It's all thanks to his frequent bursts of 140-character insight about the #blacklivesmatter movement, which sprung up after police officer Darren Wilson killed Michael Brown, a black 18 year old, in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer. McKesson has spent much of his time since Brown's August death organizing protests and participating in demonstrations. He credits social media for making the movement something the mainstream media couldn't ignore.
Twitter, Instagram, and Vine have given McKesson and others without existing platforms or influential contacts a tool to transform age-old racial justice issues into major national news.
"In no uncertain terms, if it were not for Twitter and Instagram, the majority would have tried to convince you that we did not exist," McKesson said.
The protests in the wake of Brown's death and Wilson's non-indictment have done more than merely exist. They've mattered. They've changed the national conversation about racially biased policing. The way the events in Ferguson have captivated the news media and inspired sustained, enthusiastic coverage of issues affecting African-Americans is so rare as to be nearly unprecedented in American history.
"The story of black America is partly a story of erasure, but in Ferguson, social media made that impossible," McKesson said.
It seems almost too good to be true. And it is. The current symbiotic relationship between the activists who tweet their despair over police bias and the journalists who amplify their stories is, at best, a happy and temporary coincidence, not a long-term strategy for social justice organizing.
Social media drove media attention to Ferguson and police bias
Essence Magazine’s February issue is dedicated entirely to the movement against racially biased policing. It doesn’t have any photos on its cover: instead, there is a set of hashtags: #blacklivesmatter, #handsupdontshoot, #heisnotasuspect, #icantbreathe, #ferguson, #alivewhileblack and #thisstops today.
That makes perfect sense. After all, it’s social media as much as any individual person that’s responsible for transforming police brutality from a gripe in the civil rights community to a persistent, urgent topic of national dialogue. It’s largely thanks to these hashtags — and Twitter, where they originated — that news, analysis of legal developments and social and cultural questions raised by the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford, and Tamir Rice have taken up permanent residence in headlines, editorials, and cable news discussion.
The New York Times provided round-the-clock coverage of the demonstrations that followed Brown's death and Wilson's non-indictment, as well as the later case surrounding Eric Garner's police-involved chokehold death. The paper also published several editorials that examined the meaning of the protests: "Race and voting rights in Ferguson," "The meaning of the Ferguson riots," "The racial history behind the Ferguson protests," and more. CNN explained "Why Ferguson touched a raw, national nerve" and "Why 'hands up don't shoot' resonates." It declared in a piece on racial bias in the wake of Ferguson, "it's worth evaluating how much our perceptions are affected by race." Live reports from the protests dominated MSNBC coverage for nights on end in August and again in November. The network examined larger issues of racially biased policing on weekend talk shows. Ferguson protestors were runners-up for Time Magazine's "person of the year."
The momentum and media appetite for these stories began with Ferguson: Americans tweeted about it more than any other topic in 2014.
The importance of "Black Twitter"
To understand how Ferguson and the stories around it captivated the mainstream media, it's essential to understand Black Twitter. "Black Twitter" is the somewhat controversial shorthand for the conversations that happen among African-Americans on Twitter. African-Americans use the social network in greater numbers than members of any other racial group, and have earned a reputation for steering Twitter's trending topics.
In a 2014 piece explaining the phenomenon, the Washington Post's Soraya Nadia McDonald called Black Twitter "a virtual community ready to hashtag a response to cultural issues." In some cases this means sharing inside jokes that send African-American cultural references viral. In others, like this one, it means uniting as a potent force to force issues of race and racism to the top of the national agenda.
Whether or not you embrace the term (there are legitimate concerns about seeing African-American users as a distinct population, and questions about who exactly falls under the label — everyone who's black, or only people who participate in certain conversations?). The fact is, black people have influence on Twitter that they don't in the traditional media.
And this was particularly true in the case of Ferguson and its aftermath. Chris Hayes, host of MSNBC's "All in with Chris Hayes," who is white, credits Black Twitter with bringing his attention to the story of Michael Brown's death.
"If you didn’t have Black Twitter blowing up the story on social media, I don’t know if it ever would have gotten this kind of momentum," he said. "That’s definitely the first place I saw it. I think that’s how it grabbed the attention of national media."
On August 9, 2014, the day Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, residents who’d seen his dead body lie in the street for hours began protesting to demand answers and an arrest. Hayes looked to Twitter to inform his personal understanding of the story as well as the insights that would guide what he told MSNBC viewers.
"I think it was almost like an Arab Spring in a way," Hayes said. "I would say the Arab Spring stuff was the first time I ever principally connected to a story, at least in the initial phase, through social media. That was definitely true of Ferguson, too. " He started following the accounts of St. Louis alderman Antonio French and members of the community who were, as Hayes put it, "chronicling the crazy police response the first few nights."
DeRay McKesson was one of those chroniclers. "What’s interesting about Twitter is that it’s allowed us to tell the story as it happened and to own the medium and the message," he said. " So, when we got tear gassed, no longer did [reporters] have to wait for one official account or platform, or a press conference to validate people’s experiences."
Of course, it wasn't just Black Twitter. People of all races were interested in what was happening in Ferguson and made their views known, in real life protests and on social media. But Khadijah White, an assistant professor at Rutgers University's journalism school, says the sustained attention to police violence against African-Africans has made it undeniable that black people — who are overrepresented among Twitter users and activists — can harness social media to demand attention to serious issues.
"There are some who’ve tried to imply that the only use black people have for Twitter is entertainment or for talking about Scandal, and to frame black people as apolitical," she said. "So it was really good to see Ferguson and all these other social movements push back against these narratives."
