Update: After least four says of of denial of service attacks, the main St. Louis County government website was restored on Monday, August 18. Work was still continuing on restoring auxiliary sites.
Updated at 12:30 on Friday August 15 with the latest on the St. Louis County website.
Through tweets and vines, Facebook posts and YouTube videos, the world has been watching Ferguson this week. Social media updates from protestors and journalists on the ground have in large part shaped the narrative as demonstrations and unrest continue in response to the fatal shooting of unarmed Michael Brown, 18, on Saturday. When St. Louis City Alderman Antonio French was arrested Wednesday night, word spread almost immediately through the Twitter sphere. Three minutes before midnight, his wife confirmed the arrest.
French has been a central presence at the scene of protests this week, giving up-to-the-minute accounts and sharing photos and six second videos through the online app, Vine.
Just as in other major news events of the past four years, people around the world are getting real-time updates from the ground via social media, often bypassing traditional media outlets entirely to do so.
In the same manner, protestors in Ferguson are following in the footsteps of other activists by using social media to get the word out about demonstrations, marches, town hall meetings and other events.
But this is the first time citizen journalists have played such a central role in covering breaking news in the United States, said University of Missouri journalism professor Amy Simons.
“I think this is the first example of where we’re seeing citizen journalism really coming to the forefront and being where we’re getting some of those really good images, and really good video and really good firsthand eyewitness accounts we aren’t seeing because the local media and the national media, as hard as they are trying to get in, they are being pushed back by police,” said Simons.
Vehicle of Threats
Others with bigger megaphones than French have retweeted him, helping spread his messages. Among them: activist hacker collective Anonymous, which has its own reasons for using social media.
Twitter is its vehicle of choice to gets its threats to the ears of people in authority, and as a call to arms to the public. Anonymous set its sights on Ferguson, using a YouTube video to threaten to release the personal information of any police officers involved in the shooting.
This type of activity is typical for Anonymous, says author and hacker expert Gabriella Coleman. She is the author of the forthcoming book "Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy: The Many Faces of Anonymous" and a professor of scientific and technological literacy at McGill University in Quebec, Canada.
“This is not the first time that they would do something like this, and this is part of their tactical repertoire to release police names who are involved in actions,” said Coleman.
In what appears to be the work of Anonymous, the St. Louis County government website has been down for more than 24 hours. As of noon on Friday August, 15, the website was still down. KSDK reports that the county says no personal information has been compromised.
But what’s not typical is to attack children, as hacker @TheAnonMessage threatened to do earlier this week.
In a series of tweets, @TheAnonMessage released the personal address of Belmar, followed by photos of him with his wife, a photo of his wife and daughter, and a photo that the tweeter claimed to be his son. The goal: for Belmar to release the name of the officer who shot Michael Brown.
The hacker then threatened to release the personal information about Belmar’s daughter.
Coleman says the threat was either a stunt designed to attract attention or an example of one member of the collective drifting away from the rest of the group.
“I don’t really know whether it was a stunt or not from the beginning, but I do know that once that announcement came out, that others definitely reached out to the person running that Twitter account and said no, this is not cool this is not what we do,” said Coleman. “And then he kind of immediately, well not immediately, but soon after retracted.”
The tweet threatening Belmar’s daughter has since been deleted, but @TheAnonMessage tweeted a more general threat soon after.
Because Anonymous is a loose collective with no hierarchy of leadership, disagreements flare up. One such disagreement arose on Thursday, when hacker @TheAnonMessage leaked the name of a man purportedly responsible for the death of Michael Brown. Following a response from St. Louis County Police saying that the man did not work for either Ferguson or St. Louis County police departments, other Twitter accounts associated with Anonymous condemned the actions of @TheAnonMessage.
is right or wrong at the end. This is not what Anonymous is about. Despite the fact that he shared almost immediatly a email for journos.— Anonymous (@Crypt0nymous) August 14, 2014
Within half an hour of the tweets from major Anonymous accounts @YourAnonNews and @Crypt0nymous, the number of people following @TheAnonMessage dropped from more than 80,000 to 3. Shortly thereafter, @TheAnonMessage’s account was shut down.
Disagreement aside, it’s not all that unusual for Anonymous to get things wrong, said Coleman.
“While many times they have gotten things right, on occasion they have gotten things wrong. And then those names are out there, and they are targeted.”
She said that while Anonymous acknowledges that leaking names makes individuals the target of threats, the collective does not endorse violence.
“People wouldn’t tend to say go after him. That said, everyone knows that once a name becomes public, that that person will become the target of threats,” Coleman said. “So while they definitely don’t actively encourage that, they are well aware that that sort of retaliation will happen. I think that they’re okay with pizzas being sent to the officer’s house. That’s a kind of funny tradition.”
Magnifier and Megaphone
According to Coleman, Anonymous often serves to shine a spotlight on incidents such as the shooting in Ferguson. With millions of followers on social media, Anonymous can bring increased attention to the events.
But in the case of Ferguson, that spotlight wasn’t needed as much. The eye of the world was already on the town, in part because of rapper Tef Poe.
Tef Poe grew up in north St. Louis County, and like Antonio French, has been tweeting photos, Vines and comments from the scene of demonstrations and unrest since Saturday afternoon. And with around 25,000 followers beforehand, he has had a large part in spreading the word. He now has more than 31,000 followers.
“I’ve always been one of those artists that wanted to use my platform for something greater than entertainment. Really for me it’s all about the community and touching bases with the people and really hearing the voices of the people of the community and really catering to their concerns and things that disturb them, so I try to talk about that a lot,” said Tef Poe. “This incident just gave me a chance to do that on a global level.”
Tef Poe said that the shooting did not shock him because he knew what the police were like in the Ferguson area.
“Most of us that are from St. Louis have always felt that way about the police presence in north county and some of the tactics that they use to police minorities and poor people in general,” he said.
The social media coverage of the Egyptian Revolution in part inspired Tef Poe to cover the protests in Ferguson in a similar manner. Social media, he said, is the greatest tool protestors have to tell their side of the story.
“This isn’t the first time something like this has happened, it’s just one of the first times that we’ve had the ability to counterattack the media, the mainstream media with the things that we perceive to be factual,” said Tef Poe. “This is one of the first times in American history where you can openly access news and information outside of the big media outlets like MSNBC, CNN. You can go straight to Twitter and get more accuracy than they have. I’m right there when the police pull up. Other protestors were right there when Mike Brown was shot.”
Tef Poe sees the fact that he’s not a journalist as a plus, because he’s not bound by the same professional standards of accuracy.
“I don’t have to follow a certain code of conduct,” he said. “ I can just flat out tell you the truth about something, or I can flat out give you my opinion about something about something without it necessarily being a stone-cold fact, it might just be my perception about something, and you may share that same perception, and we can have a conversation about it.”