With Mizzou Protests, Social Media Giveth and Taketh Away

There was a bizarre twist this week in the developing story about racial unrest at the University of Missouri. On Monday, protestors attempted to prevent the news media from taking photos of protestors. On Tuesday, they reversed themselves, removed anti-media signs and handed out a PSA encouraging media cooperation.

It’s a heck of a case study for the social media age. Protestors who had been so successful in mobilizing, in part through social media, were forced into a major course correction after their actions against members of the mainstream media went viral … on social media.

In a video that had more than one million views in a little more than a day, student and freelance photographer Tim Tai, working for ESPN, is shown scuffling with protestors around their tent city on the Carnahan Quad on the Missouri campus. For several minutes, Tai verbally spars with protestors who blocked and physically moved him.

The student protest group, ConcernedStudent1950, struck out on Twitter on Monday evening, as depicted through tweets shown in this story from The New York Times. Interestingly, some of the harsher tweets from the group shown in that report no longer appear on Twitter, an indication that they might have been deleted. One apparently deleted tweet on the Times report reads: “We ask for no media in the parameters so the place where people live, fellowship, & sleep can be protected from twisted insincere narratives.”

By Tuesday morning, cooler heads had prevailed with the reversal mentioned above. By Tuesday afternoon, a Missouri communications professor who, at the end of the viral video called for “muscle” to help remove the journalist who had recorded the incident with Tai, issued a statement apologizing to “the MU campus community, and journalists at large,” and said her actions “shifted attention away from the students’ campaign for justice.” The professor also resigned her courtesy appointment to the journalism school – considered to be one of the top such institutions in the world — which had allowed her to teach classes even though she is from a different department.

Interestingly, Tai might have summed up the situation best regarding what was at the root of the dustup Monday, according to The Washington Post:

Tai has learned that on one hand, the protesters “want to protect [the] idea of privacy and protect a safe space where not they’re not overwhelmed with the attention. On the other hand, they want to control the narrative themselves because they feel the media has not treated minority or black stories accurately.”

Without getting into the discussion of whether the media has been unfair, the moral of this piece of the story could be that groups that use social media effectively – ConcernedStudent1950 has an extremely active social media presence – should know how quickly it can work against them. And how quickly a group can lose control of the narrative.

While the incident may have shifted attention from larger events on campus, it’s actually somewhat encouraging that a wrong – after it made the rounds on social media – was righted relatively quickly, allowing the larger, more important discussion to continue.

Paul has a keen understanding of what media outlets want and what reporters deal with on a day-to-day basis.

When he’s not working or watching his beloved Chicago Cubs, he spends his time working on personal writing projects and reading non-fiction.