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Actually, Robert McCulloch, social media is doing a better job than you are

Even the framing of Robert McCulloch suggested he was being unnecessarily hectoring.
Even the framing of Robert McCulloch suggested he was being unnecessarily hectoring.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Three images.

The first, a Missouri prosecutor, looking down at his notes, occasionally glancing up at the reporters who have gathered to hear him speak. He's belligerent, seemingly, and, worse, the framing of the shot unintentionally makes him seem belligerent. He's blocking out the American flag, for God's sake. He bemoans the role of the media, the idea that it would report on an incident in his little town, but he saves his real vitriol for social media, for those online who would dare judge without having realized just how hard he and his team worked, darn it. And even as he says these words, Twitter lights up with contradictions between what he is reading and what was said in August, in summer's heat.

The second, a president, similarly beleaguered (though much better framed — he has people who know how to do this for him). He, too, speaks to reporters and gives a speech that seems designed to feel as dispassionate as possible. He urges calm, but the networks have him in split screen, the scenes from Missouri next to him. As he calls for peaceful protest, the police fire what looks like (and will later be confirmed to be) tear gas upon protestors. Things are going to split apart. They have to.

The third, a reporter for CNN, coughing, still, from the clouds of smoke that drifted over the crowd and lodged in his lungs. He says, strangely angrily, that, no, it is not smoke he inhaled but tear gas, and his fellow reporters on the ground agree with him. Is he disagreeing with other networks, who have reported smoke? With the police, who have insisted on Twitter that they are only using #smoke (a somewhat bizarre use of hashtags that suggests no one involved has ever used social media)? No, the answer comes later, as the onscreen chryons helpfully say that police are firing "smoke bombs." He is arguing with his own network, with the faceless bosses who control everything that frames him.

All three of these men are having the same argument, from different sides. What do you do when the "official narrative" stops making any sense? And what do you do when everybody knows that's happened? Social media is doing a much better job at setting the narrative now than someone like Robert McCulloch is. And that might explain his seemingly over-the-top frustration.

Everybody wants to rule the world

It used to be that the primary way the world was seen was in how it was carefully stage managed and presented to us. Individual newspapers presented separate political perspectives to their readers, who preferred those particular realities. In the early days of television news, broadcast news anchors spoke with a level of authority and objectivity that many TV journalists continue to aspire to.

The irony, of course, was that this era — when the media was ostensibly more easily controlled — was when many of the great triumphs of investigative journalism occurred. The Pentagon papers and Watergate kicked off a hungry rush to get the biggest possible scoops, while stories out of the Vietnam War soured the public further on the foreign adventure.

The era of 24-hour cable news was meant to be a continuation of journalists breaking huge stories, pushing back against the narratives of power. Instead, it quickly turned into an exercise in how rapidly media narratives could coalesce and solidify, and how easily they could be co-opted. Stories like the first Iraq War, or the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, or the O.J. Simpson trial, all very quickly turned into tales where the various players were set long before the curtain went up. Because cable news was on all of the time, there was a weird inevitability to much of it, particularly if you watched a lot of it. It wasn't hard to feel like everything was proceeding according to somebody's script somewhere.

What made all of this more or less possible was the idea that these reporters spoke, and we listened, and we were supposed to be grateful for the information they provided and only question it a little. Yes, there were critics, but they tended to be extreme outsiders. Who was going to question the official narrative?

Now, in Ferguson, in Egypt, all over the world, the official narrative never gets the chance to coalesce, to set. Every single aspect is immediately examined and scrutinized and picked apart. Online commentators offer their thoughts and opinions before sentences can even be finished.

Are there times when this is damaging? Sure, as anyone who was around for the moment when Reddit fingered Sunil Tripathi as the perpetrator of the Boston Marathon bombing will immediately know. But the overall effect is exhilarating. So-called citizen journalism hasn't necessarily increased the amount of information we have, but it's often forced actual journalists to push back against narratives before they set, to say when the smoke is really tear gas.

Citizen journalism

This narrative-shifting is taking place in more than just the sphere of hard news. So many controversies in other fields are driven by social media furor as well. The anger with Bill Cosby for rape allegations that have been public knowledge since the mid-2000s, but have only taken hold in the world's imagination now, has its roots in social media. So does the #GamerGate movement that grows ever more angry at video game websites for supposedly focusing on political issues, rather than gaming. Indeed, these techniques are far more often applied to the cultural and sports spheres, where the stakes are (usually) lower.

But Ferguson reminds us of just how potent social media and online pushback can be when applied to the issues that really affect us, the deep, intrinsic issues that it can be hard for traditional media to report on, because they're so intractable with such thick, tangled roots. It's one thing to say that young black men are much more likely to be stopped by police, even if they haven't committed a crime, or to say that women are at much higher threat of violence from men than vice versa. It's another entirely to hear story after story about both topics, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Vine, throughout the ether. Those who might not typically have a voice finally do, and they can push back against those narratives they find so limiting and damaging.

The power of social media and citizen journalism lies not in any sort of crowd-sourced journalism. No, it lies in the way that that snapshot of the president can be juxtaposed with the direct contradiction of his words unfolding in one American city's streets, in the country he leads. The image may have originated on TV, but it's social media that gives it wings and makes public our thoughts that might previously have been private.

And it lies in the way that the prosecutor rambles on and on about how much work reaching this decision was for the grand jury, about how the members "gave up their lives" to reach it. Throughout the speech, he condemns "social media" as a nebulous devil, as a thing that is somehow making his life harder, because it keeps seizing control of the official narrative he would very much like to set, and probably would have, easily, even 10 years ago. He seems so tired, and so angry, at a world he no longer entirely understands, at a place where people are taking potshots at him throughout his speech, dissecting everything from his hectoring tone to the way he seems intent on trying everybody else in the country for killing Mike Brown instead of the man even he will admit pulled the trigger.

Later, as the looting in Ferguson begins, another CNN commentator will say that he hopes, somehow, that social media will reach those who might ruin property or even commit violence against other human beings, those who aren't at home watching CNN. But this is the wrong tack, too. Social media cannot be either angel or devil, able to quell and raise mobs at the drop of a hat. Instead, it's a constant devil's advocate, pushing back against things that don't necessarily make sense and chipping away at the authoritarian façades of those who wish it would just stop existing already. It can't stop the news. It probably can't even change the world. But it can force us to look anew, to stop tired narratives in their tracks. And in that, it at least can make us feel like we're having some small effect, even if it's just shouting into the void.

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