For centuries, politics has proven that often the pen can prove mightier than the sword. Today, however, the Tweet is outdoing both of those tools.
In April, 276 Nigerian girls were taken from their school by a terrorist group. Unfortunately, the people of Nigeria were powerless against the well-armed terrorists and their resistant government. The scene was set for a Twitter signal boost. The hashtag #bringbackourgirls was first tweeted six days after the abduction of the schoolgirls and began gaining traction in Nigeria. American tweeters picked up the hashtag just two days later, and in under a month, the phrase had been tweeted an astonishing 800,000 times, bringing news of the events with it.
The most recent call for Twitter activists has surrounded Ferguson, Missouri. After the shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown by police officers, authorities started to arrest journalists, provoking further unrest. Protests and police brutality followed the initial crime, fueling both the conflict and the outrage on social media. Photos and messages of rubber bullets, people suffering the effects of tear gas, and protestors standing up to the police spread like wildfire through the southern town and the country.
Twitter brought more than just the events of Ferguson into the spotlight. In response to the media portrayal of Michael Brown—as a young man destined for crime in one way or another—the hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown arose. In conjunction with this tag, users would feature two pictures of themselves: one in which they appeared as citizens contributing to society, such as graduation pictures, and another in which they appeared alongside something commonly associated with criminals, like alcohol or graffiti. The hashtag not only climbed the trend charts, but also sparked a conversation over the presentation of accused criminals and whether or not the media must follow the ideals of “innocent before proven guilty.”
Despite this ability to trend forgotten or hard-to-find news, Twitter as a news source can be problematic. Besides the clear one-sidedness of some coverage and inaccuracies perpetrated through the retweet, the cyberspace full of bullies can lend itself to hacking as a means of protesting. Twitter is both enhanced by unafraid activists—like the online vigilante group Anonymous—and threatened by the radical means they use to make their point.
Social media sites make it increasingly easy to share information and have better access than actual media in the most trying no-journalists zones. It’s difficult to predict where this activism will take us, but if one thing is for sure, it’s that for the next new hard-hitting story, we’ll look to Twitter before we turn on the news.