The fatal shooting of Michael Brown on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, set off a national wave of dialogue and protests, from the streets to social media, as people nationwide grappled with myriad complex issues, including police use of force, race relations in America, and criminal justice reform. Research from two Northeastern University professors shows that in the days following Brown’s shooting, everyday citizens—not politicians, celebrities, or other prominent public figures—were the ones who, using Twitter, shaped the national conversation. African Americans with close ties to the Ferguson area, they found, played a particularly influential role on the day of the incident. Sarah Jackson and Brooke Foucault Welles, both assistant professors of communication studies in the College of Arts, Media and Design, examined 535,794 tweets from Aug. 9 to Aug. 15, 2014, that included the word or hashtag “Ferguson.” They identified the top 10 tweets each day that were most retweeted or mentioned and then analyzed how these Twitters users—who they described as “early initiators” and “crowdsourced elites”—drove the discussion in the days following Brown’s killing. Twitter, they argued, catalyzed the national response. The first week of “Ferguson” tweets, from the time of Brown’s death up until the national media coverage and President Barack Obama’s public address—illustrated the power of social media to allow everyday citizens, particularly those in marginalized groups, to influence larger public debates, they said.
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