In today’s day and age hashtags are an instantaneous way to get public interaction. Even in the 2016 election social media has become the cheapest and easiest outlet for candidates to get a message to the public without paying a dime. Donald Trump is an avid twitter user; his followers can always expect to see his opinions being tweeted out.

As Brown said, “it is a very interesting time that we are in.”

Allison Leslie is a University of South Florida graduate with a bachelors degree in Mass Communications. She joined Genesis in 2016. With a passion for sports, Allison has interned with 620 WDAE, Pewter Report, Trifecta Team: St. Petersburg Bowl, Bullscast, and many other publications. Being a native to the Bay Area, she has followed and supported Tampa Bay teams her whole life.