This creates an interesting dynamic: media organizations increasingly rely on social media to both to deliver content to their audiences and to deliver audiences to their content. The most obvious way to write a story that will be shared widely on social media is to choose a topic that social media users are already interested in. And social media users are disproportionately black. The result of this cycle is that journalists suddenly regard Black Twitter as a credible and important story generator — and audience for those stories once they're written.
Ferguson created a perfect storm
There are plenty of serious civil rights issues facing the black community, and they don't all get the Ferguson treatment. If this were the case, topics like the school-to-prison pipeline and environmental justice would be blowing up on Twitter the way racially biased policing has over the past several months.
What explains the difference? In Hayes’ view, Twitter was "necessary but not sufficient" to convince the media to fixate on the events that followed Michael Brown’s death, Darren Wilson’s non-indictment, and ultimately, police bias as a whole. In other words, it also took something else to draw mainstream media interest.
That something else was the unusually dramatic and visually compelling story being told from social media users in Ferguson. It started with Brown’s dead body lying in the street. It continued with shocking images of confrontations between protestors and an aggressive, militarized police force, as well as first-person accounts of abuse so dramatic as to be almost unbelievable. And so much of it was captured in photographs and videos. "It was a spectacle that was so visually breathtaking," White said.
"I think partially it blew up on social media first because it was such a crazy scene," said Hayes. "There was that guy, tweeting, ‘They just killed this dude outside my window.’ Photos of [Brown’s body] were circulating. ... People gathering around, people getting really agitated about the uncovered body, his mom coming out with a shroud to cover him: All of that was communicated through social media. That's definitely how it came to my attention."
Hayes' theory is that "you needed both ingredients" to inspire media attention: social media and the emotionally compelling material that grabs users’ — and reporters’ — attention. And those ingredients don’t exist for every case of racial injustice.
The stories of unarmed black men who’ve been killed by law enforcement officers since Brown’s death and Wilson’s non-indictment seem to bear this theory out. There was clear, dramatic, video of Eric Garner’s July 17 chokehold death that fueled a persistent buzz, and coverage of major protests when the officer who killed him wasn’t indicted.
But other, equally tragic cases that had less compelling visual components have received less media attention. The Daily Beast has a roundup of 14 teens killed by police since Mike Brown, most of them black, many of them unarmed. Chances are, you haven't heard about Cameron Tilman of Terrabone, Louisianna, who was armed only with a bb gun when an officer shot him dead in his home, in front of his brother. Diana Showman, a mentally ill 19-year-old who was holding a power drill when police killed her in San Jose, California, didn't make many headlines either. Coverage of these stories seems to depend on their ability to lend themselves to social media storytelling.
"The reality is that there have been many people killed even since August 9, and we’re keeping their stories alive, but they haven’t gotten the same media attention, " said McKesson.
Social networks are too fickle for activists to depend on for media attention
At the moment, there's a symbiotic relationship between the Twitter users who highlight radicalized police violence and journalists who cover this issue. But that doesn't mean people who want to see other racial justice issues in the spotlight will be able to replicate this formula going forward.
"Right now, there's a weird happy coincidence, which is that the social media platforms both over-represent African Americans and also journalists happen to do Twitter," Hayes said. "I think it's a great accident with tangibly positive effects for coverage, but it is also just genuinely an accident. It's unclear how long that lasts."
White echoed the sentiment that the "happy coincidence" is probably temporary. "Reporters aren’t on Twitter because they’re generous and they want to give people a voice," she said. "They’re there because they want to stay on top of the news in a way they haven’t been able to do before." If the network’s staying-on-top-of-the-news benefits were to decrease, she said, social media would cease to be effective a tool for activists to attract coverage of their causes.
Plus, she said, African Americans' overrepresentation on Twitter isn't guaranteed to last forever. "If white people swept across Twitter and black people became marginalized that space, they would have less ability to get things trending," White said. "It’s possible that these voices would get drowned out."
But this wouldn't necessarily be the end of the world: when it comes to social justice, Twitter’s ability to influence the news is a less exciting than the way it allows activists to organize without the help of high-profile leaders or media interest, White said.
She pointed to North Carolina's Moral Monday protests and marches of 2013 and 2014 as evidence. There was virtually no media coverage about the planning, yet grassroots organizers were able to get tens of thousands of people to demonstrate against legislation that threatened to curtail voting rights, make cuts to social programs, and more. "To me, that’s the more palpable use of social media: being able to mobilize people quickly without the support of media institutions," she added.
McKesson agrees. While he appreciates the ability of the mainstream media to pick up a story and help it reach a larger audience —particularly older people who "aren’t on Twitter all day" — he’s not getting attached to this benefit. "We’re at a point where their validation of stories isn’t necessary for the story to get leverage any more," he said.
In McKesson’s view, activists' communication with each other and with the public is more important than mainstream media coverage of their stories. This explains why protestors in Ferguson have held so few press conferences.
"I can say, 'The police are literally killing us' and I’ve never worried whether MSNBC is watching," McKesson said. "Because America’s watching, and that’s more important to me."
Plus, McKesson is more focused on gaining the support of people who can be mobilized to lobby for policy changes or to vote in elections than he is in making the nightly news.
The long-term plan is something he reminds people of on Twitter:
Protest is confrontation. Protest is disruption. Protest is the beginning of the end of silence.— deray mckesson (@deray) January 3, 2015
"The goal isn’t how can we get the best media, it’s how can we stop getting killed," he said. "We’re not trying to get fame, we’re trying to get to free."